“There’s a Chinese phrase for when you lose money on something that translates to ‘paying school fees.’ I’ve paid a lot of school fees, and I don’t consider any of it wasted money. Even through the mistakes, I’ve learned a lot.”
So you were really hoping to wrap up your weekend reading five thousand words about a movie you haven’t seen and literally can’t watch anywhere online even if you pay for it, right?
“Websites are not similar to telephones. They are not even similar to books or magazines. They are street corners, they are billboards, they are parks, they are shopping malls, they are spaces where people congregate.”—Ryan Broderick
“It now feels like we live in a cyberspace dominated by skyscrapers instead of neighborhoods.”—Jody Serrano
“I used to see my job as teaching students, hey, the Internet might seem great, but it has all these sort of hidden power dynamics that are troubling, and we should learn about those. And now my job is very different. Now my job is to show students that it wasn’t always this way online, and that means it could also be different in the future.”—Jessa Lingel
“What I’ve constructed with my various physical activities are elaborate coping mechanisms and once those are not working, I’m faced with the reality of not coping.”
Further dispatch from the Brendan-Bait Gazetteer: one of my most extreme vices from the last couple of years is to partake of legal substances in the evening and then open up a random ancient issue of Dragon Magazine on my tablet to drowsily browse until I fall asleep. In addition to being beautifully devoid of news from the present, reading through old Dragon brings back a lot of memories of my cousin Bruce, who gave me boxes of his old gaming material when I was a lonely teenager. I loved Bruce, and I read his similarly random copies of Dragon until the covers divorced from their staples. I did not understand game design very well, but I thought the writers who contributed to the magazines must be top-tier experts and a font of ineffable wisdom.
Here in the future, I’m married to a magazine editor, and I can see how clearly most of those (nearly always) dudes were just chucking ideas out there without a clear understanding of how they would affect anyone’s actual experience of a game. Having that context does not sour the experience of reading the work, though; to me, at least, there is some charm to their apparent naivete, and I get to see the humble origins of ideas that would end up as billion-dollar IP in our weird, weird timeline.
It turns out I am not the only one who likes shuffling through old Dragons and thinking about their place in history! Recent Blogspot discovery and fellow Illinoisan Tim S. Brannan has been running a series on his blog called This Old Dragon for five years now, an archive which I am making myself read sparingly so I don’t catch up to the present too fast.
Back in the early 90s, I never played Dungeons and Dragons because there was no one around to play Dungeons and Dragons with except when I dragooned my patient brother into it. Here in the early 20s, I never play Dungeons and Dragons because it turns out I don’t actually like playing Dungeons and Dragons. But I still get a lot out of this kind of artifact because, back then, I acquired a taste for lonely fun that hasn’t quite left me, and which I should talk more about here, someday.
“Ancient Romans didn’t accidentally set off fireballs every time they had a conversation.”
If you are one of the six people who signed up for said tinyletter then I am sorry I never sent a second emission from it; I might still use it someday. (The same goes for my neglected dreamwidth account.) But I feel like I’ve got a little writing momentum here on NFD and I’d like to keep that up for a minute. So here’s a plug for an incomprehensibly deep dive into video games that I didn’t even really like that much when they were the only ones I had!
There are a lot of white dudes who like to talk about old nerd media in videos on the Internet, but mostly what they do is offer their own opinions, at best seasoned with a little intro lifted from Wikipedia. I find it hard to spend minutes of my one precious life absorbing those opinions. I have too many opinions already. What I value, instead, is the dudes who can explain and explore something I don’t understand in a way that makes me feel like I do understand it (although I very much still don’t).
