two questions (pseudo one but i put it in my “personal” section)
posted https://spencerchang.substack.com/p/ti-04-gestures-at-alternative-internets Yesterday, a website of mine, html garden, was installed in an outdoor patio for a live event. I wasn’t there in-person but received pictures of people using it as a backdrop for their photos or simply standing in front and watching it move. While I don’t make websites for the purpose of being displayed in real life—I make websites as a desperate act to create intimate gathering spaces, one that internet natives might find and sit for a while—it feels like a different kind of meaning to see the pixels and bits you crafted translated into a site of communion, contemplation, and wonder.
html garden as an outdoor garden
I’ve been thinking about how to weave my art practice into my research and engineering practice. I’ve been talking to friends in similar positions about their approaches to get a better idea. A talks of smooshing them all together into one giant blob that is her. C feels that nothing should be compromised, that you should embrace every single identity you feel compelled by and live every moment fully seated in them. I’ve been visualizing it as weaving different braids for each, adopting new knots that fit, and learning to interweave them in a single quilted strand: interdependent yet whole in themselves.
My entire research and art practice involves creating technology (tools, public infrastructure, instruction manuals) and internet sites (places, dinner parties, neighborhood libraries) that highlight the humanity shining in every seam of the computers we use and the materiality of these invisible bits and pixels. I want to subvert the overwhelming understanding of technology as an oppressive force pushed by large technology platforms and apps that feed on our attention to survive. I want to create space for real dialogue between the human and the computer, where computing is a medium for people to express themselves, cherish others, and create the possibility for imaginative change. I want to make computers feel like feelings, as Tim Hwang and Omar Rizwan claim: “For us, computer is the specific feeling of artifacts that allow for intimate systems of personal meaning.”
a snippet from ”A Computer is a Feeling”
With any speculative research, I have found that I need to create these “art” pieces to gesture towards the kind of world / vision / thing that I am grasping at and fumbling towards. What is takes to get there still feels very hazy, but each time I create something that is “out there,” that questions and then shows “what-if”, it bursts a clearing of possibility in the haze (I’m reminded of Minesweeper when you’re stuck and take a gamble by clicking in unsolved space, hoping to find a clearing). I believe this kind of gesturing and speculating is essential to understanding what is really needed at the infrastructural level to produce the environment for these feelings.
taken from minesweeperonline.com
html garden is a garden of digital-native plants (different species composed of different HTML elements) that grow every day. On a new day, you might find new saplings or a new branch on the plant you were admiring previously. By creating space for these changes and acts of noticing, I seek to give agency to visitors to witness the passage of time and be rewarded for doing so. The garden itself also functions as a rooted gathering space, one where people may share experiences and moments in the constant transformation of the website.
With “html garden,” I sought to create an internet place with a real-world environment. I wanted to create a “seasonal” website, one that not only changes with the seasons but also grows noticeably day-to-day. On the internet, we often seesaw between extreme permanence (deleted content getting dug up through the endless archives) and extreme ephemerality (official research and information disappeared by link rot and entire worlds shut down by company acquisitions). I think a lot of our tension with the computers and the internet is that they tend to turn everything into a binary. We are whiplashed between extreme ends, often experiencing a contradictory reality caught between both realities simultaneously.
In the physical world, things move in gradients, naturally transition between states. “Permanent” artifacts are preserved (note that this is an active action), like family artifacts and stories. There’s a lineage to the permanence of an object or a place. Homes can disappear and neighborhoods can change, but they happen over the course of days and weeks and years. All of these aspects still apply to computing objects, but the work involved is invisible and hard to understand. As modern technology improves maybe changing the physical world will become as fast as changing the digital one. but for now, only in the digital, does it feel like at any moment, everything you know and love could seemingly disappear from your eyes. Being on the internet feels more like a collective hallucination than anything real or material.
So when I make internet sites to sit in this in-between, I am really painting a different kind of hallucination, one in which technology highlights the motions of the people around you who you’re never able to notice, one that offers you markers to reference growth, decay, and change and acknowledges your radical act of close attention in a space that has never prized the quality of attention, only the quantity of it.
This is but one gesture towards an incomplete picture. I would love to hear about the gestures you’ve made or seen that have helped you burst into a new possibility space of thinking around what the internet and computers can or should be. Please email or message me!
