Tools and appliances

I was trying to sleep late last night when I had something of an epiphany. I’ve long lamented the dumbing-down of the world, and particularly the tech world. Even in programming, what should be a field that relies on high intelligence, common sense, and reasoning abilities, you can’t get away from it. We’ve reached the point where I can only assume malice, rather than mere incompetence, is behind the push for what I’m calling the Modern Dark Age.

The revelation I had was that, at least for computers, there’s a simple way of looking at the problem and its most obvious solution. To do that, however, we need to stop and think a little more.

The old days

I’m not a millennial. I’m in that weird boundary zone between that generation the Generation X that preceded it. In terms of attitude and worldview, that puts me in a weird place, and I really don’t "get" either side of the divide. But I grew up with computers. I was one of the first to do so from an early age. I learned BASIC at 8, taught myself C++ at 13, and so on to the dozen or so languages I’m proficient in now at 40. I’ve written web apps, shell scripts, maintenance tools, and games.

In my opinion, that’s largely because I had the chance to experience the world of 90s tech. Yes, my intelligence and boundless curiosity made me want to explore computers in ever-deeper detail, but the time period involved allowed me an exploratory freedom that is just unknown to younger people today.

The web was born in 1992, less than a decade after me. At the time, I was getting an Apple IIe to print my name in an infinite loop, then waiting for the after-recess period when I could play Oregon Trail. Yet the internet as a whole, and the technologies which still provide its underpinnings today, were already mature. When AOL, Compuserve, and Prodigy (among others), brought them to the masses, people in the know had been there for fifteen years or more. (They resented the influx of new, inexperienced rabble so much that "Eternal September" is still a phrase you’ll see thrown about on occasion, a full 30 years after it happened!)

This was very much a Wild West. I first managed to convince my mom that an internet subscription was worth it in 1996, not long before my 13th birthday. At the time, there were no unlimited plans; the services charged a few cents a minute, and I quickly racked up a bill that ran over a hundred dollars a month. But it was worth it.

Nowadays, Google gives people the illusion of all the answers. Back in the day, it wasn’t that simple. Oh, there were search engines: Altavista, Lycos, Excite, Infoseek, and a hundred other names lost to the mists of time. None of these indexed more than a small fraction of the web even in that early era, though. (Some companies tried to capitalize on that by making meta-engines that would search from as many sites as possible.)

Finding things was harder on the 90s web, but that wasn’t the only place to look. Before the dotcom bubble, the internet had multiple, independent communities, many of which were still vibrant. Yes, you had websites. In the days before CSS and a standardized DOM, they were rarely pretty, but the technical know-how necessary to create one—as well as the limited space available—meant that they tended to be more informative. When you found a new site about a topic, it often provided hours of reading.

That screeching modem gave you other options, though. Your ISP might offer a proprietary chat service; this eventually spawned AIM and MSN. AOL especially went all-in on what we now call the "walled garden": chat, news, online trivia games, and basically everything a proto-social network would have needed. On top of that, everyone had email, even if some places (Compuserve is the one I remember best) actually charged for it.

Best of all, in my rose-colored opinion, were the other protocols. These days, everything is HTTP. It’s so prevalent that even local apps are running servers for communication, because it’s all people know anymore. But the 90s had much more diversity. Usenet newsgroups served a similar purpose to what Facebook groups do now, except they did it so much better. Organized into a hierarchy of topics, with no distractions in the form of shared videos or memes, you could have long, deep discussions with total strangers. Were there spammers and other bad actors? Sure there were. But social pressure kept them in line; when it didn’t, you, the user, had the power to block them from your feed. And if you didn’t want to go to the trouble, there were always moderated groups instead.

Beyond that, FTP "sites" were a thing, and they were some of the best places to get…certain files. Gopher was already on its way out when I joined the internet community, but I vaguely remember dipping into it on a few occasions. And while I don’t even know if my area had a local BBS, the dialer software I got with my modem had a few national ones that I checked out. (That was even worse than the AOL per-minute fees, because you were calling long-distance!)

