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The Journaling For Life Tool Conundrum

This article explores the conundrum of journaling in the digital age. From the physical liability of paper notebooks to the security and privacy concerns of cloud-based tools, this article examines the pros and cons of various journaling tools and sets the state for following articles on journaling in one textfile in vim for life.

Exploring the Choices and Challenges of Journaling in the Digital Age

By Michael Levin

Friday, September 15, 2023

When we’re born into the world, the input from our senses can be overwhelming, but then we learn a thing or two and start to make sense of things. Of course you’re not going to be able to make sense of things out of the gate. Instincts and automatic abilities must be relied upon at first. As these help you survive and information is collected, you can start to sort out, but even that is initially without the aid of language.

Think back to your experiences before language. Can you? Some people claim they can, and if so it’s experiences encoded into their memories without the benefit of language. I suppose it’s possible, but memory and indeed thought itself becomes clearer and more focused once you have learned and internalized the tools of language. It’s a tool that helps you think, remember and make choices.

We’ve got a lot of senses, more than just sight, sound, smell, touch and taste, the five famous ones. Your sense of balance that lets you walk upright is another. Language is a tool that we are predisposed to developing to help sort out and make sense of all the experiences. In time, this leads to mobility and the ability to manipulate our environment, get up and walk, feed ourselves, and the like. The dependencies never fully go away as we are dependent on food, sleep, protection from the weather, predators and the like.

We grow, accumulating more experiences, trying to make more sense of things and perhaps trying to find meaning and purpose to it all. Everyone’s journey diverges from the more common experiences of being born to the more individualized experiences of your own impossibly unique path. We use what we have learned and know to help guide us on this path. Do we live and die in that 30-mile radius we were born into? Or do we go out and explore the world? Do we cruise through life on autopilot, or do we stop and think about things?

There are very few things in life that we can know to be objectively true, but for our own existence in the whole Descartes I think therefore I am sense. But even then, our observations tell us there are other types of intelligence than that which this neocortex language-based trick lets us express. While not discounting all that other intelligence that seems to be embedded into matter in units as small as fragments of our DNA, this article is about making better use of the unique “I think therefore I am” type of intelligence we have.

We expressing that sort of intelligence using the tool of language, to which we are obviously predisposed to acquiring, but which by its own nature helps us see its own shortcomings. This was gloriously demonstrated in the language of math in the form of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, but can be simply demonstrated with “this statement is false”.

Paradoxes seem built into life, especially when it comes to language. The lesson that that “good enough” must be good enough and you’ve just got to deal with it comes to many language-using thinkers eventually. Perfection and the pursuit of ideals are just that. This existence we’re experiencing has interesting built-in limits. These limits do not need to be discouraging, merely dealt with. Do not throw out or invalidate the tool of language itself once making this discovery for yourself. Just know it’s a tool with limits.

And so choices arise in life for which you can employ language to help you decide. Choices are a big thing in this novel “I think therefore I am” way humans seem to have in a different form than many other forms of life. Sure, other forms of life have choice. Load models of them into a computer simulation and you’re going to be able to statistically predict them better than you would with individual humans. Slime mold may be able to optimize efficient routes to connect resources better than our computer models today, but not by much. The less “alive” the components of the model are, the more predictable they become by the laws of physics that we know. The more alive the components, the less predictable. To be human is to be least predictable of all.

But this lack of predictability comes precisely from the ability to think aided by such tools as language. Without being able to think something through, your ability to take the road less traveled (the one that makes all the difference) diminishes. The more you rely on those built-in facilities of instinct and birth-given attributes, the more mathematically and statistically predictable you are. The more you stop and think, interacting with internal facilities you took the time to develop and nurture, the more you can find new choices to make. When given two choices, is there a third you didn’t think of? Stop and think. Write it down. Be mindful and deliberate in such things.

Many forms of life have language. Sponges and ants have chemical languages and octopuses have color languages. Some of these languages are even learned, as we know certain chimpanzees have generationally transmitted rain dances. Human languages using abstract symbols for both spoken and written language seem different in quite the amount of precision they allow us to encode and decode. We can encode instructions for building things and conveying experiences, and those can be decoded in ways that let things be built or experienced. It’s pretty cool, I think. And it’s a skill like any other that gets better as you practice.

For the sake of focusing on one thing and doing it well, I’m going to focus on the written word. I will occasionally supplement this with “drawing” as I do believe a picture is worth a thousand words. But picking up a stick, pen or stylus and dragging it over a surface to leave a mark that mimics our visual sense is more natural than the written or spoken word. Therefore, I’m going to focus on the written and spoken word, because I believe it activates a type of thinking that improves our choice-making ability, and which should be practiced every day. If you choose to do one thing well, you could make much worse choices than processing your thoughts.

So let’s assume you can read and write. You got this far in the article, so you’re doing pretty well already. But now it’s time to start articulating your own ideas. Process the experiences that are held inside of you. Sure, you can talk to people about things. But then you are subjecting yourself to their biases. There’s no reason you can’t just write things down and get a more pure recounting of what you think and how you feel. It may not come out in great form at first, but that’s just part of the process. Don’t be judgemental. Just forge on. It’s not in the editing at this point. It’s about the flow.

Maybe start with playfulness and free association. You don’t know what you don’t know. And it is the mere process of writing it down that makes the difference. It’s like forcing yourself to talk about a topic. Experiences through your senses accumulate up inside of you in an unprocessed form. Making decisions while your experiences are still quite unprocessed is what animals without symbolic languages. It’s valid. It’s just not deliberate. It is less mindful than choices and decisions you might make if you stopped to think. So sometimes little games to get you going to get into the zone are necessary.

However, this is where the issues surrounding writing tools have traditionally stopped me. They never really stopped me. Writing by hand into paper notebooks is always an option, and I actually did do that for years. It’s just that this creates a heavy physical liability. That’s going to be a lot of paper notebooks you have to drag around or make the heart wrenching choice of whether to destroy some day, or the tedious choice of whether to try to scan or digitize, which itself is of questionable value if the mere writing down in the first place was the point. The problems that occur by using physical mediums for writing in the digital age seem like inflicting yourself with an unnecessary burden, especially when there are other choices that can make you a quite powerful in the digital domain.

Powerful in the digital domain? You mean like knowing how to use Microsoft Word? Or maybe even WordPad or Notepad that ship with computers? Or if you’re a Mac user, Pages or TextEdit? And do you keep files on your local machine? What about backing them up or working on different hardware? What about when you only have your phone on you? And what about the proprietary vendor nature of all this software? And if you’re using Google Docs, what about the cloud? Do you now rely on Google for access to your own journal? And what about privacy and security? All these questions kept me on good old paper media for journaling for many years into the rise of the digital age. It’s one journaling conundrum after another.