From Fonts to Foibles

Part of me wishes that the world moved a little bit slower so that sending and receiving letters seemed like a reasonable practice, rather than a misguided if slightly charming attempt to conjure some relic of days past.

If you’re anything like me, ordinary life can start to feel like a game of catch-up pretty fast when left unchecked. The physical environments we inhabit are subject to clutter, misplaced items, unsorted papers, and a litany of other foes. Digital life, quite plainly, can be affronted by entropic agents of dread as well. The other day, I started to draw a diagram to describe a fraction of this sense of digital chaos. Each node in the diagram represented one persistent digital space where I’ve offloaded some of my thoughts in the last year. Then I cleaned up the diagram and digitized it for easy reading. But it occurred to me soon enough that an elaborate diagram is not necessary:

  • Google Docs
  • Apple Notes
  • Notion
  • Scrivener
  • Gmail
  • Outlook
  • Apple Mail
  • Otter
  • Slack
  • iMessage
  • Ulysses
  • Day One
  • ChatGPT
  • Claude

Surely, this list is not comprehensive—it doesn’t even include physical notes, and it doesn’t include partial scripts. But it is arresting, and I wonder whether I’ll be able to keep pace relying on such a distribution of records. Not willing to wait and find out the answer to that question, I started to consolidate relevant or related documents in a handful of Scrivener projects, hoping that this exercise would lift some cognitive strain from my mind moving forward.

One of the best ways to sabotage your own productivity is by seeking to optimize your productivity. For example, when drafting this blog post, I cycled through eight fonts until I was moderately satisfied with how my words appeared onscreen. I call this formatting procrastination. It can worsen as the medium becomes more abstract and free-flowing, I’ve observed, as in the context of writing software. There are light mode editors, dark mode editors, .vimrc repositories, linters, integrated development environments, and the list goes on. Did you know that there’s such a thing as Visual Studio Magazine? An entire April update was dedicated to the fallout from Microsoft’s history of “courting developer outrage with its temerity to change the color of VS Code icons.” Frankly, just take a five-minute stroll through Stack Overflow, and you’ll see that the pedantic slam dunks only intensify from there. (A personal favorite of mine, which manages to remain civil, goes into breathtaking detail on the yield from syntax introduced in Python 3.3.) And if you want a central authority or style guide on writing JavaScript, you can forget about it.

Now, the second method of self-sabotage that I find in the personal productivity sphere is switching. As the name implies, this destructive behavior entails hopping from one trendy productivity tool to the next, sinking countless hours into transferring documents and settings across the Rubicon, all the while getting scarcely any meaningful work done. Even with Scrivener, I didn’t come close to going all in with all of my records, as I acknowledge that different tools have different strengths and use cases, and ultimately it is one’s creativity that enables the results; the technology plays a supporting role. Besides, that old adage about not putting all your eggs in one basket has served me before, and I have no reason to believe it won’t continue to do so.

If switching tools comes at a cost, then the act of context switching skips naming a price and gets straight to mugging you. If you’ve ever tried to focus on outlining a slideshow presentation, only to be pulled into an urgent email thread, only to Google something you don’t know, only to search Amazon for mouthwash, and only then to circle back to the original slideshow, you’re familiar with context switching. It plagues modern life. To get a sense of the severity of our mutually fractured attention, I recommend listening to “How the Digital Workspace Broke Our Brains” on Derek Thompson’s podcast Plain English. In it, he reveals that, for the average white-collar employee in marketing, advertising, finance, or media, up to 60% of the workweek is taken up by electronic communication. “That’s great,” you say. “Communication is vital to thriving human relationships, and a corporation is nothing more than a body of people.” Not so fast. Yes, over-communication is probably better than the opposite, but are we designed to interact with this many people so frequently? And how productive can you really be if you spend more time talking than doing? The podcast episode’s guest, Georgetown computer science professor Cal Newport, offers some sobering insights into the limits of the human mind.

Newport: And my argument is that this implicit decision we made to switch to the hyperactive hive mind is at the core of many woes in modern knowledge work. Having to maintain all of these ongoing back-and-forth conversations requires that we have to keep monitoring these communication channels. I do not have the ability to say, “Let me wait until 3 o’clock to check my inbox for the first time” if there are 12 conversations going on. And some of these conversations might have to have four or five back-and-forths to reach a decision, and that decision has to be reached today. And so I have to keep monitoring my inbox to see when your next message comes in. Because I’ve got to volley that back over the proverbial net pretty quickly because we have to get this back-and-forth four or five times to reach a decision by close of business.

Maybe it’s time to concede that the mental apparatuses of Homo sapiens cannot do everything that one would prefer. Honestly, I’m starting to be convinced that this concession might be many years overdue. Toward the end of the 20th century, British anthropologist Robin Dunbar started to notice a connection between non-human primates’ brain sizes and the sizes of the social groups to which they belong. Ultimately, in 1992 he published a research paper on the matter in the Journal of Human Evolution, proposing upfront that “the number of neocortical neurons limits the organism’s information-processing capacity and that this then limits the number of relationships that an individual can monitor simultaneously.” Furthermore, he wrote, that the group size ought to be either a linear or a power function of brain size, and no matter which function it truly is, “the size of interacting cliques will be a logarithmic function of brain size.”

