Zettelkasten Forum

Consequences of Application Rental for Knowledge Workers

As many of you know, Ulysses switched to the application rental model (which comes under the benevolent name of subscription). This change has generated all sorts of reactions that range from flimsy arguments and veiled advertisement on the leading mac blogs, to a vivid lava flow of user rage on twitter and the Apple App Store.

Our fellow hosts Christian and Sascha have written two excellent posts on the issue of application rental (https://christiantietze.de/posts/2017/08/no-subscription/ and https://christiantietze.de/posts/2016/07/app-pricing-subscription/). I find them particularly important given that Cristian and Sascha share two sensibilities that are crucial for this debate: that of the knowledge worker and that of the developer. Now, given that this forum summons us, as we are all invested in some kind of writing/knowledge work, I want to open a discussion on these matters. I find the following points to be crucial, but please feel free to add anything you think is relevant or that I have missed.

  • The ethos of The Archive insists on a principle of software agnosticism. This means that the .txt files are owned by the person who creates them. The matter here is not necessarily ownership but format: it is an issue of usability, the persistence of data, and future proofing. In the case of Ulysses, I wrote my PhD there, and having already bought the application does not even save me from its eventual obsolescence.
  • Application rental is antithetical to the Zettelkasten, which should accompany us throughout our lives as a partner in communication. The case of Ulysses reminds me of Philip K. Dick's novel Ubik, where Joe Chip faces his flat's doorknob which refuses to open unless it is given 5 cents. (See quote below). To put this in other words: Joe Chip's doorknob is charging him for a bribe/subscription for him to access and use his own flat.

    • For those who are into Kafka, Before the Law presents a more disturbing picture of this paradox of an enforced legal impediment to access. A subject faces a door that is closed, and that door is the law. The guard in front of that door will only allow the subject to pass if he acknowledges the existence of the law, but warns him that another door awaits beyond this one, presumably ad infinitum. The subject dies of hunger ad portas knowing that the door had always been open for him. My point here is: rental is unlimited. And since we are speaking of cognitive labour, tools cum barriers to thinking are a menace. I refuse to hindrance to extension of thinking.
  • The Archive, in contrast, seems to have been written to let the zettelkasten survive, it is a tool of access and use, but it is not subject to the doorknob principle. I love the simplicity and conceptual elegance of this approach: the application is crafted so that its own obsolescence is irrelevant in relation to the zettel text-mass. This is a design feature, not an enforcement: by taking this principle to its logical conclusions, the archive is a tool that can only operate with open systems and in turn, promotes openness and the necessary extensibility of cognitive work.
  • Is software a tool or a contract? Ubik's dystopian doorknob principle says that use is subject to a contractual agreement. This, according to a capitalist logic that is taken to an extreme in Ubik and in the App Store, applies to 'our own' property. In the end though, Joe Chip ends up using a knife against the money-gulping door who threatens to sue him. A tool ends up breaking a contract. (Elliptically, to paraphrase the CIA on twitter: I am neither endorsing nor condemning software piracy).
  • Cognitive work and its subjection to monetisation. The cruel, deceitful Ulixes has suddenly hijacked access to our writing archives (in one hypothetical version of the Telegony, Ulysses (the character) dies in an attempt to protect his property). Following the previous point, Ulysses has taken a design choice that is antithetical to long term cognitive work (or at least, it subjects such work to the rawest of bribes).
  • The Soulmen folks, Christian and Sascha's articles point to the economic and pragmatic aspects of their choice (only for them), but these arguments neglect usability and, as I insisted above, they pose an eventual threat to knowledge production and the privatisation of the general intellect. If you are interested in their excuses you can find the article in Medium. I cannot bother to link to anything made by them. The shift to an immaterial petty rentier mentality is nothing new for those who have read Marx. In fact rental has always been an immaterial issue. The point 4 I am describing (in relation to cognitive work) was described in 1858 (!) in the Grundrisse.
  • Which tools can we use to replace software like Ulysses? I, for instance, am attempting to work github's text editor Atom, but the pdf translator bit is killing me.

This forum is one of the few places to seriously discuss these issues, beyond the paid advertisement, fandom craze, or justifiable user rage. So I want to open up the discussion.

Philip K Dick's Ubik:

The door refused to open. It said, "Five cents, please."
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. "I'll pay you tomorrow," he told the door. Again it remained locked tight. "What I pay you," he informed it, "is in the nature of a gratuity; I don't have to pay you."
"I think otherwise," the door said. "Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt."
...he found the contract. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.
"You discover I'm right," the door said. It sounded smug.

Do you use Ulysses?
  1. Do you use Ulysses?3 votes
    1. Yes
    2. No


  • Two main points:

    1. I think that the Soulmen (Ulysses company) are totally entitled to do whatever the fuck they want. This is solely and ethical argument and not an argument wether or not they are allowed to do that.
    2. From a writers perspective, you got it right. I need to be in control of my stuff. If not I am unsafe in the wrong spot.

    I have the feeling that many issues stem from a motivational background. Christian wants to create a great tool. I support him (I am only involved in the archive business wise. All the other apps are his own) solely from the perspective of ethics and as a creator.

    Rental-Ransom is a great business decision. I have the feeling that many companies (I am not claiming anything regarding the Soulmen) are self selecting themselves for that kind of bias. When I see it through a lens of a writer and knowledge worker I see one pattern a lot: People, awesome programmers and creative designers, try to create something for other people with a different set of abilities and perspectives.

    I am waiting for the new iawriter and hope that it will be a fair app. From the design perspective I have no doubt. But they made some moves in the past that I really don't agree with.

    You can tweak Emacs to become a pretty neat writing app but it is a shore of weeks. I only use it for my organisational and outlining work.

    Perhaps, just wait for the app Christian has in mind. :smile:

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