Here are some pieces that I’ve come across lately that rhyme..
- The Computer is a Feeling by Tim Hwang and Omar Rizwan
- The Creation Myths of Computing by Chia Amisola
- on wasting time by L. M. Sacasas
- a group exhibition built on a solar protocol of networking
- tequiology and technological agency
Hi all, It’s been a while since my last share-out here. A few factors have been holding me back from sharing lately:
- the question of a better cadence for all my various output (from daily research logs Making of Prince of Persia style to posts on specific ideas and phenomena to technical explorations and prototypes)
- overflowing with ideas and being caught up in perfectionism for 10s of drafts
- personal things and preparing for my month-long break in April (going to Taiwan and Japan!) for some dedicated rest post-Coda
What follows will be an unedited weekly retro for what I’ve been up to lately and my reflections on those explorations.
Since my last research update, some high level updates:
- launched bulletin, the anti-todo list for reorienting attention and sitting with things that you want to linger on, for private alpha use and getting some feedback rolling in. Let me know if you’d like to try it by replying to this email, and I’ll send it over!
- There is a lot I wish I could do with this that feels like a very dedicated and tenuous investment given a lot of the work is dependent upon (and slightly adversarial towards) large social platforms where people already spend their time. I wonder about segmenting this stuff out and just focusing on the novel interactions and directions that are more long-term sustainable and less reliant on the good will of platforms
- slow continuation of the “future of data” question. I haven’t made much progress in terms of an active prototype but that is high on my list for next steps. I also received some wonderful advice from Steve Krouse, who has gone down this rabbit hole before and documented a lot of his journeys publicly (future of coding journal, and compose log). His end conclusion was that this is wayyy too complicated and crowded of a space to be worth building a company about it, but that’s ok because my goal is just to establish the foundation for my own intuition around the nuances of data formats and develop strong opinions about how data should be formatted for different end-purposes.
- communal computing provocations: I launched (we)bsite’s first drop / homepage with jacky. We decided to start a separate twitter account for it too that will be a long-term continuation of my “what I want the internet / software to look / feel like” thread. (we)bsite will house our continual explorations together moving forward (https://github.com/we-bsite/we-bsite).
- I want to write my vision piece for the kind of communal computing future I imagine, concretely anchored to existing systems and metaphors in the world. This has felt hard to capture everything I find compelling and essential and has come out piece-meal, in short passionate bursts, but I feel the energy building to a rise that will see this through soon.
- I’ve been learning about L-systems (and a lot through my friend Bhavik’s tool) for creating a net art piece that I’m really excited about. It is a poetic representation of my communal gardening dreams and inspirations for the communal computing futures I care about.
- I read Upstream, by Mary Oliver, in a whirlwind of a week. Her words touch me so deeply in such short phrases, and I find myself grasping onto these words as I approach my computing explorations. I want to find the form of computing that helps us be more of ourselves, play and be whimsical. I want computing to empower us to not only see but also embody the “thousand unbreakable links between each of us and everything else.”
- communal computing lab popup (name TBD): Scheming with a few others, we are manifesting a pop-up in San Francisco this summer, an interactive computing gallery (dynamicland x art gallery x public playground). I want this space to host pieces from the community that straddle the line between the digital and the physical. I want people to wander in and play with and leave their own marks on these pieces and discover themselves in conversation with people playing with the piece from the internet. I want this to have the expansiveness of Dynamicland with the community curated space of small galleries with the whimsy and public-access of playgrounds. Fundamentally, I want this to be a fun space that helps shape people’s perspectives on computing, even slightly, towards one of play, community, and wonder.
