I dream of super personal computing

Super Cool Books
Mar 24 · 5 min read

by Don Bosco

Hello! It is Sunday and a good time to share some writing geekery, why not. This is the kind of stuff that fills my head now and then and sometimes I discuss this with my kids and in our house this passes for amusement.

The photo, this is my new writing setup. Details and specs below somewhere, do read on. I spent a few months looking up and comparing different options, until I decided on this. What you see is an E-ink tablet running Android 6, with an Apple keyboard from 10 years ago, so it’s an older model with keys that pop up a bit more, and it feels good when my fingers pound on them.

E-ink is like a big game changer. It has no screen glare or reflection or backlighting, and it’s like reading words printed on paper. Which sounds boring if you’re a kid wanting to play some violent survival FPS game, but heavenly if you have to write and read lots and lots all day, all week, all year.

Also, recently there’s been a wave of crowdfunding projects for E-ink text editors, so I know I’m not the only one.

These words you’re reading, I wrote with this setup. If all goes well, this will be the future of computing in my home.

Why?

In the 70s, people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were trying to kickstart a new era in technology: the age of personal computing. Up till then, computers were gigantic machines that sat in specially secured rooms, and programmers would book slots to work on them.

But Gates and Jobs, brave radicals, had a different vision: in their ideal future, ordinary people would have computers in their own homes, and use these machines for everyday tasks like collecting recipes, writing books, cataloging music collections, making art, and so on.

That was then.

Now, forty years after, I miss the age of personal computing.

These days, yes, I have computers at home. Quite a few. But I can’t consider them personal anymore, not in that original sense. I paid for the computers, and the mobile computing gadgets that are really mini-computers, but they don’t feel like they’re 100% mine, they don’t really obey me, they seem always eager to obey their hardware and software overlords. The clicks I make online are logged and reported and analysed, the screens I’m shown are optimised to hijack my attention, the software I use has to be renewed annually, or updated frequently, and apparently even Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t trust the camera on his laptop.

So it’s not my computer anymore. There are too many corporate ghosts haunting it.

Not like in the old days, running DOS and WordPerfect, or later the Macintosh Classic, which for a while was the main machine assigned to writers.

When I had a computer back then, and yes it would hang, or crash, or glitch, but those problems were all mine. It was part of the personal relationship between Man and Machine. In return for putting up with this, I could create documents on it and it would keep my documents faithfully. The computer wouldn’t keep insisting that it had to inform on me to its maker every now and then. It wouldn’t refuse to work unless I upgraded the software. It wouldn’t use my online habits against me, by optimising what I see or click on for the benefit of some advertiser.

I just wanna do what I wanna do without my computer trying to know better.

Also for some years already, people in the “knowledge work” circles have been pointing out that it’s actually massively counterproductive to have your work computer also be your entertainment computer also be your communication computer also be your online shopping computer also be your gaming computer. Not only that, it will can drive you nuts because the user experience these days is designed to encourage addictive screen behaviour and you don’t want to be sucked into that loop. (Oh dear, too late?)

The biggest damage, though, might be how all this is affecting the younger ones. Kids who are assigned online homework are more often now doing this on their phones, in between all their other addictive mobile phone activities. Seems like they go from cradle into this dark reality where their brains are accelerated into group chat zombie mode and they can’t make it through the day without a steady diet of random YouTube videos.

Back then it started with mainframe computing, which evolved into personal computing, and now what can we call this era?

Maybe call it invasive computing.

Interruptive computing?

Or maybe call it hostile computing, to borrow a term from hostile architecture.

I’ve made it my personal mission, this year, to create a conducive personal computing environment at home. I think it matters.

Back to what you’re see in the photo: This E-ink tablet is a Boox Poke Pro, and I’m running IAWriter, a free text app that handles Markdown format, which goes a long way for me because I started using text-based project management frameworks many years back.

I also have Pocket installed, for reading online stuff, and it’s always set to Article view, which means the text is displayed in a continuous flow without any distracting web design or sidebars or whatever.

The ebook reader takes txt, PDF, Mobi, Epub and other formats, so far it seems as good as my Kindle Paperwhite except maybe for some the PDFs that are image heavy.

There’s also a web browser that lets me override the webpage layout and display the content in a single slim column.

Writing on this E-ink tablet is somehow a familiar experience. It’s kind of like how I banged out music reviews on WordPerfect in the early 90s. It’s kind of like the overnight marathon writing sessions on the barebones monochrome Macintosh Classic during my undergrad years. It’s kind of like writing TV show pitches on my Handspring Visor with an attached keyboard in the early 2000s.

Yes, it’s kinda primitive. I can’t even share this piece from here, I’ll need to Bluetooth it to my phone, which will have a photo of this setup so I can show it to you.

But what I do have is a simple computing space that’s just me and my words and a modest little device that stores the text and waits patiently for me to do whatever I want with it.

I can take a break from writing and pick up the device and walk around the house. Or I can take it to a cafe somewhere, or the park. Just me and these words on an eye-friendly screen, quality contemplation time, without all those other apps and UX features jostling for my attention.

That’s personal enough for me.

It’s all I actually need.

I feel really connected to this writing experience again, something that I’ve been missing more and more.

I’ve also been looking at making custom E-ink writing devices in limited batches, for kids to work with, or for people who miss the experience of personal computing. I’m thinking it should cost under $100, and then you can go crazy with the casing and use different materials, engraving, embed glittery suff, etc. And it will look and feel totally personal and quirky and free from invasive UX.

Hello, hope you’re enjoying this nice Sunday, and this is what I’m thinking about.

Super Cool Books

Written by

DON BOSCO writes thrilling fiction for teens and children. His stories are inspired by Asian legends and pop culture. http://www.SuperCoolBooks.com