Craftsmanship and Muscle Memory in InfoTech with vim
Learn to write with vim, the timeless text editor, and master the craft of information technology. With vim, you can develop long-term skills and enjoy the satisfaction of mastering a craft that will remain valuable throughout your life.
Don't Let Your Tools Obsolete You: My Journey to Mastering Vim for Lifelong Tech Craftsmanship
By Michael Levin
Thursday, September 21, 2023
Okay, so write. Fire up a text editor and write. If you don’t know how to use a text editor that can be with you for your entire life, address that. If you find that you have nothing to say, address that. If you’re seized up because everything you start to write about triggers you, address that. If you feel you can’t write because you don’t know how or why you would want to or how it’s going to be used or useful to you, address that.
Writing is worth it for its own sake. It’s thinking out loud to yourself, and for no other purpose than that it has value. I have the ability to do this whenever I sit down because I’ve practiced. This is like any other skill in life. The more you do it, the easier it becomes. The more you just start to write the less you have to think about it deliberately. Eventually it becomes like breathing. It becomes automatic, the mechanics of it unconscious.
This does not come naturally because the modern environment has conspired to make your writing environment belong to Microsoft, Apple, Google or some other technology vendor whose tools become the focus of your habits. You can always resort to handwriting, but then you lose out on the great tool that is the keyboard. You can tap it into your mobile phone which is great when you don’t have a full sized keyboard handy, but then you’re back into big tech dependency.
A full-sized keyboard is generic and standard. It is a human-machine interface that’s been standardizing since typewriters. Touch screen keyboards are not the same. They dynamically adapt to the size of the screen and rearrange based on software. Muscle memory might kick in for that generation device for that version app, but it’s perishable muscle memory. It’s the muscle memory that gets taken away from you regularly enough to keep compelling you onto the next generation platform and next version app. For the most part, a full-size keyboard is a full-sized keyboard, and the text editor can be just as stable, enabling your muscle memory not only last a lifetime, but get better.
Some skills you just never stop improving. These are the skills of craft, where there is some more or less unchanging medium in which you work, such as wood or glass. Woodworkers and glassworkers have a set of tools they use that can be applied to the media in unending creative ways. You can spend your life becoming a better woodworker or glassworker even though the fundamental nature of your tools and the medium don’t change that much. That’s not to say there won’t be the occasional innovation that pushes forward the state of the craft, but it’s not at such a pace or nature as to undermine or invalidate your old ways. It’s not so in information technology.
Change is the rule in tech. Everything changes in cycles just long enough to break that forever-improvement cycle. Those who get into the field of infotech for the love of the craft are often disappointed to find that any career advancement over the years means getting out of the actual mechanics of the craft that have flown past them, and instead into management. Only the young and uninitiated to the ways rapid obsolescence are anxious to jump onto the hamster wheel, unknowing of its true nature.
There’s a notion that you make it big young and have some sort of exit, which is fine if that’s your vibe. But what about the rest of your life? Such an approach can be problematic if you’re in it for the love of craft. Why can’t information be like wood or glass? Information and the storage devices on which it persists is the medium. The text editor or IDE is the tool. The mediums don’t change that much. But the tools do at an unending and dispiriting pace.
So must those who love long-term skills tied to tools and forever improving muscle memory stay away from infotech entirely? Not if you can get over the initial boring initiation into the timeless tools of tech that has all the appeal of watching paint dry… at first. You can think of learning these tools as similar to learning to walk, ride a bicycle or drive a car. They all have steep initial learning curves that the impatient and shortsighted might turn away from due to that initial difficulty. But we all learn to walk due to necessity, but not everyone learns to ride a bicycle or drive a car, because that dire necessity is not there if you can get along without it.
But so many of us do take those steps because the reward is great enough. We can visualize and imagine ourselves as more capable people, better off and in more possession of agency, or control over our own lives. Our number of choices in life and diversity of decisions we can make dramatically expand. Those who can ride a bike can access much activities and resources at much greater distances, and those who can drive all the more so. While there is always car services and even self-driving cars on the horizon, this is an external dependency. It’s the same as remaining in a child-like state knowing you will always have something or someone to take care of you like a parent stand-in.
Whether remaining child-like and dependent on others is okay or not is ultimately up to each individual and their circumstances. If they believe that they will always have access to external resources to stand in for what they could develop internally, more power to them. But for me it comes down to that same hunger to master craft. By internalizing the skills of the means of production or transport and practicing them, I feel better about myself and can’t help but believe I have higher levels of appreciation and gratitude, which have impact on attitude, health, quality of life and perhaps even lifespan.
I speak of virtuous and righteous cycles. Learn a craft. Practice that craft that is both a source of satisfaction and exchangeable for economic product. Enjoy the appreciation of those with whom you exchange the labor of your skills. Improve your skills even more through the very process. Is this not fundamental to humanity? Is this not what separates us from living as animals do, following a biological program and the mere animal instincts that we were born with? Not to lessen the primal animal state, but for humans shouldn’t that be more of a starting point from which to rise above in employing our unique capacity to override the automatic program and beat the odds?
Much debate occurs over whether free-will exists. Do you really have the ability to choose between option A and option B, or is it all predestined in some sort of program in which you’re just carrying out the moves? Those in favor of the existence of free-will make their case best by practicing it and following the less-likely paths; paths that require deliberate reflection and thought. Getting over the initial resistance to riding a bike or driving a car for the benefits it provides are examples of beating the odds. Increased reliance on self-driving cars is a regression.
The more child-like we stay in our nature and the more we defer to the automations around us, the more predetermined and easily calculated we are. The more like sheep and cattle we remain. The cure is craft. The cure is the love of possessing hard-won internalized skills that you can practice upon some medium in ways that please you and can be appreciated, valued and exchanged for economic resources with those around you. And to do this in such a way that those skills don’t become meaningless through changes in the world around you is essential.
It is in this spirit that I recommend taking up the timeless text editor vim. Use it on a full-sized keyboard and use it to express, manage and otherwise manipulate the information part of information tech. We can assume that now that we’re in the information age, such a skill will remain valuable and preventing software vendors from changing interfaces on you through platform and version revisions is how we hop off the hamster wheel and onto the bandwagon of high tech craftsmanship. They can’t take vim away from you.
I’m hesitant to even mention VSCode as the alternative vendor-driven bandwagon designed to make you dependent, for if this book becomes as timeless as I plan, it will be a paragraph I will have to edit often. When I started out, it would have had to be CygnusEd on the Amiga platform. Years later, EditPlus on Windows and TextMate on the Mac. In more recent years, it would be the Sublime and Atom text editors. This is not even including the even more rapidly obsoleted IDEs tied to particular platforms or fads. Every one of these have their own particular nuance and require years of practice to master. Each of these flush your valuable internalized hard-won muscle memory down the drain on the alter of the next big thing. Yet, vim persists.