Speculation, Inquiry, and a Quest for Purpose

Some Potential Benefits of Space


I don’t know how much my journaling is going to continue in its current form—that is to say, the daily notes I create and crosslink within Obsidian. Keeping track of the entries in my paper journal is chore enough, and I feel like the main thing the digital journal adds to the rest of my notes is a general sense of clutter. My digital world is too cluttered to make proper sense. I need to divorce the autobiographical focus from the work of living.

One option I’ve always kept in the back of my mind is returning to Day One. There was a brief period when I first started journaling with Obsidian that I copied my daily journal entries into both places, but even after abandoning that practice I’ve never lost sight of the fact that it would be easier to get my Obsidian daily note pages imported to Day One than it was to get my Day One export to play nicely with Markdown in the first place.

I think my Obsidian Vault ought to serve as a digital library of materials I specifically create and put there for reference while I’m composing or journaling in some other environment. Journaling and reading are already separate volumes, so to speak, out here in meatspace1—I don’t write my daily notes in the book I’m reading—so I don’t think it would introduce too much cognitive friction to have different places for different things.

And that’s where this connects to Apple Vision Pro. I really want to lean into the spatial aspect of the computer, what that means, and why it’s such an important distinction to consider when trying to evaluate this machine against other similar-looking things. Spatial is the primary element that’s missing from the digital computer paradigm, one that I bump up against all the time when simply reading, of all things.

There are several advantages to reading analog books (hardback, softcover—you know, books) that dovetail beautifully with the human brain’s capabilities when it comes to cognition. For instance, our brains evolved to map geography very efficiently, so much so that champions in modern memory contests employ imagined buildings and landscapes to memorize lengthy strings of arbitrary figures. When you’re reading a book, you know where you are—how much you’ve read, how far you’ve got left to go, how much of the book’s length is actually notes and bibliographic material—there’s a real sense of place and relation. Once you’ve read a book, it’s second nature to pick it up and flip to a relevant passage when you remember something intriguing about it.

Dynamic scroll bars obfuscate your position in relation to the book’s beginning, middle, and end, and there’s no way to keep your thumb in one spot while you skip to another without specialized software. While hyperlinks are a phenomenal way to connect different parts of a book to each other and the ability to search its contents is a definite advantage when you can remember something word-for-word, having a spatial recollection of roughly how much of the book was in your left hand versus your right and being able to pick up on familiar groupings of shapes are what make recollection an iterative process. When you look something up again, you tether that intriguing information to a distinct spatial experience, which further reinforces it in your memory.

That’s another thing books do particularly well—you can leave them places. The best way I know to make sure I finish a book before it’s due back to the library is to make sure it’s visible in a space where I know I’ll encounter it, and it will passively remind me of its presence. If I want to read something on my phone or on my iPad, I have to unlock the device, think of the app I need to access it, open said app and select the thing I want to be reading, and I have to accomplish all of this without opening any other apps on the way or skimming any other reading material. There are widgets and things that can get close in terms of showing me whatever I was looking at last, but they usually only serve to remind me that the last time I was using my phone, I was looking at…everything.

My phone is my communicator, my notepad, my camera, my electronic reader, my music player, and my video viewer. It could be anything at any time, which makes it terrible for prompts2. I’m actually reading a couple of different books right now, but in different contexts. I’m reading Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett around bedtime, when there’s nothing else going on but helping my child get to sleep, so it lives on my nightstand. When I have dedicated focus time, I’m reading Scarcity and taking copious notes, which means it’s sitting in my BookGem on my desk.

So the thing that gets me about Apple Vision Pro is that Apple appears to be taking aim at the same digital shortcomings that keep me picking up paperbacks instead of doing everything on screens. If I can place applications in my physical space—even temporarily—then I can orient myself to them in a way that reminds me of their shared context, that sparks my memory for where I was, what I was doing, and why I was doing it. The iPhone and even the laptop are space-agnostic—they’re not firmly associated with any one environment and so lack context cues—but if the Vision Pro is not? If I can configure my living room like I arrange my desktop?

