In the late 1970s, I was thrilled by the ability to send and receive messages through the revolutionary medium then known as “electronic mail.” At about the same time, I began to write my letters, notes, articles, and books—we didn’t yet call all such things “documents”—on a computer and store them electronically rather than on cards or papers stuffed into filing cabinets.
Since those days I have thought of the information aspects of life as an unwinnable race. With each new year and each new Moore’s Law–enabled boost in processor speed, transmission rates, storage capacity, and other elements of the information infrastructure, ever more data has come at us, ever faster. Appointments, assignments, driving directions—everything has become part of the expanding cloud of “personal information” necessary for our work and home lives.
Year by year tools for coping with the onslaught have also been improving—but more slowly. Electronic calendars, online collaboration systems, search engines and archives, and the converging technologies that make up the smartphone revolution did something, but never quite enough, to put people in control of information. “I sometimes wonder whether, with all this data, people have just given up,” Mitch Kapor, a personal-software pioneer, told me recently. “They may just have resigned themselves to living in this infinite sea of information.” Kapor first became famous as the founder of the software company Lotus and the designer of the spreadsheet application Lotus 1-2-3, but I revere him as a creator of the brilliant early personal-information program Lotus Agenda. (Agenda, which I wrote about in The Atlantic back in 1992, is a relic from the MS‑DOS age. All these years later, I keep DOS emulators on my sleek, modern MacBook Airs purely so I can run the program from time to time.)