- figuring out how to collaborate with so many cool people! Traditionally, I am very bad at responding to texts and scheduling calls are even harder for me. I am simultaneously overwhelmed by the number of things I am in the middle of scheduling as well as feeling so energized by the amount of people aligned with the things that I’m pursuing and reaching out to me from my bat call. One thing I’ve been experimenting with is doing long-term email threads weaving between different ideas and threads. This allows exchanging of ideas without the pressure of finding a synchronous time to call and interrupting meandering flows. Also open to more suggestions about
What I’m keeping tabs on lately the new hype thing LLMS and AI the applications of newly accessible LLMs for helping the internet feel more like ours (and safeguard against the malicious uses of this technology). Simon Willison has shown that LLMs will very very soon be able to be run on any existing consumer hardware that individuals already have! This means an explosion of applications for nefarious purposes (scams, misinfo, abuse etc.), but the technology is here, and we will need to find a way (as we always do) to use it for good and the flourishing of the collective. We’ve already seen promising uses in simple brainstorming and generation for low-creativity applications and having a personalized tutor for any specialized field, but I want to know how this can be used as a communal technology to prompt us to reflect, develop our tastes, and find meaning in our world. creating space for us on the internet I’m spending a lot of time writing about and thinking about the common space that we share on the internet and how so much life emerges on the side (comments sections) and in corners of the internet like the moss that flowers in the cracks between the manicured sidewalks.
I want each person to be able to curate their own topical feeds (text and rich media) associated with their own personal space and corner on the internet. They should be able to share here first and then have it automatically syndicate to the huge social media platforms that give us distribution (ideally we find a new, more human way of distribution to address this).
I’m continually inspired by all the ways people have co-opted existing corporate space for creating communal space for connection. I recently found this video talking about the internet checkpoint (thanks henry!), a phenomenon of leaving intimate, personal stories on a random youtube video.
I’m actively looking for more things like this. Please send if you have any recs for me!
embodied computing There’s very exciting recent developments at folk.computer in NYC, and I also saw a setup in SF this week experimenting with imbuing physical objects with the soul of digital things, to be triggered when placed on magical altars (like playing a particular album on Spotify or opening up the chat for a friend).
I want to experiment with a bunch of folk, home-cooked personal devices to this end, starting with a thermal cat printer (thanks omar) hooked up to a small server that who I can share with friends for leaving little notes that print onto my desk.
That’s all for this dispatch! In the same vein as the long-form email threads with individuals, I imagine this newsletter as a long-form email thread with each of you and hope you feel not only welcome but encouraged to reply to any of these things with inspirations and feelings that come up. Until next time! spencer
This whole day disappeared like a blur.. I guess I should do my weekly retro because it’s been a 30-minute event on my calendar for the past month, and I haven’t done it a single time. I remember waking up at 10am, which was pretty late for me given how early I slept and still feeling tired. I remember getting up and going through my morning routine: going onto the balcony and taking a deep breath, beginning my pour-over coffee ritual, washing my face and aspirationally stretching.
This past week has been chaotic for sure
- i’ve been putting off getting the final things for bulletin done and in-place for people to start beta-testing. why am i so put off by this? I’m a little worried that the prompts thing has grown old for me and the injection of content is not visually different enough? I just scroll past it now… Maybe it’s because I keep clearing my data so i’ve seen all these things already before recently lol, or I need some way of making the text feel more visually appealing or evocative?
- I did finally send out and officially archive employment status, but i didnt’ get any responses on my reach out
- probably because all the people who made these sites are not actually people who got laid off and have no idea what that feels like lol. actually such a stupid paradox. IDK how to get it into people’s hands that matter
Actually stirred up a lot of buzz on twitter for my projects. I think I’m getting better at showing off the core idea in a compelling demo and being poetic (and resonant / understandable) about the way I am framing my explorations and curiosities and where I want to go next
- bulletin demo got like 80k impressions! way more than my announcement post
- we-bsite sneak peeks are doing well too
- I also presented about my things at the sfpc “meet the participants” which generated a bit of buzz (but not that many attendees lol)
- it was cool to see how many wild, creative, generative projects people are doing out there that aren’t seen in the twitterverse. How do I see what they are doing? I want them to share. Do they feel like they don’t have the capacity to share? the fight for the open internet and AI should solve this.
But I’ve also planted the seeds for so many collaborations that feel very exciting and feasible (although some are scary)
- midst press and helping them build the editor to be free of bugs!!
- guide to walking on the internet with kristoffer
- physical schemes for internet research lab
I also did take time for myself and gave space to do nothing?
- viridian with ameesh on saturday night and hiking and watching anime
- friday working at manny’s and hanging out with sabrina after
- moved all my stuff on thursday! and hung with andrew ligeralde
Overall, life is good. I’ve said ”getting laid off was the best thing that ever happened to me” 5 times now, and every day gets better and better.
so thankful for everything and everyone who has led me to this point.
Til next time, Spencer