The Alternate Web

I want to bust a real quick one today on my recent experiences of dipping a toe into alternate and smaller-scale web platforms.

Of course, this article itself is hosted on a dominant web platform, WordPress. And I use Facebook daily for mundane purposes, mostly keeping up with people. (Twitter, on the other hand, gets no love from me.) I’m not writing to rag on big platforms, but to acknowledge a cultural moment when a lot of people are contemplating this switch.

I’ve been reading Hacker News (itself a big platform – they’re everywhere!) for a couple of years and quickly grew familiar with “bring back the old web” sentiments there. I would guess programmers, with their love of the esoteric and the stripped-down, have been saying such things forever. The argument, if I may sum it up crudely, is that personal webpages (whether self-hosted or on services like Geocities) and pre-Web-2.0 media like blogs, newsletters and forums, fostered a more diverse, friendly, expressive, open culture online.

Part of that nostalgia is people remembering a period when only nerds were online – no racist uncles or Karens, to reach for current stereotypes. Also, I’ve the impression that a lot of good memories come from participation in subcultures like MP3 blogs or Flash games, that would obviously have drawn together like-minded folks.

Fast forward to 2021, then, and it makes sense that the many current revivals of the old-school web favour nerdiness over mass appeal. I’ll discuss that a bit more below when I get to my actual experiences.

Another driver of interest in alternative platforms is the manifest inadequacies of Facebook, Twitter and so on. Those companies have the impossible task of trying to please everyone. High-profile bans and legal challenges show that the security, conflict-of-interest and privacy problems of ad-driven social media are out in the open these days.

That recently drove a lot of people from WhatsApp onto the competitor app Signal, including myself.

I also started my own personal website, kevinhiggins.dev, to have an online outlet where the form as well as the content are in my control.

Finally, and mostly inspired by one guy I follow called JP LeBreton, a mild-mannered, leftist game dev, I joined Mastodon, the platform I call “Twitter for nerds”.

I feel much freer to post on Mastodon than on FB, because I don’t have, nominally, 1000 people who know who I am and might be following my posts. The lack of an audience (I’ve no followers on it yet and only got a couple of transient likes) is okay by me. Same with Drum Chant, I never focused on driving traffic to here. This gets right to my perhaps idiosyncratic stance on web publishing of any kind: for me, “putting it out there” is more important than getting a reaction.

I know why this is, it’s a quirk in my personality whereby things feel much realer to me if I’ve written them down. (Hence this blog – and privately, I also journal and keep a half-dozen diaries and logs for various activities.)

Hmm. I’d thought this article might be an encouragement to others to try out alternate platforms, yet now I’m persuading myself that they’re for people like me who are mostly into organising an archive of their thoughts over hanging out with others.

That’s not to say I don’t want the hangs. My own motivation to try out these venues of expression was very simple: lockdown is very lonely and I’m hoping to meet new, like-minded people.

And there are some such on Mastodon, for sure. But rather than starting conversations, for now anyway, I’m taking the shy fellow’s tactic of crafting the feed I’d like to follow.

It’s been fun, and I especially like posting abrupt juxtapositions of content, e.g. counterpoint exercises one minute, rap lyrics the next. I feel free to perform a multipotentialite and intense persona there.

When it comes to my site I imposed more structure to present a neater picture for say a prospective employer. (Check out the site icon!) However, I chose a serif font and some moody colours specifically to hint at 90s web mischief. The links section is intended to send readers off into a maze of esoteric personal pages. Mixing business with pleasure.

I’ll wrap up today with a related trend I’ve noticed and then some blue-sky ideas for more alternate platforms I might try.

A lot of the writing that affected me most last year came by email newsletter. When I contacted the author of one of these to say hi, he mentioned in his answer that he’d found the supposedly old-fashioned format unprecedentedly effective.

I list the three newsletters I follow in the links page of my site.

And to finish… two more avenues for expressing myself online that I’ve been considering are Neocities and Project Gemini. The first is a user-friendly webpage-hosting and linking service, explicitly about recreating the old-school web. I think they might even have, whatchamacall those things, link rings? Webrings!

That could be a place to do something pseudonymous and weird. Prose poetry? Moodboards? Naughty fiction? Something warm and indulgent, anyhow.

(I already have one or two pseudonymous outlets, I recommend it. Though I’m ignorant of the whole web culture of “alts” built on the concept!)

Project Gemini is different. It’s a whole new web protocol, a communication format for online interchange like the Hypertext Transfer Protocol that underlies the whole web. So, instead of an address like https://kevinhiggins.dev, you’d have gemini://gemini.circumlunar.space/servers/

You need special software to view content using this protocol, and it’s text only. It took me more than an hour to find an app that worked, but when I did, it was weirdly fun to read people’s random posts by such a covert, strange route. I remember one person seemed to write only about guitar tunings they were exploring. That kind of thing.

