Hello from the lab!
Throughout 2023, this newsletter will be largely devoted to mapping new “ways of relating” online. You can return to the December edition, if you missed it, to get the gist.
This is an archived edition of Robin’s lab newsletter. You can sign up to receive future editions using the form at the bottom of the page.
The modern TCP/IP internet came online in January 1983. Forty years later, we’re entering an auspicious season for imagination and invention.
This first lab newsletter of 2023 is very link-y, perhaps a bit raw. That feels like a good place to start, because my main objective this year is to be an “attention router”, brisk and functional, connecting you to some worthwhile inventions and provocations. And, with luck, contributing a few myself.
So! Lots of links below. Skim ruthlessly. Perhaps you’ll spot one or two that resonate with your own questions and/or preoccupations.
It’s my newsletter, and I will therefore begin with this:
I wrote a new story that was just published by Brand New Box, a digital product studio in Lawrence, Kansas. It concerns a giant modular synthesizer, and the web edition features a virtual synthesizer you can actually play, so I feel emboldened to share it with this crowd.
Here’s the story: In the Stacks (Maisie’s Tune)
I’m very taken with a little wave of apps that allow you to publish and maintain a feed as easily as you’d tweet.
Beluga is an iOS app that publishes your feed to an S3-compatible storage provider. It also provides a simple feed reader. All together, it really does look and feel like Twitter … except it’s all feeds, feeds, FEEDS!
Postcard takes a more web-centric approach, bundling together a simple home page, feed, AND email newsletter, with no app required. It is an offering of the appealingly-named Contraption Company.
Microfeed is a lightweight CMS “for podcasts, blogs, photos, videos, documents, and curated URLs”. Heterogeneity, yes! You set it up by deploying your own copy to the free tier of Cloudflare Workers.
These apps all have a wonderful lightness to them; impressive work all around.
The question remains: what about discovery?
Val Town is a new platform for tiny cloud functions, and if it’s something different from the apps above, it still seems to “rhyme”, somehow.
All of these offerings want to suggest that it should be trivially easy to pin a feed, or a function, to the internet: as easy as sticking a magnet to the fridge.
There are some provocative ideas lurking in Val Town. After creating your tiny cloud function, you can make it public, and other people can call it from their tiny cloud functions, using a clever addressing scheme.
This makes me think of the ambient “composability” of the Ethereum Virtual Machine —
I think Val Town’s
console.email is great, too. Can we just add that everywhere?
An exercise for the reader: what might a network of feeds built entirely on Val Town look like? That is to say, they wouldn’t quite be “feeds” as we know them, static content updated at intervals, but rather flexible, free-running code. How might these feed-functions call one another, relate to one another? What new interactions might be possible —
Those are murky questions, possibly bad ideas —
From my notes:
Again, this sense of, “if they’re gonna make it, I’m gonna use it.”
Pinning bits of code to the universe. As easy as posters on utility poles.
This is the computing environment we are swimming around in —
this is water. “Pure” platforms and do-over protocols are just not tenable.
Live in the world!
Max Krieger’s Voiceliner is a lovely, inventive app for capturing voice notes on the go, in a structured format; its approach feels, to me, truly new. If you’re an inveterate note-to-self-er, or aspire to be, you ought to check it out.
I always leap when a dispatch from Jackie Luo appears. She is a sensitive chronicler of her milieu, diaristic and political in the deep sense —
there’s a running joke (is joke the word?) on twitter that we’re all still stuck in 2020, or that we’re about to begin year eight of 2016. in my own life, at least, that has felt true. 2016 is the last year i can recall feeling deeply optimistic about what the new year would bring, for me and for the world at large. since then, the fragile hopes i bore for each new year have been flattened again and again into the formless sameness of a world where time means nothing and yet somehow everything manages to keep getting worse. the future began to feel less like an unbounded space of potentiality and more like a precious resource that kept diminishing, untouched. eight years is a long time. where did it all go? how did i get here? it’s hard, living in such persistently unprecedented times, to know what is the natural process of aging and what’s the specific peculiarity of aging in this time.
Although this feeling isn’t only, or even primarily, about the internet, I think it connects to the widely-shared sense of “ … is this it?” that I have discussed in this newsletter. And I think it’s important to understand the search for new avenues in that richer context: of politics and economics, work and meaning, hope and dread … all of it.
Jackie’s “stuckness” makes me think of Zygmunt Bauman, the philosopher who saw it all with such clarity, way back in 2000:
We feel rather than know (and many of us refuse to acknowledge) that power (that is, the ability to do things) has been separated from politics (that is, the ability to decide which things need to be done and given priority) [ … ]
Read Jackie; read Zygmunt. This feeling of stuckness, the inability to get traction, underpins every other link in this newsletter.
