A Business Begins with a Need
Journler was born in the spring of 2005 as the snows around Innsbruck, Austria melted and the alpine wildflowers began to blossom. I was an English teaching assistant in the primary school system, and I had just broken up with a girlfriend.
One evening I wrote about our relationship on my blog. The ex was not pleased. From her perspective I was sharing private matters in a public forum. The ensuing social commotion left me confused and wanting to write even more. What I needed was a personal journal.
I kept Moleskine journals throughout college but hadn’t continued afterwards. I did, however, have one of those grubby, white Core 2 Duo MacBooks, and I had started to program again.
Although I studied Letters in college, the humanities, I had programmed in one form or another ever since a friend introduced me to Basic when I was ten. HyperCard! Pascal! CodeWarrior! Those were days of digital adventure.
I loved programming, and I wanted to get back into it. Pairing that with a need to keep a private journal, I decided to create a digital diary. I would call it Journler, eliding the “a” sound as the Austrians do with most vowels. I had no idea that I was making such a life changing decision.
Journler Takes Shape
Journler began as a simple diary with a calendar, a list of posts for a given date, and the text for a given post. Development proceeded rapidly. The energy of a focused twenty-three year old seems boundless. It also helped that my job as a teaching assistant required only twelve hours a week. I was almost fully dedicated to the project.
By summer I was already breaking out of the diary model and had included a separate section for entries not tied to any date. The editor supported rich text and you could embed pictures alongside your writing. I was taking tentative steps towards what Journler would eventually become: a tool for thought.
I spent that summer in Austria. I was unemployed and had all the time in the world. Twelve and sixteen hour days passed as I worked on Journler. In the evenings I would take walks near The Goldenes Dachl, where café goers drank coffee and wine to a backdrop of alpine mountains as twilight stretched towards midnight.
The summer of 2005 was a memorable one and one of the most productive periods of my life.
When the summer ended I began my second year as a teaching assistant. I was now in Imst, an Alpine village nestled half an hour to the west of Innsbruck.
One again my job was easy and it paid well, leading ultimately to a fatal decision. Because I was already making good money, I resolved to never charge for the program. Instead I adopted a “donationware” model. Use the software without restriction for as long as you like, and donate if you wish. This was more than a decision. I believed in free software.
Never mind money, anyway! I was just excited that people were using Journler. And people were using Journler! I listed the program with Apple, which at the time kept a free catalogue of third party Macintosh software. People were finding Journler, using it, making suggestions, and then telling their friends about it.
And it turned out that people were using Journler for much more than keeping a diary. Academics, lawyers, scientists, and businessmen and -women were relying on Journler to organize their work and wanted more.
“People” isn’t a fair description of the early adopters who pushed Journler well beyond its original intent. A genuine community of users was growing around the program. I will never forget the enthusiasm and support of Reiner and Reinard, Terry, Annaliese, Adam and others who moderated Journler’s help forums, gave tips to new users, wrote AppleScripts and helped with translations. They saw Journler’s potential long before I did and believed in me without even knowing me.
I adopted dozens of user suggestions during that time, including folders for organizing entries, better support for media attachments, built-in blogging, encryption, and AppleScript integration. Journler was no longer just for writing. It was becoming some kind of information manager, but what that meant I wasn’t exactly sure.
After my teaching assistantship ended I overstayed my visa and moved to Graz, Austria’s second largest city in the rolling, vineyard hills of Steiermark. I had no job, but I had a growing community of users and was earning enough from donations to pay the rent and buy groceries.
Plus a little more. I remember my first windfall after releasing an important update. Euros in hand I bought Dolce and Gabbana prescription eyeglasses, the finest pair of glasses I have ever owned. It was the first time I thought I might actually be able to make a living at this.
Journler continued to develop in the direction of an information manager. I added “smart” folders that automatically collected entries depending on their content and built out more advanced searching. I was even using Journler to manage its own development. I stored bug reports and crash reports in it, kept to do lists, emails, and chat transcripts, and linked to web pages and pdf documents, in addition to keeping my journal.
A vision for the long term future of the program came together. As I added content to Journler and Journler organized it for me, I realized that the program was revealing relationships in my writing and my work that were always there but which I couldn’t normally see. I’d revisit an entry and Journler would show me related entries, often from previous years. I could explore trains of thought and see how ideas changed over time.
What I saw was a mesh of related ideas each informing the other and contributing to its meaning. Any particular entry made sense in the light of earlier or later related entries and others with similar but slightly different subject matter.