This is why I subscribe to a channel with the mildly concering name of Displaced Gamers, which is not about gamers or being displaced. It’s a series of exegeses on the assembly code that composes old video games, mostly NES games, and the startling things that tiny changes in that code can bring about. I myself could not read assembly code if my life were at stake, but the channel creator’s steady, patient narration helps me feel like I can almost follow along in real time. I’m thinking in particular of these most recent two videos, about how and why one can glitch into unplanned memory areas in Super Mario Bros to find the apocryphal Minus World…
… And then discovering 256 completely new Minus Worlds in the Super Mario All-Stars iteration of the game, using only three Game Genie Codes. (!)
It’s that last bit that really gets me. I had a Game Genie for our Super Nintendo when I was young, and I made heavy use of it, which is to say that I never got to be good at video games. I never had a solid grasp on the device’s methods of operation or how to explore a game’s code with it. I was not, as noted above, an ardent Mario fan (I preferred Mario Kart and the RPG spinoffs) though I respect the ground the games broke and their own interesting design constraints. But this particular video essayist earns my attention not only because he’s doing original research in the history of software—a field which, I will keep shouting forever, is ahistorical to the ongoing detriment of the entire world—but because he keeps at the work until he can fit his proof of concept into the “you can do this with your own Game Genie” constraint. That’s powerful Brendan-bait.
“The fictional world, the story, is a place we visit enough, and it can become a type of home we return to. Unlike the real world, where ‘returning home’ is a city that is changed and often a house that is in less repair than when you left, to perhaps find something like an attic or one room that is ‘mostly unchanged’ and the weird disjunction between ‘the world almost familiar’ and ‘years ago, untouched’ – fiction can mindfully make more graceful introductions to us for ‘this is what you remember, but here is a room you’ve never seen’ tied together well.”
Sometimes I think that popular media’s fascination with counterintuitive propositions is a big contributor to what got us into this mess. I use the word “media” there to mean more than just major publications, but we’ll get to that later. Also, sometimes, I like to think up counterintuitive propositions myself, like software doesn’t mean “code,” it means “a system for consolidating control of the means of production.” Or maybe the Internet can be defined as “that which will promise you what you want.”
I don’t offer these takes with any intent to defend them. I just think they’re useful mental calisthenics, valuable as alternative modes of thought to the definitions that creep into common idiomatic use: things like the Internet can be defined as “the most active population of large social media platforms.” I certainly use that shorthand myself, often in a scornful tone, despite my own attempts to stretch the popular conception of the Internet around the deconglomerated approaches that people these days call “IndieWeb.” One of the writers I admire, and linked to back in March when talking about this stuff, is Derek Guy of Die, Workwear and Put This On. Sometimes I sneak onto Twitter to see his dorky fashion memes, and today I discovered this, one of his more popular tweets of late. It has, as of this writing, numbers underneath it that far exceed its author’s follower count.
the older i get, the more i realize that the most luxurious thing is being able to live in a walkable city. wearing a nice little outfit and walking 15 mins to buy just enough groceries for a single dinner will make you feel like Mrs. Dalloway going to the market
— derek guy (@dieworkwear) June 29, 2022
This is a gentle proposition, almost to the point of being anodyne. Maybe you disagree with it. I happen to agree, myself, as someone who has spent a number of years enjoying such a lifestyle; I agree in particular that it is luxurious, which is to say a luxury. One way I define luxury is an ephemeral privilege not to be taken for granted. Many people are systematically deprived of the privilege of walkability by the way that capital and its frequent servant, municipal policy, prioritize car travel and inherited wealth to create housing insecurity and food deserts. To me, that understanding seems built into the way these two sentences are constructed.
Three days after it was posted, I can sit here and watch the retweet and quote numbers on the post tick upward every time I breathe. I don’t think that’s due to positive attention.
twitter: touch grass
me: *goes outside to touch grass*
twitter: you ever consider people who don’t even have grass to touch? you idiot. you asshole. you absolute piece of shit.
— derek guy (@dieworkwear) June 30, 2022
i cant overstate how bad the internet has gotten in the last ~6 years. while there have always been dark places on the net, there used to be some level of good-natured camaraderie in specific circles. now every space feels primed for argument and bickering.
