Computers could be good, but they aren't.
That's the gist of it.
I guess I mean Good with a capital G, as in "a force for good in the world", but I also mean good with a lowercase g, as in "not super shitty to use, or think about".
I'm not going to waste a lot of bits talking about how computers are bad. I've done this a lot before, and you probably already agree with me. I'll quickly summarize the high points.
What's wrong with (modern) computing?
- Computers spy on us all the time
- Computers are insecure, while pretending not to to be.
- Computers enable new modes of rent seeking, further exasperated by shitty patents and worse laws
- Computers/the modern internet encourage behaviors which are bad for our mental health as individuals.
- Computers and the modern internet, in concert with modern capitalism have built a world essentially without public spaces.
You know, all that bullshit.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about what the next 30 years in computing might look like, the successes and failures of the last 30 years, and the inflection point at which a computer is Good Enough for most tasks.
I've spent a lot of time thinking about the concept of planned obsolescence as it applies to computing, and what modern computing might look like without the profit motive fucking everything up.
I'm just a dude.
I'm a sysadmin. I spend a lot of time using computers, and specifically I spend a lot of time fixing machines that are failing in some way.
But I'm just some dude who thinks about stuff and imagines futures which are less horrible than present.
I've said that as a way to say: I don't claim to have The Answer, I just have some ideas. I'm going to talk about those ideas.
So how did we get from the gleaming promise of the digital age as imagined in the 70s to the harsh cyberpunk reality of the 20s?
Centralization, rent seeking, planned obsolescence, surveillance, advertising, and copyright.
How do we move forward?
Re-decentralization, a rejection of the profit motive, building for the future/to be repaired, building for privacy, rejecting advertising, and embracing Free software.
Personally, there's another facet to all of this:
I use and maintain computers professionally, and recreationaly.
Sometimes, I want to do something that doesn't feel or look like my day job. Unfortunately, most of my hobbies feel and look a lot like my day job.
To that end, I have some weird old computers that I keep around because they're useful and also because they're Vastly Different than the computers I use at work.
My #zinestation, mac plus, and palm pilots fall in this camp.
I can do about 80% of what I want to use a computer for with my 486 based, non-backlit, black and white HP Omnibook.
Add my newly refurbished and upgraded Palm Lifedrive, and I'm closer to 95%.
Let's run through those tasks:
- Listen to music (The palm is a 4GB CF card with a 2GB SD card, basically.)
- Watch movies (I have to encode them specially for the palm, but the lifedrive makes a great video iPod.)
- Read books (plucker is still pretty great)
- RSS (ditto above)
- Email (via some old DOS software the name of which I'll have to look up, and lots of effort on getting my mail server configured correctly. + an ESP32 based modem. This took some doing and I still don't love how I'm doing it. I'll do a blog post about it eventually.)
- Social (mastodon via brutaldon via lynx via telnet over tor to an onion endpoint I run in my home, not ideal, or via BBS)
- Write (via Windows 3.1 notepad)
- Consult reference material (via the internet or gopher over my esp32 modem with the appropriate DOS software and SSL proxy, or more likely, via a real hacky thing I wrote to mirror a bunch of websites to a local web server.)
- Develop (frankly Via GW-BASIC, although I'd love to start doing real programming again.)
- Games (this is the thing the omnibook is worst at! I consider that a strength most of the time, but I do have a lot of parser based IF games on it.)
There was a time in the recent past when I used a Pentium MMX laptop as my only computer outside of work for weeks at a time.
It could do basically everything I wanted it to do, including some far more impressive games.
It's batteries gave out, finally, but until then it made a decent little computer.
The only real problem I run in to in these setups are the hoops I have to jump through because I'm the only one using them, and because (wireless) networking technology has advanced in ways that are not backwards compatible on the hardware level, while leaving laptops without a clear upgrade path.
No one gets upset that their typewriter can't browse the internet, you know?
But a computer isn't an appliance, it's an everything machine, and as an Everything machine, if it can't do the New Shiny Thing we have to throw it away and get a new one.
That's the mentality I'm trying to break out of.
I want to define a(n extendable!) list of tasks that I feel like will be relevant indefinitely, and build a machine to last 30 years.
Which, finally, brings us back to the ESP32!
Basically, the ESP32 is a simple microcontroller (that is to say, it's a computer! It's just not a computer the way we usually think about it.)
It's really cheap, like $3 or $4 for a simple board. There are folks making software for it already to treat it like a desktop computer.
It's not completely open or completely standardized or capable of everything I want out of my #PersonalComputer but ...
They get most of the way there on every count, and they have built in wifi and are so very cheap.