If I could give everything a place, I could put my journal app on my desk next to my paper notebook and Scarcity so I could seamlessly move from reviewing past entries and writing in the moment to taking notes on my current reading project. I could put my photos app next to the window overlooking my backyard so I could peer into the past or out on the present. Behind me, replacing my 4’x4′ cork-board, could be my Obsidian graph, large enough that I could simply walk up to the points to see their titles. I could pop out a window of the note I’m looking for and pin it to the wall above my desk. I could make the entire wall a Canvas and rearrange notes as quickly as I could spot another available space.

Context-switching has steep costs, but one way to reduce its destabilization is to have specific places for specific activities. A lot of this happens organically—the kitchen is the only place you cook because it’s the room with both a sink and a stove while the bathroom is the only place you use the toilet—but hasn’t translated well to digital computing because the computer moves with you. It has no specific place, so it has no specific activity—but if the Vision Pro can dial up a different space entirely? If their immersive environments feel sufficiently differentiated?

Well, then I could just do all my journaling on the moon, where there are no distractions other than an enchanting blue orb both impossibly large and indescribably small hovering over the horizon. When I shift my focus to organizing family photos, I could move lakeside to Mount Hood, matching colors to the leaves of the trees.

The cognitive costs of context-switching are all about the brain work of choosing to ignore certain elements of your environment to focus on different ones. It’s like having to go through everything in your field of view and review it for relevance whenever you change tasks without changing location. An immersive environment—be it for reading, writing, watching movies, making music—could reduce that load by letting your human spatial awareness instinctively respond to geographical cues.

I don’t know how entity persistence is going to work with Vision Pro, if I’ll be able to “save” a specific configuration of apps and windows, for instance, but the spatial computer interface promises to resolve at least some of my concerns about setting up the scene every time. The device uses eye tracking cameras so you select and move items by simply looking at them. It removes the need for an input device in nearly all cases, which have always posed certain inescapable challenges. Mice and trackpads are precise, arguably so are fingers, but everyone can relate to the experience of being unable to select the parts of a word you want to change because the cursor keeps ending up in a different place than where you want it. Getting windows in the right place and the right size on a computer screen is a little tedious (without certain time-saving utilities) especially when you have to change where you click on them to drag or resize them—but if I could just look at what I wanted to grab and have it? I could set up my virtual environment faster than I could set the table for dinner.

The reason I put my Day One journal entries in Obsidian in the first place was that I wanted to reduce digital fragmentation. I didn’t want to have to keep track of which app had my journal, which had my fiction, which had my weblog entries; I just wanted everything in one place, at my fingertips at a moment’s notice. Just like my iPhone or my MacBook, which already contain multitudes. They are space-agnostic computers.

I think some of the disconnection we feel between ourselves and each other or ourselves and our environments stems from this agnosticism. When our primary work, communication, media creation and consumption take place via space-agnostic machines, we lose that sense of place—we forget where we are, what we’re doing and why. There’s nothing to anchor us to our surroundings unless we make deliberate, intentional efforts to engage with them independently of our computers.

A spatial computer could change that, and I’d like to believe that Apple chose those terms for that reason. There are other advantages to the technology in this device, I’m sure, but for me, it presents the possibility of restoring a little more analog to the digital space. We’ll see if that works, and we’ll see if it really makes a difference.

  1. Cambridge knows what I mean. ↩︎
  2. In contrast, a book, a pair of running shoes, a watering can, or anything else associated with an activity you want to prime yourself for can simply be placed where you want to be reminded of it, and it won’t do anything else until you use it again. ↩︎

About the author

Ian Hayes

Former technical support and customer service professional, now freelance writer and entrepreneur writing Horror, Narrative Nonfiction, and Literary/Speculative Fiction.

Also backpacker, rock climber, casual biker, woodworker and armchair philosopher.

Currently living in Portland, Oregon, but also from New York, Alabama, New Mexico, Virginia, Georgia, Connecticut and Tennessee.

By Ian Hayes
Speculation, Inquiry, and a Quest for Purpose