My point here is that the internet of 30 years ago was a diverse and frankly eye-opening place. Ideas were everywhere. Most of them didn’t pan out, but not for lack of trying. Experimentation was everywhere. Once you found the right places, you could meet like-minded people and learn entirely new ways of looking at the world. I’m not even kidding about that. People talk about getting lost in Wikipedia, but the mid 90s could see a young man going from sports trivia to assembly tutorials to astral projection to…something not at all appropriate for a 13-year-old, and all within the span of a few hours. Yes, I’m speaking from personal experience.

Back again

In 2024, we’ve come a long way, and I’m not afraid to state that most of that way was downhill. Today’s internet is much like today’s malls: a hollowed-out, dying husk kept alive by a couple of big corporations selling their overpriced goods, and a smattering of hobbyists trying to make a living in their shadow. Compared even to 20 years ago, let alone 30, it’s an awful place. Sure, we have access to an unprecedented amount of information. It’s faster than ever. It’s properly indexed and tagged for easy searching. What we’ve lost, though, is its utility.

A computer in the 90s was still a tool. Tools are wonderful things. They let us fix, repair, build, create. Look at a wrench or a drill, a nail gun or a chainsaw. These are useful objects. In many cases, they may have a learning curve, but learning unlocks their true potential. The same was true for computers then. Oh, you might have to fiddle with DIP switches and IRQs to get that modem working, but look at what it unlocks. Tweaking your autoexec.bat file so you can get a big Doom WAD running? I did that. Did I learn a useful skill? Probably not. Did it give me a sense of accomplishment when I got it working? Absolutely.

Tools are just like that. They provide us with the means to do things, and the things we can do with them only increase as we gain proficiency. With the right tools, you can become a craftsman, an artisan. You can attain a level of mastery. Computers, back then, gave us that opportunity.

Now, however, computers have become appliances. Appliances are still useful things, of course. Dishwashers and microwaves are undeniably good to have. Yet two aspects set them apart from tools. First, an appliance is, at its heart, a provider of convenience. Microwaves let us cook faster. TVs are entertainment sources. That dryer in the laundry room is a great substitute for a clothesline.

Second, and more important for the distinction I’m drawing here, is that an appliance’s utility is bounded. They have no learning curve—except figuring out what the buttons do—and a fixed set of functions. That dryer is never going to be useful for anything other than drying clothes. There’s no mastery needed, because there’s nothing a mastery of an appliance would offer. (Seriously, how many people even use all those extra cooking options on their microwave?)

Modern computers are the same way. There is no indication that mastery is desirable or useful. Instead, we’re encouraged and sometimes forced into suboptimal solutions because we aren’t given the tools to do better. Even in this century, for example, it was possible to create a decent webpage with nothing more than a text editor. You can’t do that now, though, because browsers won’t even let you access local files from a script. The barrier to entry is thus raised by the need to install a server.

It only gets worse from there. Apple has become famous for the total lockdown of its software and hardware. They had to be dragged into opening up to independent app stores, and they’ve done so in the most obtuse way possible as protest. Google is no better, and is probably far worse; they’re responsible for the browser restriction I mentioned, as well as killing off FTP in the browser, restricting mobile notifications to only use their paid service, and so on. Microsoft? They’re busy installing an AI keylogger into Windows.

We’ve fallen. There’s no other way to put it. The purpose of a computer has narrowed into nothing more than a way to access a curated set of services. Steam games, Facebook friends, tweets and Tiktoks and all the rest. That’s the internet of 2024. There’s very little information there, and it’s so spread out that it’s practically useless. There’s almost no way to participate in its creation, either.

What’s the solution? I wish I knew. To be honest, I think the best thing to do would be a clean break. Create a new internet for those who want the retro feel. Cut it off from the rest, maybe using Tor or something as the only access point. Let it be free of the corrupting influence of corporate greed, while also making it secure against the evils of progressivism. NNTP, SMTP, FTP…these all worked. Bring them back, or use them as the basis for new protocols, new applications, new tools that help us communicate and grow, instead of being ever further restrained.

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