It would be entirely possible to base a new paradigm of multi-decade computers on the ESP32, but built in such a way as to be agnostic to the actual hardware (that is to say, you follow the write once run anywhere model of Java, and use the ESP32 as the host of a virtualized environment OR you build for the ESP32, and then emulate the ESP32 on newer hardware in the future)
This is basically the approach that Infocom took in the 80s when they developed text adventure games for every computer on the planet.
They invented a fake computer, compiled all their games for that fake computer, and then wrote emulators for that fake computer for every major machine of the era.
As a result, basically any computer can run an infocom game.
Now, is the ESP32 a good home for a multi-decade computer?
It's a little more limited than I would have picked (I'd have probably stopped in the early multimedia era), but it's also way less power hungry than what I would have picked, and frankly significantly cheaper and easier to understand.
So I'm going to spend the next few months exploring the ESP32 as the basis for a purpose built computer that inherits the legacy of the tinkerers of the microcomputer era.
"Most tasks that computers are used for on a daily basis could be completed on much less powerful hardware if there wasn't a profit incentive in the way....
I want to define a(n extendable!) list of tasks that I feel like will be relevant indefinitely, and build a machine to last 30 years."
I mean to me this only leads one place; getting emacs to run on the absolute most minimum hardware :P
If you are making do on limited hardware you are mainly doing text editing at that point.
Emacs is already over 30 years old, it will be around as long as computers are around and coupled with org mode and it can do anything that involves text within a single wholistic workflow.
If a computer was designed around emacs/org mode you certainly wouldnt try to use it like a shiny new computer (and fall into that expectation trap that would keep you from truly interfacing with this computer as a new experience).
Anyways heres a pamphlet about the one true god that is emacs
@Alonealastalovedalongthe most of what I do, most of what most people do, with a computer is editing text and then sending that text to places.
Databases, spreadsheets, web pages, emails, IMs, all text at heart.
I imagine emacs has already been ported to the ESP32, but I haven't verified that.
I'm considering a slightly different approach, one that aims to be more proscriptive, but the emacs life is valid.
@ajroach42 Sorry to butt in here, but this has inspired an Idea™: what if we designed computers to be upgradable without having to /replace/ the old parts?
Like, for example, imagine if processors came on PCIe cards, and when you needed extra compute for the latest game/software/etc., you could just install another CPU card and use the cores of both?
Not only would it avoid wasting the old CPU, but you could also take that card out and loan it to a friend when you're not using it.
@keith some backplane designs kinda sorta work like this, but you're limited by the bandwidth and connectivity of your backplane.
@vertigo @ajroach42 @keith This is a very old idea, but I think it ends up being less useful in practice than you might think because of the vastly different bandwidth and latency requirements between the CPU<->RAM channel and other peripherals. In the microcomputer era and for longer with "big iron" servers everything just lived on the memory bus. But that got prohibitively expensive with GHz clock speeds.
I think we should stop thinking of those devices with CPU and RAM and a couple ports as computers and start thinking of the network as the computer, in a far more real sense than Sun's marketing people ever meant it.
Long and a bit rambly, sorry
@ajroach42 I have a powerful gaming desktop, a slightly less powerful gaming laptop, a good ish 2012 Thinkpad, and a bunch of Raspberry Pi's and 99% of what I do can be done on the Pi's (watching Internet things, and especially with the 4GB models that's more than enough to have 1 stream plus a few chats, plus Fedi, and probably still play Doom). There's only a few games I can't play on my Thinkpad, which has no GPU (and comes from the first gen of intel CPUs where they thought maybe we should make the GPU slightly more powerful than enough to display Win7 Aero)
You can do everything, slowly, on a Raspberry Pi, and you've been able to do it since the first Pi came out. 8 years later, and 8x the power per Pi, they're still considered "low power" and yet when I got my first RPi in 2012 the gaming rig I *dreamed* of having had 8GB RAM in it... Chillblast custom PCs could spec a max of 32GB at the time!
If we somehow convince enough people that something like a Pi is enough, then companies will *have* to bring their usage down.
Schools were meant to adopt the things (at least in the UK) but it never really happened because Microshaft has their Office suite, and programming languages so deeply ingrained it'd be like pulling the floor out from under the ICT curriculum...
@ajroach42 I remember when QVC was a big computer reseller and they were always pimping the latest and greatest hardware to their customers, who were basically all retired old people, telling them they needed the latest PENTIUM (or whatever it was at the time) to check their AOL email and read the latest news on the AOL AARP forum.
So much wasted power for people doing very little.
@ajroach42 I used to think we'd naturally get to Star Trek the Next Generation as our tech brought us towards post scarsity. But it takes humans to do it.
@ajroach42 what kind of viable business models can companies adopt so they'll resist the urge to use built-in obsolescence?