The implication for us humans turned out to be that our ability to maintain a stable network of personal connections peters out toward 150 relationships. It’s one of those delightful studies that goes to great lengths to state something that falls within common sense or happens to have already been intuited by most people as a consequence of existing. But let us not lose sight of the profundity of Dunbar’s number. Three decades later, his theory continues to stand tall.

Digital communication is one of many modern luxuries of the First World. Simultaneously, it makes it possible to scale interpersonal human interaction beyond its natural limit. A caveman’s brain—that is to say, the brain of all humans in this century—is no match. Heck, even the CEO of Slack thinks you should spend less time in your channels and DMs.

It’s pretty unoriginal of me to point out that technology is often not the solution or that it has downsides, including the capacity to make one’s life worse than it otherwise would be. From Pandora and Prometheus to gunpowder and the Haber process, human culture and tradition are rife with cautionary tales about the disaster that can ensue when awe-inspiring technology goes awry. But remember handwriting? It didn’t even require a keyboard. Maybe you remember writing letters? I don’t. No, I do. I remember regularly sending handwritten thank you notes to many adults in my life growing up, at the orders of my parents. They’d start with something along the lines of “Dear Auntie” or “Dear Mr. Smith” and had to include details of appreciation related to whatever they in particular had done or given—no generic messages. The stationery was typically embossed with subtle floral patterns and other adornments, much to the contrast of my questionable penmanship, and the corresponding envelopes to this stationery had a distinct whiff that was neither pleasant nor unpleasant. It was different, as if the paper itself had been fermented somehow, perhaps for the sake of craft.

Those letters were annoying in the moment, but they allude to something worth noting. Once upon a time, letters were about as convenient as long-distance communication got. Often when I read regular correspondence between people from the past, I’m taken aback by how tender they can be and how meticulously each thought is conveyed.

To better understand what I mean, I find the correspondence below to be effective. There are two letters, one from Albert Camus shortly after he had won the 1957 Nobel Prize in Literature, and then a reply from his schoolteacher Louis Germain.

Dear Monsieur Germain,

⁠I let the commotion around me these days subside a bit before speaking to you from the bottom of my heart. I have just been given far too great an honour, one I neither sought nor solicited.

⁠But when I heard the news, my first thought, after my mother, was of you. Without you, without the affectionate hand you extended to the small poor child that I was, without your teaching and example, none of all this would have happened.

⁠I don’t make too much of this sort of honour. But at least it gives me the opportunity to tell you what you have been and still are for me, and to assure you that your efforts, your work, and the generous heart you put into it still live in one of your little schoolboys who, despite the years, has never stopped being your grateful pupil. I embrace you with all my heart.

⁠Albert Camus
My dear child,

⁠I do not know how to express the delight you gave me with your gracious act nor how to thank you for it. If it were possible, I would give a great hug to the big boy you have become who for me will always be “my little Camus.”

⁠Who is Camus? I have the impression that those who try to penetrate your nature do not quite succeed. You have always shown an instinctive reticence about revealing your nature, your feelings. You succeed all the more for being unaffected, direct. And good on top of that! I got these impressions of you in class. The pedagogue who does his job conscientiously overlooks no opportunity to know his pupils, his children, and these occur all the time. An answer, a gesture, a stance are amply revealing. So I think I well know the nice little fellow you were, and very often the child contains the seed of the man he will become. Your pleasure at being in school burst out all over. Your face showed optimism. And I never suspected the actual situation of your family from studying you. I only had a glimpse when your mother came to see me about your being listed among the candidates for the scholarship. Anyway, that happened when you were about to leave me. But until then you seemed to me to be in the same position as your classmates. You always had what you needed. Like your brother, you were nicely dressed. I don’t think I can find a greater compliment to your mother.

⁠It gives me very great satisfaction to see that your fame has not gone to your head. You have remained Camus: bravo. I have followed with interest the many vicissitudes of the play you adapted and also staged: The Possessed. I love you too much not to wish you the greatest success: it is what you deserve.

⁠Know that, even when I do not write, I often think of all of you.

⁠Madame Germain and I warmly embrace all four of you.

⁠Affectionately yours.
⁠Louis Germain

Source: Letters of Note

Part of me wishes that the world moved a little bit slower so that sending and receiving letters like this seemed like a reasonable practice, rather than a misguided if slightly charming attempt to conjure some relic of days past.

Oh, I’m doing it again—the third method of self-sabotage that I intended to mention earlier. You may have once heard someone say, “Once I’ve settled into a cabin in the woods, I’ll be able to work on this,” or something to the effect of it. I’ve probably said that before. I know that I’ve at least had the thought several times, and I’m effectively saying it right now by imagining some ideal world in which I’ve been socially permitted to write a letter to someone by hand. Though I am not in a cabin, maybe what I imagine is not so intricate. Maybe I can just pick up a pen and paper and give the letter a try.