Ehhhh random late night thoughts about the internet
I just helped my friends Ian and Anna make themselves a new website for their new publication (link forthcoming).
Every time I teach someone to code I feel much better about being able to do it myself. Part of this is that I am in a circle of people who don’t for the most part know much about what I do for work. The bigger part is that in spite of myself I actually do like it. I like computers and the avenues they open for communication. And I really don’t like the way they’ve been taken from “us” by a professional class that I suppose I count myself among, but really by the entrepreneurial capitalists who realized it would be more profitable to make the web a series of forms that people fill with “content” than an organically built network of personally published pages. Granted, all this makes it much easier to publish something on the web, but it also drastically diminishes what publishing means. Does it really need to be as easy as filling some text into a box and pressing “Share” Like, who does it serve for every single person to become a constant micropublisher no matter how inept they may be at publishing or how ill considered their ideas. Who does it serve to optimize for constant engagement?
I remember my first response to twitter was anger and resentment at the platform itself; at it’s base stupidity: A form that allows you to blurt 140 characters to nobody in particular. Like, wtf am I supposed to say? Who am I supposed to be saying it to? I posted banal and occasionally vile things out of spite towards the thing itself that I’d then delete. Now, ten years later the whole platform feels like millions more people responding more frantically to the platform in essentially the same way – and the platform channels all those users’ resentment towards one another and we have the grand melee that is twitter in 2019. Back in those early days I thought that the best Twitter accounts were the ones that highlighted the pointlessness of the whole thing: catalogues of what somebody ate, every minor (and major) injury somebody incurred on herself. Now the most characteristic or trenchant accounts seem to highlight not the banality but the gross thoughtless idiocy the platform foments. And yet we (this royal we anyway) can’t quite look away.
When I think about how Web 2.0 changed things, I often think about a break between form and content. From an engineering perspective it makes sense. Data are much more manageable if they aren’t dragging around their particular shape and context with them. And when I write software, I take pleasure in decoupling things, in finding abstractions that can consume a variety of data and perform uniform actions on them, in centralizing control, and I save myself extra work and complexity in doing so. The program becomes easier to manage and as someone whose job it is to manage the program, this is desirable. I see where the impulse comes from. If you want to make a global change, you just modify a couple variables and boom, it cascades through your software. When Stuart Brand said information wants to be free, I don’t know what he meant, but it seems that lots of people in silicon valley figured he meant it wants to be free of form, free of particularity, from time and space and a sense of authorship.
I think the trouble comes when this principle is applied at the scale of civilization. When the management of data bleeds into the management of people and their social spheres. When there’s a sector of society who writes the code that forms how people will communicate, and a much vaster sector of society who fills in the forms that are created for them by the programmers. I’m reminded of the title of a book called “Program or Be Programmed.” I never read it. I think the obvious takeaway from that title is like “Oh there’s two sides and you wanna be on the good one where you’re in charge. Don’t be one of the programmed.” But those aren’t good options. And speaking from experience, programming does not get you out of being programmed. What might get us out of it is not programming software designed to manipulate and control other people. To instead build tools for people to use, and let platforms be protocols rather than services that connect with tools that allow people to interface through the protocols. Tim Berners Lee (of the WWW) is working on one such protocol that will fulfill many of the functions that have been built into proprietary platforms and to me looks like it might be the best way out of this mess.
I think we’re entering a period where people are being given fewer tools and more platforms. There’s a proliferation of superficial choices, and fewer fundamental choices that are being made available. It seems to be the consensus that the web has lost or is losing to the Feed or the App – however you like it. I’d prefer not to give up, and to try to keep the web alive. I am excited for my friends’ scrappy new publication, built by amateurs teaching themselves as they go, experimenting and learning that actually the technologies behind the internet are not unapproachable.
This ties in with the book I’m reading: How We Became Posthuman, in which N. Katherine Hayles argues that the reification of a disembodied mathematical conception of information as an abstract and dimensionless quantity has led to the alienated situation of information technology we now live with – another formulation of the separation of form from content.
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