If I publish in “geminispace”, I’d like to write about spirituality and wisdom literature, to lend my own brand of esotericism to the initiative. (Since the Christmas holidays I’ve been reading Chinese philosophy every day, and I’m also a big fan of the likes of M. Scott Peck… and I read a bit of Western philosophy too, until my brain gets tired.) That won’t be under a pseudonym and I’ll let you know here on Drum Chant if I get round to it!

Oh, last thing, I never said anything about Signal. Well, it’s very much like WhatsApp except I found the setup to be a bit more fiddly and tricky – getting stuck in loops asking for permissions on the phone, not immediately importing contacts. It also uses a spaced-repetition technique to get you to learn off your PIN, which is super-nerdy. (Though probably a good idea, I’m sure.) Nothing too surprising there.

Eleven Favourite Quotes from “Permacomputing”

Apologies for the clickbait format, which is hardly in keeping with the concepts I’ve been absorbing from Ville-Matias “Viznut” Heikkil√§’s remarkable recent article. Think of it not as a push for attention on an ephemeral feed, but respectfully memorialising another’s inspiring vision here on my own site.

Today I will summarise some of that piece’s most remarkable insights for you. I’ll react to quotes, picked for their awesomeness, in turn.

(My WordPress stats suggest that most visitors are here for the jazz content. If that’s you, you are most welcome to stick to that stuff. But consider reading on to ponder alternative visions of the internet and entertainment technology that makes this very blog possible.)

BTW, Viznut is not writing in his first language, and uses “would” where “should” might be more idiomatic, when discussing idealistic futures.

Let’s go!

1. Computers have been failing their utopian expectations. Instead of amplifying the users’ intelligence, they rather amplify their stupidity. Instead of making it possible to scale down the resource requirements, the have instead become a major part of the problem. Instead of making the world more comprehensible, they rather add to its incomprehensibility.

Pessimistic, yet I agree. “Amplifying stupidity” is quite precisely what Twitter does, intentionally spreading wildfires of outrage through our nerves and networks. ICT is projected to take up between 8% and 20% of all energy worldwide by 2030. And incomprehensibility… Jesus. I feel so strongly about how non-technical folk (my parents, for a start) are made fearful and humiliated by corporate tech like antivirus software, operating systems, bank and telecoms billing, touchscreen interfaces, and so on. Yet technologists (I’m one myself) always blindly return to their comfort zone: abstractions, services, always-on internet, new languages and upgrades and frameworks. “Increased controllability and resource use.” And increased incomprehensibility, infantilisation and frustration for everyone else.

Am I being hypocritical? Totally. I depend on myriad frameworks and the seemingly-invisible, actually aggressively-corporate-sponsored development work that keeps big platforms, and our whole civilisation, going. The point is not to deny that but rather observe it and judge it from a dispassionate viewpoint, asking what do we really need, in the long term?

2. Permaculture trusts in human ingenuity in finding clever hacks for turning problems into solutions, competition into co-operation, waste into resources. Very much the same kind of creative thinking I appreciate in computer hacking.

So, Viznut turns to permaculture, a gardening philosophy. Actually, in my long list of article ideas for this site, is one about how my grandfather manages his large garden, despite being in his mid-80s. The point was that due to an inherent rightness in his methods and tools, and a humble reliance on nature to do the work, his garden is still productive and pleasant no matter how physically weak he gets. His work is opportunistic and adaptive. Son-in-law visiting? Make him sharpen my tools. Grandson loafing about the house? Get him to plant lettuces, or pull down vines. Can’t walk much? Put a trailer on the lawnmower. Even when sinking into decay, everything still works, just at a lower level. His old greenhouse, lean-tos and cages are merely waiting for when he has the energy to put one or the other to use.

What has that to do with staring at a screen and tapping away at a keyboard?

3. Any community that uses a technology should develop a deep relationship to it. Instead of being framed for specific applications, the technology would be allowed to freely connect and grow roots to all kinds of areas of human and non-human life.

Could technology – or one or a few specific, locally chosen technologies – fit into our lives like a well-stewarded garden? Like leaving a garden to grow in rain and sun, we would let it do what it’s good at. When resources were at hand we would apply them, if not we could wait. We could deploy it in new ways all the time, like using a garden for meals, sunbathing, athletics, meditation, crafting, cooking, drawing, retreat, nature watching and so on. Even with minimal maintenance it would function, while occasional bouts of serious group work would provide exercise, catharsis and new directions.

Dream on, Kevin.

