Building the ‘20s: Envisioning

What’s the opposite of “retrocomputing”? I don’t mean “bleeding edge”. Honestly, I’m unsure what I mean, but there seems to be something there. This is a loose follow-up to my musings on retrocomputing, Rebuilding the ‘80s.

You’ll see why 2024 won’t be like “1984”.

I don’t think there’s anyone involved with computers, advertising or marketing who isn’t familiar with the iconic 1984 Apple Superbowl commercial. The slogan »You’ll see why 1984 won’t be like “1984”« along with the dystopian imagery was half a jab at IBM, and half pure zeitgeist. It’s hard to recall years after Mahatma Gandhi wearing $200 earphones what early Silicon Valley culture, and specifically Apple, stood for. (Not for overpriced, faux-boutique shit.)

As computer professionals and enthusiasts, the question arises how we should approach raising children, and teaching the next generation about our joys and our mistakes in the field. There is a wide push towards half-novel, half-ancient models across society in living together and raising children, in growing food, and in running businesses. It’s far from coming close to displacing the dominant paradigm, but it is a growing and increasingly visible alternative; one people often turn to both for personal fulfilment, and responsibility for the ecosystem among climate panic, insect population collapse, and similar warning signs of ecological disaster. I’ve been wondering how we can fit computing into this push for reclaiming our humanity and our future.

The 2014 edition of Eurotopia, a directory of living communities

David Murray, the retrocomputing polymath behind the 8-bit Guy show on Youtube, has recently posted a video about how his “dream computer” project is coming along. The idea of building a simple, retro machine out of readily available parts sounded quite interesting, and I wrote a long-ish rant about what my dream retro machine would look like, ending with the thought that getting retro hackers to agree on something is like herding cats, and making something like this is probably far more work than the value that could be extracted. Well, David did in fact go ahead with his project, and it’s already in the prototype stage. Personally I decided to not get involved after it turned out that none of it is going to be open source. Do we need another proprietary 8-bit platform? I don’t think so. It’s going to be an awesome hobby project for David & co, but will people actually care? Probably not. I already don’t.

If we look at it the right way, we live in an absolutely wonderful age of creativity. The maker movement is pretty big across the world, and we have really cool little trinkets purpose-built for supporting creativity, from the Raspberry Pi through the Gameduino. A lot of professional software that used to be prohibitively expensive is now available as an affordable subscription, such as Autodesk Fusion 360. So when people say that there just isn’t as much creativity around as there used to be, that’s just old people talk. There is plenty. Maybe not at scene parties, true, but just go see a Makerfaire or a hackerspace, and you’ll see more teenagers than forty-somethings. Even the much-vilified “influencer culture” is, in some way, an extremely creative outlet compared to what similar “rich kids” did 20, 30 years back.

Still, I’m worried about how the “cloud” is gobbling up content, interactions and attention alike. Specifically, it’s not cloud computing as such, but the increasing reliance on centralized providers for consumer communication and creative solutions. Instead of a thousand message boards and mailing lists, we have Facebook. Instead of a thousand IRC servers, we have Discord. Instead of a thousand hard drives, we have Google Docs. Is this safe? Is this reliable? Is it even healthy? It has been proven that these companies have interests conflicting not only with our privacy, but with our mental health itself. Just google “attention economy” — the scandal is just starting to hit, but the harm is already gigantic. We’re living days similar to the tobacco scandal chronicled by the cult TV series Mad Men. Even we adults are far from immune to the machinations of these crooked experts, so it seems that giving a child access to Facebook, Instagram or, sorry, even Medium, is not all unlike handing them a pack of Marlboros. A horrible idea.

Wheatley from the game Portal 2… Are “digital assistants” more like him than the Computer from Star Trek? My worry is that the answer is a resounding yes.

We are inundated with software vying for our attention, to give us “useful” ideas about what the next word we might want to type, the next product we might want to purchase, or the next site we might want to visit are. I wonder how good an idea it is to trust these virtual assistants, created by companies less incentivized in making us more productive, and more incentivized in turning us into the digital equivalent of crack goons, to enter our lives. It calls to mind Wheatley, a supporting character and later antagonist from classic first person puzzle game Portal 2. Wheatley was an artificial quote-unquote “intelligence,” created to inundate another AI with half-baked ideas and pointless diversions in order to make her stupider and less dangerous. An interesting take on the topic of living in, and fighting the attention economy, was recently discussed in Tim Ferriss’ podcast with Tristan Harris as a guest: https://tim.blog/2019/09/19/tristan-harris/

So what can we do as hackers, as parents and future parents, as teachers, as tech experts… Well, we need more Raspberry Pi’s. Not more of the same exact thing, but more of the same philosophy. Hardware and software that is both welcoming and encouraging for creativity. We need more Python. We need more hackables. We need open platforms that welcome user customization and hacking, and that help us compartmentize our attention. I see a future for a new take on the typewriter — maybe paperless, but also deliberately incapable of inundating you with ads, notifications and newsfeed tidbits, instead helping you focus and stay focused, and be productive.

I doubt that the 80’s style micro will ever come back in vogue. Modern systems are too complex, and platforms too closed for that. I think kids will be as well served by writing Vulkan shaders in GLSL as they were by writing Commodore programs in BASIC. We just need to make it more welcoming to write Vulkan shaders, and create platforms we can give them that ensure that they won’t be plunged into a destructive addiction scheme dreamed up by unethical psychologists in some web company’s employ. And who knows, maybe us adults would also benefit from such platforms.

It’s really up to us. I have decided to stand against nostalgia as a driving force, and youth-bashing. We have tools much more powerful and much more accessible than ever before. It’s our turn to build the ’20s, and to show why 2024 won’t be like “1984”… and most importantly, equally unlike “Brave New World.”

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one.
— Neil Postman

There’s two kinds of programming: functional and dysfunctional.