zen computing.

a screenshot of plan 9.

I think about how I use computers a lot. I grew up in the era of the 486, Windows 3.1, and dial-up modems. I've lived through the start of the era of high-speed internet access, social media, and the smartphone. I am in the eldest cohort of digital natives.

There has been a lot of ink spilled about addiction to a lot of these new technologies— especially social media. I have, myself, lived this experience. On the topic of maintaining a healthy relationship with technology, I have enjoyed reading these books: Cal Newport's Digital Minimalism and Jenny Odell's How to Do Nothing.

These days, I find myself vastly preferring single-purpose tools over the smartphone. I use a watch and battery-powered alarm clock for timekeeping, enjoy listening to NPR over the FM airwaves, and take notes more often than not with pen and paper.

This theme extends to my use of computers. Often, when I sit at my computer, I find myself asking "why am I using this computer?" It is certainly a strange question to ask when you're employed as a programmer.

To answer this question, I try to make a distinction between low-value and high-value use of my time. Digital Minimalism does a good job explaining this distinction. For example, I've found that social media is not something that greatly adds to my life, so I think of that sort of thing as low-value. It has its benefits, but comes at a fairly steep cost of my time.

I try to cull low-value things from my regular habits. I have deleted every social media account of mine that I'm aware of. I find that I am able to focus more on the things that are important to me by saying "no" to the things that aren't. I still enjoy using computers, but try to focus on learning things and one-on-one interactions.

This brings me to the title of this article: zen computing.

I have gradually moved away from using "useful" operating systems to more esoteric ones. I especially favor using plan 9, which is pictured above. It doesn't do a lot that we expect of our computers these days. It doesn't come with an internet browser that can handle JavaScript, which precludes me from being able to use a lot of websites. I am OK with this.

It does, however, provide a fertile playground for tinkering. It comes with a lot of tools for making things. They're not particularly ergonomic tools. Often, I find myself digging through plan 9's documentation trying to figure out how to accomplish something. Or asking folks on IRC or by e-mail.

The result of this tinkering is that I wind up learning new things. It reminds me of someone tending a garden, or perhaps fixing up their classic car on a Saturday afternoon.

I call this use of computers, one in which we do things that we enjoy for the sake of enjoyment and learning new things, zen computing.

It isn't for everyone (see also: "don't yuck my yum"), but if you're feeling at all lost in the sea of digital noise, I wholeheartedly recommend participating in zen computing in whatever way makes your own heart sing.

Be well. :)