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Convenience, scale, and tabs

Written January 2, 2021

I've been keeping up with a number of gemini-based blogs recently. Last november, solderpunk wrote a post that caught my attention:

“The short-lived browser”, by solderpunk

You'll need a gemini browser like Lagrange to view the above link, but I'll quote the relevant portions here.

I was surprised to find in my early experiments with leading an offline-first life that being offline wasn't actually in and of itself sufficient to avoid distraction and fragmented use of my time. Even without an active internet connection, whatever I was doing I would every now and then switch to the workspace with my browser open, and just cycle through the open tabs sitting there. The behaviour was entirely instinctive [...] Perhaps the eternally open, multi-tabbed browser is actually a bigger problem than the permanent internet connection? Now I am thinking instead of trying to cultivate a workflow where I open a non-tabbed browser only when I have an immediate need to do something web-based, complete that task and then close it.

I remember when I used my first tabbed browser. I was maybe 11 years old. At the time it was a revelation in convenience, and I immediately understood it as an improvement over the older behavior. Reading the above was the first time I've ever re-evaluated that first impression.

img:Three open browser windows, without any tab bars.
In the mood to experiment with my habits, I decided to try the tabless browser for myself. I set Firefox to always open in new windows, and then modified my userChrome.css to hide the tabs toolbar entirely

#TabsToolbar {
  visibility: collapse !important;
}

Without tabs, I realized that if I want to cross-reference multiple sources of information, I would need one window open for each document. If I want to multitask, I need another window. It sounds awkard, but in practice I've found that keeping two or three windows open at a time felt intuitive. But if I scaled to five, or ten, or twenty windows I'd quickly find that my operating system just isn't built for this.

In their blog post, solderpunk says “This obviously has the potential to be an annoying and inconvenient way to operate.” Looking at the role of convenience in computing, it seems like the predominate school of thought is that convenience is the endgoal of software: computers should ‘just work’ and provide a frictionless way to do whatever you like. In a digital and networked world, a frictionless experience is the experience of effortless scale. Material concerns can create negative feedback loops that prevent systems from scaling infinitely, but in the abstract realm of the computer, a lot of thought has been put into how to disrupt and eliminate those mechanisms of feedback. Twitter provides a low-friction form of social interaction, and as a result, social dynamics form that operate on inhuman and hard-to-comprehend scales.

img:A bookshelf
Browser bookmarks function as a desk organizer, a bookshelf, and a filing cabinet in varying degrees. They're an organizational system, where things are given places live. Tabs, meanwhile, are books, letters, documents, and todos all scattered over a desk. The power is in the disorganization: you don't have to find a place for a tab, it simply rests where it lays until you throw it away. Clicking around on the web idly, it would not be difficult to end up with a hundred simultaneous tabs without noticing.

How many different things are you capable of holding your attention on simultaneously? I think, for me, it's maybe three or four at max, but I'm much more comfortable focusing on one thing at a time, or maybe two, held in contrast. How to Do Nothing, by Jenny Odell speaks to how our attention is a major battleground on which the class struggle is being fought today. Considering this, I want to be conscious of what demands I am placing on my own attention.

img:My bullet journal
If I find that I'm juggling a dozen different documents or tasks or ideas, then very likely my attention is being squandered. Organization is the mechanism by which we can create meaning and patterns (and thus a narrower focus) out of an excess of information. I could put some todos in my planner, or create a collection of reference materials for a project, or an imageboard, or a bibliography. In the world where creating another tab is the path of least resistance, this thought never occurred to me. The shift from human- to inhuman-scale went unnoticed.

My takeaway from this (I think, successful) experiment is to spend more time interrogating what, in my life, is ‘convenient’. Sometime what I need is a little more friction to show the seam between intimacy and alienation.