Today is a beautiful day in San Francisco. Outside my windows I see a large linden tree, flush with green. Salesforce Tower looms in the distance above lived-in brick roofs. I look at the patterns the light draws on my floor, shadows slow dancing with time.
Lately, I’ve been making my way through Halt and Catch Fire, a series that weaves through the personal computer revolution from when the concept of having one was just becoming normalized to the early days of the World Wide Web.1 HCF feels like a more grounded, historical alternative to Silicon Valley, the other, more notable series that satirizes the culture of working in tech in the Bay Area. Instead of focusing on making fun of crazy valuations, tech bro culture, and CEO savior complexes (all of which are present without being the main thing), HCF models itself off the real stories in the development of these technologies which have dramatically shaped so much of our expectations for what computers are. Without going into too much detail and spoiling things, season 1 follows Compaq’s journey to make the first portable computer, season 2 shows the beginnings of “social networks” and multiplayer video games, season 3 and 4 take us to the precursors to the age of the internet as we know it.
A few weeks ago I attended DWeb Camp, which turned out to be a sort of real-life, modern-day continuation of the show. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, was present, along with many other OGs of the industry, who were working in the heat of it as the nascent field turned into an uncontrollable phenomenon. Both honored the memory of Aaron Schwartz and posed questions about how computers could help us to make, play, and find meaning and connection rather than the opposite. Everyone shared a seed of hope in the vision that computers could be a medium for being more human, and more ourselves than we could do on our own.
Under this influence, I’m reflecting on my own hope and vision for how I want computing to feel…
I care about people and computers and the internet. People I met on the internet through my computer gave me a lifeline when I felt devoid of drive and desire. I think it’s a shame that everyone has a super powerful computer in their pocket now, but the device is completely personal. Screens have become demonized for all the harm they bring: addiction, misinformation, unfulfilling connection. But I’ve known them for all the joy, fulfillment, intimacy, and creative expression they can bring. I want to help imagine a world where our default computing infrastructure supports these kinds of desires, where the internet, by default, feels like a place inhabited by people, not slick corporate websites, ads, SEO-ified blogs and clickbait, where it feels like a medium and infrastructure for sharing space together, discovering ourselves, and pushing for better worlds. I care about the computing that… - allows people to gather around - can be held and interacted with and impacted. that is shared together, used to play together, a source of fun observing other people playing - gives each person some individual meaning in their own relationship but every one ties together into a larger canvas of communal meaning - acts as a collective artifact for communities, allows people to impress themselves upon it, to shape it to their love in the same way a space shapes to the people that inhabit it - enables and empowers and hold space for, the kind that gives safety to tinker and explore and co-play I care about computing that feels light, everyday, and inviting, that holds people together like light glue, that offers the possibility of coming together where you wouldn’t expect. Cozy enclaves of shared data. Open rooms with lots of natural light and all the people you love and have yet to love strolling through at all hours of the day. A space to be breathless, a gap to marvel at the awe of being alive, an excuse to wonder what might be. originally formulated in response to visa’s question
I’m curious what this brings up for you. What is your dream for the internet?
I’ve been tinkering with a few things that aim to make computers and websites more like places for us to share space.
- playhtml: an open-source library for magically creating collaborative interactive HTML elements that persist their state across sessions. https://user-images.githubusercontent.com/14796580/252492452-00e84e15-2c1c-4b4b-8e15-2af22f39db7a.mov
- archipelago: a set of tools for interlinking, referencing, and overlapping within a web ring
- I was on the committee for Tiny Awards, an award to honor websites of the small, playful, heartfelt web. I encourage you to take a look through the selection and if you feel so inclined, vote for the ones that make you feel seen.
If you have any references that you think might be helpful in this realm or are curious in trying any of these out, please let me know! I’m actively looking for people to try out playhtml particularly and want to hear people’s opinions on the kinds of experiences they wish they could share on websites.
One recurring theme throughout HCF is this tension between living for your vision and living for others. The main characters go through successive phases of losing themselves in their work and losing themselves in their love. Do you love computers or do you love people? Do you make your dream come true, or do you dedicate yourself to the people you love?
Looking at the past, I find myself scavenging energy from these predecessors of dreaming (both fictional and real) in their gentle but persistent hopes in a different world. I see so much of myself (and all of my friends, peers, advisers, and broader community of people who care about and believe in the internet and computers as a fundamentally human technology) in their early struggles of articulating why they care so much about something that seems so silly, weird, and perhaps even worthless to a lot of the world.
I find myself coming up against this question and being confused by it. My dreams for the internet only exist because of all the love I have for the people in my life. I only cared about computers and the internet because of how much personal connection I found through them.
Mary Oliver on dreamers, imaginers, and calling for change in Upstream
The question feels like a false dichotomy. I think some of the most meaningful, radical change comes out of a desire to create a better world for the people and things we love. Dedicating oneself to the dream is an extension of dedication to those people. Some of the most impactful pieces of literature have come out of intimate letters, made primarily for an audience of one. This belief in the translatability of the small, personal, and intimate is the same reason I believe in tiny internets, homecooked software, community-garden infrastructure, personal databases, and more.
Be what you are, of the earth, but a dreamer too. — Mary Oliver
In the same way that the particular contains the universal for experiences, so too do I believe that our natural use of our computers and technological devices contain the future of computing. After all, computers are nothing without us. They are mediums for human expression, creation, imagination. They contain all of humanity because they are nothing more than advanced conduits for us, for our stardust and our runoff, our love and our hatred, our dreams and our deepest fears.
My belief in computers and the internet reflects a belief in people, and my love for and endless curiosity of “weird web stuff” is an obsession with the everyday gestures at possibility. The existence of weird web stuff is a testament to what and for who computing can be. They exemplify how we can create change, not in a hierarchical, universal value way, but in a pluriversal, grounded form of transformation. Our relationship with computers is what makes them the magical devices they are, which means we have all the power to shape them into extensions of our fullest selves, and we ought to remember: in our most ordinary actions, we reshape them every day.
Despite it’s relative obscurity, the show has raving reviews from viewers and critics alike, and I’ve been meaning to watch this show for a long time now after a recommendation from A, but it’s simply impossible to watch without a very specific streaming subscription (AMC). I’ve finally found a reliable source now which has made all the difference (happy to share it if you message me). ↩