Marginalia 13: Computer says yes

Graham Lee's Five Computers is a short article, but I've not stopped thinking about it since reading it. There will be more to say about Five Computers on my blog, but I have some marginalia to mention here as well. Lee skilfully captures the essence of modern computing, and why this industry that is full of people who consider themselves hyper-rational actually makes very little sense.

There is really one central computing economy, controlling well over six trillion dollars of technology investment, with five different public faces...

...A tiny morsel of this multi-trillion-dollar planned economy is sent out to see where it sticks, and what new ideas the computing Gosplan department should factor into their forecasts.

Lee's reference to Gosplan is particularly delicious, though he's not alone in comparing Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist culture to the Soviet Union: Maciej Cegłowsk has been doing so for years. We pretend to watch their ads, and they pretend to protect our privacy.

Of course, the Soviet Union wasn't the only experiment in socialist living. Over in Yugoslavia, they were running their own thing. In Tribune magazine, Michael Eby tells the story of the “Socialism’s DIY Computer” – the Galaksija. I'd never heard of this before, and the whole thing reads like a fusion of cyberpunk and steampunk:

Because all the day’s computers, including Galaksija, ran their programs on cassette ... the idea was that [radio show] listeners could tape the programs off their receivers as they were broadcast, then load them into their personal machines.

...[The host] would announce when the segment was approaching, signaling to his listeners that it was time for them to fetch their equipment, cue up a tape, and get ready to hit record. Fans began to write programs with the expressed intention of mailing them into the station and broadcasting them during the segment. In the case of games, users would “download” the programs off the radio and alter them—inserting their own levels, challenges, and characters—then send them back for retransmission. In effect, this was file transfer well before the advent of the World Wide Web, a pre-internet pirating protocol.

The first computer I ever used (and programmed!) was a BBC Micro, a rough contemporary of this period which also used cassette tapes as storage. Even so, it had never crossed my mind that computer programs could be broadcast over radio waves as a file transfer system 🤯. In principle I suppose this is not much different to WiFi, but using tape cassettes and AM radio to transfer computer programs is definitely not something I'd ever considered before! I'm intrigued to know what it must have sounded like. Not, I'm guessing, quite like Ei Wada's barcode-powered dance floor bangers, but I feel like it might have the same energy.

While I was deep diving into alternative computing realities, I stumbled at some point upon the 100 Rabbits “tools ecosystem”. The 100 Rabbits duo spend their lives sailing the oceans, which sounded idyllic until I read about their most recent trip across the North Pacific when a capsize swept everything off the deck – including their solar power generator. For our purposes, however, the interesting part of their story ties back to the “Five Computers”. Our intrepid explorers simply don't have the energy or the bandwidth – literally – to operate within the “five computers” paradigm:

We had to adapt, to change our workflow. One big decision, was to scale our projects to the amount of energy we had available on the boat. This translates to shorter work hours, smaller projects (books, music etc) and making our own tools.

We made software that work offline, that use little power and that are good at doing one thing. This, recently, has evolved into coding our websites in C99, a language that is more resilient and light. We're also learning to code in Assembly, with the hope of making our games playable on older hardware like the NES and famicom.

I had never before really considered (yes I'm all too aware a theme is developing here...) the energy use of different computer programming languages. In the context of the existing climate emergency, this seems like something that everyone programming computers needs to at least consider. Intrigued, I fished around for some data and found an article suggesting that (SURPRISE!) Silicon Valley darling Ruby is pretty much The Worst at ...everything. Intriguingly for me, however, Rust – a compiled language I'm tentatively exploring – looks to be not only “safe” but also very energy efficient.

For some people, however, all this talk about file sharing over AM radio waves, programming in Assembly or (less hardcore) Rust, and showing your independence by using a recycled MacBook powered by solar panels is just completely soft. Why would you do that, when you could create a living computer made from bacteria?

Now that's green computing.