— derek guy (@dieworkwear) June 30, 2022
I’m not here to write about how Twitter Is Bad. Even Twitter, as a body, agrees that Twitter Is Bad. I’ve written variations on that theme for ten years as of next month, and I can’t declare myself piously abstemious from social media when I’m quoting social media posts in my post about social media. The interests of capital demand that Twitter makes its graph lines go up; the simplest mechanism to make them go up is to incentivize conflict; the capital circulates through organizations until the system’s design iterates toward conflict optimization. Primed for bickering, just as the man says. The story of social media is the story of how billionaires made other people figure out how they could extract money from the late-twentieth-century invention of the real-time flame war.
I just feel bad for Guy because I like his work and have a bit of a parasocial relationship with him: he is, more or less, the person who taught me how to enjoy shopping and wearing clothes. (I know many other people are subject to worse for less online, every day. I mean it when I say it’s Bad out there.) If not for Die, Workwear, I don’t think I would ever have chosen to take this series of self-portraits, a couple years back, wearing things I bought and liked just for myself.
I posted those photos on Flickr, even though I have my own IndieWeb site where I can host as many photos as I want. Flickr is a social media platform. It’s a rarity, not in that it did not generate for its acquiring capitalists the graph numbers they wanted, but in that it was then left to molder in neglect instead of being defenestrated for its failure. I have strong disagreements about some recent choices by its current owners, whatever their best intentions. But at least it’s not Instagram. Flickr has, for many years, retained an interface bent toward the humane and curious, instead of capitulating to the wind-tunnel abrasion of those who value human life less than the ascendance of the line on the graph.
Another thing I posted on Flickr, back in 2018, was the set of photos I took with Kat on our trip to Budapest together. One of the places we visited was Szimpla Kert, a romkocsma or “ruin bar,” built almost twenty years ago in what was once the city’s Jewish quarter by people in its neighborhood who wanted to make something new out of something old. It was once a condemned shell of a building; now it’s a huge draw, with thousands of visitors on a given night, most of whom are tourists like us. Locals might disagree, but I did not find that its charm was diminished by the crowd. It was idiosyncratic, vibrant, complex, and unique. Hungary—like my country, and like the Internet—is a more worrisome place to live than it was a few years ago. But Szimpla seems to be thriving, in large part because it is knit tightly into its local community.
“Szimpla Kert” translates to “simple garden.” I have a little experience with the allure of gardening, and also how much work a garden takes to maintain; I’m sure the people running Szimpla work very hard. But an interesting way of looking at a garden, to me, is a space for growth that you can only attempt to control.
In the middle of drafting this increasingly long post, Kat asked me if I wanted to take a walk up to her garden bed, which is part of a community plot a ways to the north of us. I was glad to agree. I helped water the tomatoes and the kale, and ate a sugar snap pea Kat grew herself right off its vine, and on the way back I picked up dinner from our favorite tiny takeout noodle place. It took over an hour to make the full loop and return home, and I was grateful for every step. An unhurried walk was exactly what my summer evening needed. I luxuriated in its languidness, because I could.
When you put something in a wind tunnel, you’re not doing so because you value the languid. I am far from the first person to say that maybe we could use a little more friction in the paths we take to interact with each other online. Friction can be hindering or even damaging, and certainly annoying; I’m not talking about the way we’ve somehow reinvented popup ads as newsletter bugboxes and notification requests. I just want to point out that friction is also how our feet (or assistive devices) interact with the ground. We can’t move ourselves forward without it.
It’s a privilege to have the skills, money, time and wherewithal to garden. You need all those kinds of privilege to run your own website, too. I think social media platforms sold us on the idea that they were making that privilege more equitable—that reducing friction was the same thing as increasing access. I don’t buy that anymore. I don’t want the path between my house and the noodle restaurant to be a conveyor belt or a water slide; I just want an urban design that means it’s not too far from me, with level pavement and curb cuts and some streets closed to cars on the way. I want a neighborhood that values its residents and itself.