It reminded me of an idea I had studied in semiotics and phenomenology, that a word’s meaning or a thing’s meaning consists of its relationships with other words and other things, all wrapped up in the practical needs and activities of human beings. I thought, technology can reveal these relationships, Journler can reveal these relationships, and in so doing help us think.
Success and Failure
In 2007 I moved to San Francisco, California, a city of bay breezes and purple haze sunsets that shimmer behind the Golden Gate Bridge. I came with a mission. I was going to develop the most powerful information manager for the Mac desktop. Full time. I settled near Washington Square park with a view of the bay and declared myself an indie software developer.
I lived in the Bay Area for three years, moving from San Francisco to Berkeley and finally Oakland. During that time Journler’s user base grew from hundreds to thousands and then tens of thousands. I experienced the fabled hockey stick growth entrepreneurs dream of.
But I didn’t consider myself an entrepreneur. Few did. Facebook was active, Twitter had recently been founded, and YouTube had just been acquired by Google, but there was not the startup frenzy the area is experiencing now. I was not connected to a network of mentors, founders and venture capitalists. Had I been I wouldn’t have known what to do with it. No, I was a self-taught software developer, a mediocre one at that, learning on the spot and on my own how to run a business.
And I was failing.
Journler’s user base grew, but the donations did not keep pace. At the same time I was not prepared for the expense of living in San Francisco, and I was totally floored by the cost of taxes. I would make it to the end of the year barely in the black only to discover that I owed more in taxes than I had available. I began every year three years straight trying to catch up.
For all the aspiring freelancer, indie developer, founder and creative consultants out there: you are not prepared for the cost of doing business.
After struggling financially for a year and a half I reluctantly decided to start charging for Journler. It took months to make the decision. I was reversing a promise to a community I loved and was betraying an ideal. The decision affected me deeply and was the start of a depression.
In the end I never did charge for Journler. I never got there. Rightly or wrongly I felt that in order to implement a new payment policy I needed to release a significant update. But I was overwhelmed with managerial, logistical and customer support work.
I needed help. I needed to hire help. In order to hire help, I needed money. I would only have money after I started charging for Journler. Which required the update. And for that I needed to hire help. It was a brutal, vicious circle. My depression worsened, and I fell further behind financially and in all aspects of my work on Journler.
On September 23, 2009, almost five years after those first lines of code, I announced to the community that work on Journler was ending. I had failed.
For the past six years I have not stopped thinking about Journler. This was a project I wanted to succeed. More than once I tried and failed to restart it. I tried variations on it, Lex and Per Se. But more than that, Journler was an idea I wanted to understand. What was Journler? And why can’t I make sense of my own relationship to this project?
As human beings we find meaning in communities of practice and of traditions. Some of these communities belong to cultures that carry and transform meaning over millennia. Others are newer but are still foundational. They ground who we are. We recognize ourselves in them, in their ideals and their values, their mythologies and their dreams, and we exclaim “That! That’s what I’m talking about!” Mutual understanding is profound.
Journler belongs to a tradition in the history of computer science called “intelligence augmentation”. Vannevar Bush, J.C.R. Licklider and Douglas Engelbart are its founders. In the 40s, 50s and 60s they recognized that computers, then ungainly machines largely found in research centers, could become personal and interpersonal tools that amplified our ability to think, communicate, discover and work.
It was a revelation when I learned about these men. They were pioneers who wanted tools for thought, wanted computers that would remove the mundane from our intellectual activity so that we could focus on the creative, that would organize and then help us call upon the media that matters to us, that would aid us in the development and communication of our ideas.
In their writings and in their projects I recognized Journler. I had found a home for my own ideas. This! This is what I’m talking about! Journler and all those sixteen hour days and the thousands of emails and the financial turmoil and the success and the failure and the countless hours of reflection finally made sense to me. Journler belonged to a vision half a century old, and one, I’m pleased to say, that is still just getting started.
A modern human being largely inhabits a manmade environment. An engineered environment. Almost everything in that environment is a tool, an implement for accomplishing human goals. Although we may not think of them as such, cars, roads, electricity, office buildings, desks and desktops, mobile phones, and of course hammers and nails and screwdrivers are all tools. We inhabit a world of tools.
This instrumental world makes up the cognitive environment in which and through which we think, and it makes up the practical environment in which and through which we act. Our tools, both digital and physical, determine our possibilities for thinking and acting, for being who we are.
