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Waking up from the Dream

It hasn’t really been that long since I’ve posted here, in the grand scheme of things. But in other ways, it has. This isn’t going to be one of those “well, I sure meant to write a lot more and promise to do better” posts–I don’t owe anybody anything, especially not some imagined audience clamoring for more Content. But I do want to write, because writing is how I process things, and there’s some processing to be done.

I find that over the last year or so–really since my exploration of Plan 9 last year, which is a bit ironic–I’m just not enchanted by computers the way I used to be. Don’t get me wrong: I still love text editors and tools and interfaces, and I still get really excited about all the ways I could potentially use a TRS-80 Model 100 for “real work”1. The possibility of what could be done with these kinds of technologies has never stopped being fascinating to me.

What has changed is my optimism. What has changed is my faith that if I just find the right text editor or just reinvent the Canon Cat for 2022, the promised techno-utopia of Computer Lib and Dream Machines will materialize. I no longer have any belief in the intrinsic good or innate positive impact of computers on my life.

So why has that changed? A few reasons:

Life in Surveillance Valley

Back at the beginning of the pandemic, I went on a listening binge through the archives of the Radio War Nerd podcast, where I stumbled upon an episode where the hosts interviewed their colleague Yasha Levine about his new (at the time) book, Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet.

Now listen, I’ve been very interested in the parapolitics of America’s intelligence establishment for a long time–ever since I visited Dallas in high school and saw for myself how unlikely that sixth-floor window shot is–so I can’t say that this book really shocked me into suspecting anything I didn’t already, but the way Levine lays out the evidence to back up his claim that the Internet is essentially a surveillance tool for counterinsurgency leaves very little room to doubt that it very much still serves the same purpose now as it did then. Here’s a pretty good review that summarizes some of his points.

This blog post is probably going into some random data archive in a US government datacenter. If it isn’t, it’ll eventually get scooped up by the Wayback Machine, and it’s a safe bet that everything that goes into the Wayback Machine probably gets archived in some US government datacenter. Every message we send on our phones, at work in our browser-based chat apps, everything we write, every little Excel spreadsheet about our household budgets or draft tweet about something on TV… all of it goes somewhere. Whether any of those entities plan to do something with it is mostly beside the point; our entire lives depend on the Internet now and the whole purpose of the Internet, really, is to build a paper trail on you–yes, you–in case it becomes useful.

And that’s just the actual government. All of these systems owned by Silicon Valley entities are harvesting as much or more information and using it for all kinds of stuff–or sometimes archiving it just to have it. Facebook buys your credit card transaction histories. Google knows everything about you based on what you search and who you email. The entire thing is a trap, and we’re all caught in it, and realistically there’s very little way out. You can create an anonymous identity and only use Tor, sure, but Tor was created by the Naval Reconaissance Office and has been proven to have all manner of compromised nodes too, so do you really think They would let something like that exist if it were truly a threat? Is Bitcoin really the future of money or is it just a different, easier way for the CIA to pull off whatever would be today’s equivalent of Iran-Contra?

Anyway, it’s hard to be enthusiastic about creating new Internet possibilities when it’s all going to be co-opted and added to the paper trail, which will undoubtedly someday be used to create some kind of “social credit” system similar to what China has, if not something even worse. It’s hard to see the good in this stuff sometimes knowing how much bad there is, and Levine’s book shows that the bad wasn’t just there from the start, it was the whole intent in the first place. We’re kind of all in a lukewarm Phoenix program all the time.

Kind of takes all the fun out of imagining a future when you know it’s already co-opted from its inception by the powers and principalities that run the present.

Rent-Seeking Tools

This is more of an “old man yells at cloud” point, but one that affects me just as much as the first. It’s that most of my time using a computer anymore is spent in a browser using mediocre web software.

Every app that I use is basically a web app now. Todoist, Workflowy, the Microsoft stuff I use at work (up to and including Visual Studio Code), pretty much my whole life revolves around some kind of web-based, Software as a Service application that I access from the browser and/or via an iOS app. They’re all varying degrees of inscrutable, and they’re all slower than they need to be, and I hate always having to have seventeen browser tabs open just to do work.

On top of that, I recently had a budgeting tool I was using increase its annual subscription rate to $100 per year, which is exorbitant for the amount of new feature development happening. So I switched to a different, less featureful but more elegant tool, also a SaaS product, that was cheaper and newer. It then promptly went open source and shut down its syncing functionality.

Maybe I’m old–undoubtedly I am–but I remember a time not that long ago when you could just pay a software developer for a license to some software and then that version would keep working as long as you had a computer that would run it. I used Word 5 to write fiction, and it was released as commercial software thirty years ago at this point. The point to take here isn’t “use free/libre/FLOSS/whatever stuff exclusively,” it’s that the way we conceive of our software tools sucks, and the tools themselves frequently suck too. I’m tired of paying little single-digit dollar amounts every month to several corporate entities, a series of little leeches on my bank account just like all those godforsaken streaming services, just to be able to use the things that make computers useful to me.

Who wants to use yet another browser-based thing in their lives? And then, if you want some kind of mobile support, who wants to install yet another app? If you’re a developer, and you want to be “relevant” or whatever, you’ve got to have some kind of recurring revenue to pay for all the red tape you have to go through with Apple and Google to keep some kind of mobile app in their stores and approved. There’s basically no incentive to do anything interesting and see if people will pay for it, even in the web space. And most of the things that are now web apps have no real need to be web apps, that’s just the lowest common denominator platform and it’s what people expect.

There are great tools, most of them open source. And maybe that’s just where I need to move most of my efforts. But even that feels like a compromise. Maybe the fundamental nature of how software is created and how it works just doesn’t line up with what I used to like about it.

Maybe I need to start writing my own tools for 9front or System 7 or something and become like one of those little religious communities that persists in isolation, evolving its own bespoke theologies cut off from the larger cultural contact until they end up writing stuff like The Apocalypse of Peter, a little Galapagos of computer thought. But that’s a lot of effort–computers are tools, after all, and I’d like to just (“just”) use them instead of focusing on building more tooling–and I’m not a very good developer, so instead I just get increasingly frustrating that everything is so bad.

What Do I Want?

Increasingly, I don’t know. There’s a little part of that “Internet as freedom to do whatever” ethos that I still feel drawn to, and a part of that rebel spirit of the early microcomputer days that I enjoy. I think computers are powerful tools, I just think they’re being used for the wrong reasons by the worst people on Earth, and that the quality of any computer experience in 2022 is worse than it should be and there’s little hope that it’ll get better instead of worse.

I really want to live in the world of Dream Machines, where my mind is melded with my technology and I can create things never before seen by God or man. But really I just end up having a lot of Stripe payments to websites that sometimes randomly shut down.

I haven’t completely given up, not yet. But there’s something ineffable about them, about computing as a whole, or the way we grow comfortable with and expert at using certain tools, that’s gone to me now, and I don’t think it’s going to come back.

  1. This retrocomputing thing never works out the way I want it to. I always end up passionately using this or that old piece of technology, and then give up with it turns out to be slightly easier to just use a current machine with Emacs and/or Office and/or Pandoc on it. Most recently I wrote something like 25k words of fiction in Word 5 inside an emulated System 7 Mac. It’s great. But there always end up being too many little friction points to make it worthwhile as anything other than a way to trick myself into writing, and that only works for so long. ↩︎

Published May 4, 2022 12:00