This is why I’m as just interested in edifices like Szimpla Kert and Flickr as I am in the tildeverse and social CMS plugins and building the IndieWeb anew. Portland is the most walkable city I’ve lived in, and it ended up that way kind of by accident: the founders optimized for extra corner lots out of capitalist greed, but the emergent effect was a porous grid that leaves more space for walkers and wheelchairs and buses and bikes. The street finds its own uses for things, and people find their own uses for the street. Sometimes people close a street to traffic, at least for a little while. And sometimes people grow things there.
I don’t expect the Internet we know will ever stop pumping out accelerants for flame wars directed at people who just felt like saying something nice about a walk to the grocery store. That paradigm is working for the owners of the means of production, for now, though it’s also unsustainable in a frightening way. (I will never again look at a seething crowd, online or off, without thinking twice about the word “viral.”) But if someone who lives in Chicago can’t entirely ignore what suburban white people get up to in the Loop on St. Patrick’s Day, then one doesn’t have to go out of one’s way to join in, either.
I’m ready to move on from the Information Superhighway. I don’t even like regular superhighways. The Internet where I want to spend my time and attention is one that considers the pedestrian and unscaled, with well-knit links between the old and the new, with exploration and reclamation of disused spaces, and with affordances built to serve our digital neighbors. I’m willing to walk to get there.
A front-end developer and former colleague I admire once said, in a meeting, “I believe my first responsibility is to the network.” It was a striking statement, and one I have thought about often in the years since. That mode of thought has some solid reasoning behind it, including a finite drag-reduction plan I can support: winnowing redundant HTTP requests increases accessibility for people with limited bandwidth. But it’s also a useful mental calisthenic when applied to one’s own community, physical or digital. Each of us is a knot tying others together. The maintenance of those bonds is a job we can use machines to help with, but it is not a job I think we should cede to any platform whose interests are not our own.
The Internet will promise you what you want, and the Internet will not give it to you. Here I am, on the Internet, promising you that people wielding picnics have put a stop to superhighways before.
Fifteen years ago this summer, I was exercising a tremendous privilege by living and working in London, in the spare room of an apartment that belonged to friends I met online. They were part of a group that met regularly to walk between subway stations, tracing the tunnel route overground, which they called Tube Walks. There was no purpose to the trips except to get some fresh air, see some things one might not otherwise have seen, and post the photos one took on Flickr.
My five months south of the Thames were my first real experience of a walkable life. I grew up in suburbs, struggled without a car in Louisville, and then, for the first time, discovered a place where I could amble fifteen minutes to the little library, or the great big park, or the neighborhood market, which would sell me just enough groceries for a single dinner. Battersea is not a bourgeois neighborhood, but it’s rich in growth and in history. It changed what I wanted from my life.
London, like Budapest, like Chicago, is a city that has burned down before. People built it back up again, and they didn’t always improve things when they did. But it’s still there, still made up of neighborhoods, still full of old things and new things you could spend a lifetime discovering. And small things, too, growing out of the cracks, just to see how far they can get.
Daniel Burnham, who bears responsibility for much of the shape of post-fire Chicago, claimed inspiration from the city’s motto of Urbs in Horto: that is, City in a Garden. (Which I didn’t even know, myself, until Kat gently pointed it out to me while proofreading this post.) Burnham was also posthumously accorded the famous imperative to “make no little plans.” But I like little plans, defined as the plans I can see myself actually following.
I didn’t know where this post was going where I started it, and now it’s the longest thing I’ve ever published on this blog. If you read the whole thing, then please take a moment of your day and write me to tell me about a website that you make, or that you like, or that you want to exist. I’ll write back. More than ever, I want to reclaim my friendships from the machinery of media, and acknowledge directly the value that you give to my days.