Put another way, our instrumental habitat doesn’t just amplify or augment intelligence. It makes cognition possible in the first place. Tools are not something independent of us which we make use of and discard as we need. They constitute us as thinking, acting beings.
This idea goes by the name “embodiment” in contemporary philosophy and science. It encompasses more than the artifacts we produce. It speaks to our bodies, yes, but also to the tightly integrated and worldly perception-cognition-action loops that make up our behaviors. It includes language as probably the most fundamental tool, and it describes the communities of practice to which we belong, with their ways of doing things which we adopt.
Intelligence augmentation is possible because we already think and act through our tools, because we are embodied. In a very real way we always already are augmented.
Why Tools for Thought Matter
What all this means is that when we engineer our world we engineer ourselves. People didn’t just use Journler or express themselves with it. They became who they were because of Journler, as they do with all their tools. Being, moreover, a tool for intellectual activity, Journler shaped those individuals in what might be the last domain of the humanist tradition: their thoughts.
To a software developer who creates a tool for thought or a product manager or MBA who directs a team working on one, or for a VC who funds the companies creating tools for thought and the CEO envisioning them, this is an exiting, disturbing idea. You are changing the world. You are changing us.
Are you remaking humankind for the better?
The pioneers who recognized the role computers had to play in intelligence augmentation certainly thought so. Computers were going to release us from the mundane and free our creative potential. In some ways computers were even going to free us from the need to pay attention to them. The technology would assist us without making demands on us.
This is not exactly the cognitive environment we inhabit today. Our computational tools make and are increasingly made to make demands upon our attention. It feels like everywhere our attention is under siege by the very same tools that have become essential to our intellectual activity.
And we know it, we know we’re losing control of our attention. Top search terms for attention include “attention deficit disorder”, and “attention span”. Top links include “The Art of Staying Focused in a Distracting World” in The Atlantic and “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform” in the Harvard Business Review.
We fight back. We install ad blockers, we disable notifications, we filter spam and marketing email, we read listicles on increasing productivity and try and fail not to multitask. We may even disable access for extended periods of time to the tools we use to think.
Attention and self-identity are intimately linked. Attention is the gateway to our thoughts and behaviors. It is the sine qua non of introspection and extended intellectual activity, of the ability to deeply assess our circumstances and make good decisions. What we attend to shapes who we become.
On our desktops and in our pockets, our tools for thought seem to be unmaking the very thing they were first envisioned to augment. They are unraveling our ability to attend, changing how and what we think about, and so changing who we are.
Since ending my work on Journler I have been in Norman, Oklahoma, with a transitional stint on a farm in northern California. I work with clients on mobile, desktop and web applications. I mentor business students in technology entrepreneurship at the University of Oklahoma and teach application development to computer science students for a software business accelerator. Most recently I co-founded Oklahoma’s first developer bootcamp, OK Coders.
But I have the itch to set off once again and work on my own ideas. This time I am better prepared, both financially and professionally. In January I intend to make my way back to California, where I will begin a professional sabbatical. Meaning I’ll be unemployed. No clients, no teaching, no mentoring. I’d like to be near the Bay Area but not in it, and I’d like to be near a world class college campus. Santa Cruz seems the likely destination.
I am reminded of my summer in Innsbruck, that most productive period of my life. I hope to recreate the experience. I am, however, in my 30s now and wonder if I still have the boundless energy of a twenty-three year old. I also don’t have a project I’m already working on, at least not a particular software product.
I believe cognitive tools can do good. I know they can, I’ve experienced it. But I am not naïve enough to believe that tools are value free and that in the end it only matters “what you do with them.” Embodiment says otherwise, and some tools, especially computational tools, seem to develop according to their own inner logic, suggesting we are not entirely in control of their use.
Although I do not have a particular product in mind, I still have a vision that began with Journler and which has matured as I’ve found Journler’s place in the history of computer science. That history introduced me to the more foundational vision of what a good cognitive tool can look like. And it has led me to the intersection of augmentation, embodiment and attention.
I may not have any particular thing I’m working on now, but I imagine it won’t be long before I do. And it will be because of Journler.
The title of this post, Tools for Thought, comes from a book of the same title which, along with What the Dormouse Said, introduced me to the history of personal computing and the vision of its early creators.
Tools for Thought: The History and Future of Mind-expanding Technology, Howard Rheingold. MIT Press, 1985.
What the Dormouse Said: How the Sixties Counterculture Shaped the Personal Computer Industry, John Markoff. Penguin Books, 2005.