(Well other than proper management instead of oligarchic fat cat management)
@vesperto decentralized, worker owned, cooperatively managed, much smaller scale manufacturing coupled with some changes in consumer habits are the only path forward I see.
@ajroach42 honestly kinda tempted to take one of my open source project/services and offer two ways for schools to exchange value for it. 1) paid subscription and 2) forming a club of students interested in helping maintain it.
@ajroach42 retro computing won't save us, we need a revolution that focuses on the needs of working class people, Black people, people of color
It's interesting looking at this from computers, i suppose this more representative of the larger problems that stem from neo-liberalism which encourages making profits from everything. Vanada Shiva talks about the patenting of seeds by way of gmos, Seeds are the best examples of opensource-ness, and trying to monetized and close source seeds are leading to horrible effects for the crop and farmers. but it bring this up b/c she notes, that the close-sourceness of the web has lead
@ajroach42 to hindering the development of software and hardware. Because like seeds the web works best when it's decentralized and open. I dunno, but I rather have solarpunk than cyberpunk, but... those are some stray thoughts, it's interesting hearing douglass ruskoff talk about the dream of net becoming a nightmare...
Capital, you are critiqueing the ownership of capital.
Intellectual Property is the legal mechanism to enforce property rights on information.
Private ownership of the means of production is responsible for 5 out of 6 of your gripes.
To truely decentralise, reject profit motive, limit copyright and embrace free software, *we must have an anti-capitalist framework to do it in*, or else capital will co-opt it, using you as fuel for more profit seeking behavior.
@ajroach42 Computers per se not. But the operating systems most people use. Windows and Mac spy and sell advertisings and personal information.
Simply don't use these advertisement and lockin operating system.
@comrad "simply"? That's bold phrasing, that I find patronizing. Tread carefully.
It's not just windows and mac. It's also Ubuntu, android, and nearly every major commercial website. The only way to escape surveillance is to radically redefine how you interact with a computer. Nothing simple about it.
@ajroach42 Android is Google, what do you expect?
Also just use a Google free Android version. And ubuntu does not necesserly track you, but beside that there are tons of other distributions beside stupid ubuntu.
@comrad there we are again with that "just" as if it is actually simple.
It's a massive amount of work for the average user to break free from corporate surveillance, and there's not a viable web browser option that's trustworthy and secure.
... You know what? No. I'm not going to keep going with this conversation. Enjoy feeling superior.
@ajroach42 there is nothing superior with the simple desire to be free. It has not to be all in, but the start is not the technique but the desire.
One can assume that there has to be a desire in a person otherwise no external change will work out. And with that desire the technology or whatever else needs to be changed can be overcome.
@ajroach42 If you are totally fine with the vendor lock-in from the apple store there is no way you can make that person change behavior.
But maybe I am just tired of trying to help people that don’t want to be helped.
In any way I don’t want any interesting discussion to be stopped because I give someone the impression that i might be a prick. Sorry for that.
They suggested Zoom or Skype. I said we could also use BBB, pointed at an instance, said you don't even need to install anything or register.
Their response: I think you can join Skype as a guest too. Just Google it.
Even with something that works as convenient as it possibly can it's an uphill battle because people will prefer what they know and what they know to work.
@ajroach42 it's designed by and for capitalists. That's it, that's the whole explanation for all of the above issues.
@ajroach42 just make some quick notes on your points here, and you make some good ones
-they spy because somebody wrote the code to do that, and made the decision to implement it.
-because of the spying
-exacerbated by the inability of the average, or even exceptional, person to manufacture computer chips at home, which enables continuous deprecation of designs to force movement towards the current most profitable products
-what was that old USENET guideline that got lost in the Eternal September? “Treat it like the library and don’t be an asshole?” Could’ve sworn I heard that from somebody. Even worse is that participating in those behaviors has become the expected and demanded norm, thus perpetuating the problem and enabling huge amounts of backlash against attempts to change it.
-an internet made up of private spaces that people think are public. A city of glass houses, where people think theirs is opaque.
A point you made later on, but I want to throw in here: things slowing down. Because programmers let their programs become resource hogs. Always pushing the edge of the hardware envelope to show the boss and the customers “look, here is how polished this is! As long as this the only program you have open”. Which, to be fair, has been the de facto paradigm for most programming (outside of speciality projects) since the beginning.
@ajroach42 In retrospect, one of the most regrettable parts of the "PC revolution" is how much wheel-reinvention happened due to disconnects between large systems people and micro/PC people.
E.g. the high watermark of hardware-enforced security in operating systems is arguably still Multics…developed 1964-67. Just one example.
So much knowledge from the development of large multiuser systems was ignored or not known to PC developers, and we now live with the consequences.
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