But I’m basing these ideas off a real scene, as Viznut does with the demoscene. Since about 12 or 13 I’ve been interested in Quake modding, a scene in which enthusiasts create new levels, monster types, versions and toolchains for the first person shooter game, Quake (1996, id Software). There’s something more than a little amazing about how this online community has grown while nurturing a set of powerful, well-maintained software tools, and releasing hundreds of fun things to play. Which also provides a strong, common base for engineering experiments. All with no money changing hands!! Just people doing things out of pleasure and dedication, making the world better.

The DOOM community, based around a similar but earlier and simpler game, is if anything even more broadly creative and supportive.

I won’t go on – I think you get how I feel about this.

4. At times of low energy, both hardware and software would prefer to scale down…. At these time, people would prefer to do something else than interact with computers.

This is where the radicalism comes in. Viznut doesn’t believe our current civilisation can continue. His is a worldview directly in opposition to values we absorb in school, college courses, news, and so on. (For example, in my one-year computer science course, it was absolutely unquestioned that e.g. ever-increasing virtualisation and cloud storage, or working in a monopolistic platform giant, were desirable things.) None of my close friends, who work in engineering or finance, would find it digestible. I haven’t read up myself on degrowth ideologies although I did learn a lot from the fearsomely knowledgeable Dutchman Kris De Decker who runs Low Tech Magazine. But the highly unpalatable idea is that we’ll all have to stop depending on things we’re used to: unlimited flashy content, new phones and personal gadgets, and quite a lot more; because they take too much energy which ruins the planet.

5. People would be aware of where their data is physically located and prefer to have local copies of anything they consider important.

There are countless ways, most of them still undiscovered, to make low and moderate data complexities look good…. For extreme realism, perfection, detail and sharpness, people would prefer to look at nature.

My quick take on this is I don’t know. I don’t know if Viznut is right. However, my intuition says yes, it is healthier to check out some bark patterns, dewdrops and butterflies in your local park, than clicking through 1080p videos on YT. And that yes, something doesn’t add up when Google offers to host gigs and gigs of my data forever on a server for free, even though it would be a notable responsibility and an effort if I resolved to keep it safe on a disc at home.

(Y’know, on that seemingly facetious point about going outside: I think that could be the unexpected philosophical realisation from our constant exposure to high-quality computer graphics – yes, we human beings like looking at realistic, crisp, crunchy visuals… and they’re all around us, all day long, lit by the sun for our convenience.)

More broadly: maybe the saturation of network bandwidth and processor power that now surrounds us is neither necessary nor desirable? Maybe this thing that we’ve had for the last ten years and not in the preceding ten millenia isn’t yet being used right. Maybe we don’t benefit enough from guaranteed industrial strength computing and data streaming at our fingertips day and night, to justify the environmental cost.

6. Integrated circuit fabrication requires large amounts of energy, highly refined machinery and poisonous substances. Because of this sacrifice, the resulting microchips should be treasured like gems or rare exotic spices.

A great way of putting it! The demoscene that Viznut came from is all about getting the utmost from old technology and systems instead of relying on Moore’s Law. So he has come up with a sound justification for this aesthetic interest, which can often otherwise relapse into mere nostalgia. He’s careful not to tie himself to “junk fetishism” as an end in itself.

7. The space of technological possibilities is not a road or even a tree: new inventions do not require “going forward” or “branching on the top” but can often be made from even quite “primitive” elements.

And here’s a justification for playing with old tech, from the point of view of innovation. It does make sense. Again, what I like about Viznut’s writing is the confident, autodidactic, outsider’s perspective. From there I can look at computing, whether enterprise systems or game modding or web content management, quite afresh.

8. Computer systems should make their own inner workings as observable as possible.

Another lofty ideal. I am strongly, instinctively behind this one. In all the software I’ve coded, I came back to real-time feedback as a tool again and again. Observing changes in a feedback loop suits my short attention span. In my computer science course, I most enjoyed the sensation of tunneling into the depths of a system and making them comprehensible and useful. Even a routine backend database like I made for my e-commerce project gives me this pleasurable feeling.

My site (made for a college project) plucking content from a backend database.

9. Any community that uses computers would have the ability to create its own software.

I interpret this not as a call for us all to be hackers, or teaching “kids to code”. Rather I think it’s a call for a smooth continuum of complexity to be available, from newbie use to full control of building the software. For example, I would say Excel formulas, Access pivot tables, and any kind of macros are an absolutely legit place to start programming. Same with game modding, or shell scripting, LaTeX, whatever. (This philosophy developed from ideas from the lovely, now-defunct blog by James Hague.)

The tricky part is for each level of complexity to bleed naturally into the next, tempting the learner to try new things.

This is where gated platforms, whether that’s FB posts or software on the cloud, can be the enemy of creativity. I’ve discussed that issue before.

10. The ideal wieldiness [of a program] may be compared to that of a musical instrument. The user would develop a muscle-memory-level grasp of the program features, which would make the program work like an extension of the user’s body (regardless of the type of input hardware).

