Phenomenology and Web Journals

I’ve been thinking a lot about Martin Heidegger lately.

What, you wonder, does an early 20th century German philosopher have to do with a journal that mostly recounts disturbing chat sessions and mocks the foibles of modern technocentric society?

A lack of updates, of course.

This rather convoluted approach to philosophy came from a post that discussed the web journal’s unspoken mantra of “publish or perish.” This got me thinking about my own lack of publishing prowess and from there it was only a hop, skip, and a jump to Sein und Zeit.

For those of you that lack a classical education, Sein und Zeit was Heidegger’s seminal work in which he discussed the problem of “ready-to-hand.” The gist of his philosophy is that the only way people can exist in a conscious state is by performing the majority of our actions unconsciously.

For instance, when getting onto the freeway to go to school, I do not think,

I am going to depress the gas pedal to the floor, and wait until the speedometer reads 65 MPH. Once I have reached that point, I will relax the pressure until the pedal is halfway off the floor and then adjust pressure to maintain the 65 MPH speed. Simultaneously, I shall look over my shoulder for a gap in the traffic; when a gap appears immediately to my left, I will turn the wheel slightly. Once I have entered the lane, I shall adjust the wheel in the opposite direction to return to a straight heading.

No, what I am thinking is,

Why does KLOS always choose to play a Rush song when I need to have both hands on the wheel?

In the world of Heidegger, the car—or specifically, the steering wheel and the gas pedal of the car—is “ready-to-hand”; they’re part of the world outside our being (“Dasein”) that we mostly ignore. Contrariwise, the song on the radio—being the focus of my conscious state—is considered “present-at-hand.” This is not to say that the controls will forever remain “ready-to-hand” or the radio “present-at-hand.” Should the gas pedal get stuck or the steering wheel start to shimmy, my focus would leave the convoluted world of classic rock radio programming and turn to the source of the problem: the car would now be “present-at-hand” and the radio “ready-to-hand.”

(The other journal entry that brought Heidegger to be “present-at-hand” in my world was an essay on keyboarding for portable devices, specifically the phrase “a learning curve you could kill goats with.” Bad grammar aside, it’s amazing how many people wrestle with the problems of “ready-to-hand” versus “present-at-hand” without knowing how much effort phenomenologists have exerted on the same problem.)

So. Phenomenology. Heidegger. What does all this have to do with The Wabe?

I write these little blurbs in raw XML, using either GNU Emacs (nxml-mode) or depending on the length of the entry. Each entry is in fact a snippet of XHTML wrapped in XML metadata of my own device. The pages and the RSS feed are generated from this master file via XSLT.

As Tim Berners-Lee once remarked about the world-wide web, “I was surprised that people were prepared to write HTML. In my initial requirements for this thing, I had assumed, as an absolute pre-condition, that nobody would have to do HTML or deal with URLs.” And with good reason.

XHTML is definitely not “ready-to-hand.” It’s a far cry from the WYSIWYG nature of modern word processors, and even from more technical page layout programs like LATEX. Every time I stop typing words to enter a formatting directive is when my writing goes from “ready-to-hand” to “present-at-hand”; as any good usability expert will tell you, this is a very bad thing.

This broken model is having an impact on the frequency of updates. For example, last week’s entry (in which I suggested that an Illuminatiesque conspiracy of furries had seized control of the Mozilla Organization) almost didn’t get published because of a problem with the layout of the graphics. (The free world dodged a bullet there, I’m sure you’ll agree.)

What I need to do is to write some sort of front-end so that I can produce proper, valid XHTML from a more free-form input. The requirement for correctness eliminates the popular journal packages out there like Movable Type and the lot, none of which seem to take correctness seriously. Since I have that requirement, the homebrew solution is the one that stays. (Poor Dave Hyatt has gotten some guff in the past about producing improper XHTML.)

The problem here is time. Not that I don’t have time; I’m only working four days a week currently, and the job isn’t exactly draining. No, the problem is that the only time that this annoys me enough that I want to come up with a proper solution is when I’m trying to get my ideas down onto digital paper and am constantly interrupted (brought to “present-at-hand”) by the need to inject some XHTML formatting directives.

In a sense, I have failed one of Larry Wall’s prerequisites for being a great programmer: I have the impatience, and I certainly have the hubris, but I’m still willing to put the effort into writing these entries as raw markup rather than writing a program to do so for me.

Hm. The core problem is personality and scheduling: being and time, Sein und Zeit. Heidegger would be proud.