What were the early explorers and engineers of the web discussing and debating, 29 years ago? Review the proceedings of the First International Conference on the World-Wide Web and find out!
I love this kind of documentation “in media res”. As you read, a sense of legitimate dramatic irony takes hold: these people didn’t know what was coming.
I also enjoyed browsing the code for version 0.5 of NCSA’s web server, circa 1993. It’s very simple!
Web Browser Engineering is a web book that uses the browser brilliantly. Its subject is: how to make one.
The balance between lightness and interactivity here is wildly impressive. The book’s sturdy clarity supports magical flourishes: inline code examples that really run, alongside visualizations revealing what they’re doing. And the sidenotes are beautiful.
The web of 1993 this ain’t!
A collaboration between Pavel Panchekha and Chris Harrelson, this is about as close to a perfect web book as I’ve seen. (The other contender is Rodrigo Copetti’s Architecture of Consoles.) If you spend any of your time thinking about browsers and what they do, you’ll get something out of this material —
I like this: widget.json, “a file format designed to push content from the web to your home screen.” Its creators write:
We had access to an internet that was playful, weird, unexpected, and inspiring. We love the vibrancy and texture that comes from people having access to simple tools to express themselves and create the things that they want. Widgets are an approachable and pervasive canvas to have fun with. We hope people will create things we can’t imagine.
Stephen Wolfram’s investigation into the life and thinking of Ada Lovelace makes for a powerful read. I found the piece via Brandon Rhodes; his recommendation, just a single paragraph, is perfectly concise and stirring:
[ … ] A deep dive into the printed and handwritten evidence of the collaboration between Babbage and Lovelace, copiously illustrated with both. Conclusively demonstrates that, of the two, Ada was the real programmer: the first member of our species to experience the joy of hacking a general purpose computing engine to do things that even its inventor didn’t realize it could do. Babbage comes across as a somewhat impractical startup founder and Ada as the hacker who really understands the technology.
“My experiment, Ebou, is a Mastodon client that looks like iMessage. Conversations are grouped by friends and sorted by recent postings.”
Chris Coyier: What does it look like for the web to lose?
In response, a thread from Alex Russell: “While Chris is crisp about the problem and the consequences of not solving it, he doesn’t have answers for why Google and Apple act the way they do, working to snuff out the mobile web.”
Tom MacWright documents his attempt to implement part of the ActivityPub protocol. Tom is a great writer, and this is a characteristically fun and illuminating post. (It was Tom’s literate raytracer that helped me finally understand the technique, after years of struggle.)
Here is a crunchy, detailed interview with Matt Mullenweg, someone who has always been thoughtful about operating internet platforms.
Here is David Heinemeier Hansson on “European digital sovereignty”. I’m not sagacious enough to evaluate all the policy ideas here, but/and I do think this line of thinking is Good, Actually, and points the way toward a healthier global internet.
Hyperlink Academy has, for years, been investigating the affordances of the web. Their newsletter offers a fun, inspiring view of an earnest organization actually MAKING things, not just (ahem) (hello) talking about them.
In a similar spirit, Joe Miller’s Screens, Research and Hypertext is an online book that reflects —
enacts — its own subject.
Here is a chewy post from David Schmudde that is (a) titled A Different Internet, and (b) illustrated with public domain textile patterns, so, obviously, I AM INTO IT!
Reading about Spritely Institute’s Goblins, for “distributed, transactional programming”, I achieved perhaps 47% comprehension … but that 47% was fascinating! Here’s a good introduction, maybe.
Here is a reader app with a good vibe. (Jacob’s umbrella project, Tools for Online Speech, is germane to the spirit of this newsletter!)
Here is yarr, “a web-based feed aggregator which can be used both as a desktop application and a personal self-hosted server.”
Bubble City is a proposal from Monica Anderson: “A Twitter alternative which is not a social medium. It is a real-time idea router.”
Foxie is an iOS app supporting an “action-driven social network”.
New to me: the Portuguese-language crónica, a short newspaper column “usually written in an informal, observational and sometimes humorous tone, as in an intimate conversation between writer and reader”. A writer of crónicas is a crónista.
Maybe in 2023 we’ll all finally switch to ternary computers. Okay, probably not, but how fabulous is this project, and how cool is it that I can follow along with auto-translated captions? The internet’s got plenty of magic in it still.
That’s it for January. If you yourself have published anything, in any format, that roughly fits the theme of this newsletter, please don’t hesitate to send me a link. I’d love to include it in a future edition and route a bit of attention your way.
Regarding my query, in December’s newsletter, about
localStorage and cross-browser synchronization, this post was illuminating. Several correspondents sent links to PouchDB, which is new to me, and looks great.
You’ll receive my next lab newsletter on February 25. See you then!
January 2023, Oakland