Not much to say to that, except that most of the programs we use day to day haven’t reached that standard.

11. Artificial intellects should not be thought about as competing against humans in human-like terms. Their greatest value is that they are different from human minds and thus able to expand the intellectual diversity of the world.

Viznut’s interest in AI was perhaps the most disconcerting part of his article and the one that changed my outlook the most.

For the last few years I’ve viewed AI as a tech buzzword whose visible manifestations (neural upscaling, Google DeepMind, GPT-3) are distinguished by aesthetic hideousness. And as you might gather, fear underlies that dismissal. I found the thought of AI disturbing.

Viznut gave me a different view. While emphasising the computational expense of training machine-learning systems, he mostly views AI as a welcome new type of entity for us to exist with. Criticising it for being inhuman isn’t saying anything. Rather it can be judged by how well it helps us humans to survive. Pragmatic, yet (in a nice change from how we started this piece) optimistic stuff!

Thanks for reading!

[Cover image is nabbed from Kris De Decker’s astounding Low Tech Magazine website. Do yourself a favour!]

The Joyless Medium

Today a non-music post following on from some other posts: Beats, Windows 98-Style, Are Videogames The New Jazz, and an upcoming piece about how listeners interact with groove music e.g. at house parties.

Basically, last night in bed I woke up and started imagining how those communal grooving/listening situations might happen online.

Take the typical social media comments section, and substitute the comments with layered music tracks in a loop… so whereas in Soundcloud you can put a text comment on a precise moment of a song e.g. “sick bass drop yo”, what if you could drop in a clap or bell pattern, precisely in time, to someone else’s music… or maybe some VST– or SFXR-type customisable synth sounds.

Nice stuff to fantasise about. There seem to be a couple of projects hinting at this kind of functionality. But definitely nothing taking off.

That made me think about the expressive channels currently available on my main social network, Facebook. That’s when I made the connection to my 90s throwback article which celebrated the techno-creative possibilities we had in the late 90s. I realised that FB intentionally forbids a spectrum of modes of expression and features that were actually taken for granted two decades ago.

This isn’t a technophobic post. I’ve no problem with people spending hours staring at screens. If I’m criticising anything here, it’s greed, and also blind faith in free markets + engineers’ optimisation to make people happier.

Here are some ways you can’t express yourself on FB:

  • pixel art or high-resolution art (because FB resizes and compresses all images)
  • ACII art (because text layout can’t be controlled and you can’t switch to a monospaced font)
  • decorative backgrounds
  • choosing the colour of elements, choosing a colour palette
  • making buttons or a user interface, trompe d’oeil/mimicking visual elements
  • laying out a page (the only option is, like with long posts on Twitter, to make a screenshot and share as a picture, but that loses the text data)
  • sharing sound snippets
  • italics, bold text, underlining

You are even discouraged from making your own smilies because they won’t register with the system that converts them to a little cartoon.

20 years ago, anyone making a personal webpage had all of these features at their fingertips. Forums and other communities allowed some of them too.

How about more mundane capabilities?

  • proper hyperlinks (FB lets you put links but without changing the text, and encourages one link per post by allowing a single preview pane; linking to other posts is limited/bogey in a number of ways… sponsored posts can’t be linked to, preview panes are generated in comments but not in news posts, and linking to an old post of yours presents the content with the text removed)
  • searchable posts (because FB’s model is based on feeding you algorithmically selected new material or else you stalking people’s profiles… so they can’t give you ways to find old posts)
  • choosing what you see, not just blocking vaguely defined content or blocking people
  • tags (unlike the other features I’ve mentioned, this is modern, from 2007)
  • metrics i.e. how many views you get (obviously, FB want you to pay for this information by buying sponsored posts)
  • publically editable posts a la Wiki

Will this change? I doubt it. Facebook have something that makes money for them. Perhaps the mass market (which is obviously what a social media site aims for) will never care enough to want those features. But if they were there, we’d be spending our time in a space that felt a lot less grim and robotic, and maybe, if we could play with and surprise each other, we’d be less grim and robotic.

Rant over. As usual, I’d love to hear your comments!

Let me anticipate a couple of objections. Yes, there are hundreds or thousands of websites where you can express yourself in these ways. But a lot of them work on the same formulaic, business-like assumptions of Facebook – that we are all just trying to promote and brand ourselves. Anyway, I think it’s fair to criticise a site where we spend a lot of time and which makes every effort to keep us there.

Oh and I should say that I recognise how useful many of Facebook’s features are, i.e. events and band pages. (I think that intersection of personal scale with a small organisation or business’ scale is where the site works best.) I just think we’d be better off if we could pay for those features straight out rather than by participating in the rote “interaction” of sharing itemised, cling-wrapped content.