Marginalia 20: Tech stuff
This edition is mostly tech stuff. But I don't believe in “non-technical people”, so there will be at least one thing here for everyone.
First up, I'll get my compulsory Dan Cohen link out of the way. Making Data Physical highlights a number of interesting tech projects, mostly around data visualisation. Highlights for me were Sound of the office — which may not be what you think, and Morbid Methods — obituaries for 'dead' digital devices.
If you're a music lover and also a data nerd, you may appreciate The Chaos Bazaar (warning: animated cover page and rather odd navigation). This in depth report analyses sales data from Bandcamp and comments on what this means for music sales and musician's incomes.
Web advertising vendor Google's latest attempt to not be evil is Federated Learning of Cohorts (FLoC). Having banned third-party cookies from their Chrome browser, Google is now simply embedding user tracking right into the browser. Paramdeo Singh has a great overview of the issue and instructions for website owners to “de-FLoC” their site.
Mike Lynch's blog post, Territorial explores a number of timely issues around Internet use in Australia, anchored around the idea of the inherent physicality of the Internet:
One of the original promises of the net was that it would transcend territories, another part of John Perry Barlow’s declaration of independence which hasn’t worked out.
...it’s possible that the international reputation [Australians have] acquired for being utter shitposters is based on the fact that we always start out as honorary night crew, bringing our slacking-off-at-work energy to an internet where (weighted by population) it’s 2AM.
On the recent episode of Facebook, Google, and the Australian Federal Government flexing their muscles at each other, Mike notes:
people my age, especially those with technical skills, talked about organisations hosting their own websites instead of relying on Facebook as if this were a simple thing.
...for a sizeable proportion of the audience now, Facebook is the net; referring to Facebook and Twitter as “websites” is funny because it’s a deliberate harking back to the old days, but it’s a joke that’s meaningless, I suspect, unless you’re the sort of person who could run up their own website in a weekend, which is itself a place of privilege.
I feel extremely seen by this comment, and I've been grasping for a little while for a space I truly believe exists between “Everyone should code their own compilers” and “People shouldn't have to be 'technical' to use computers.” That conversation is for another day, but being one of those people Mike is writing about, I've become interested in a new Internet protocol called Gemini . Gemini is specifically designed to avoid the sorts of shenanigans Google is up to with FLoC. Jason McBrayer has written a really nice introduction for people who might be interested, but aren't the sort of people who want to write their own client software.
Ed Summers is the sort of person who might consider doing that. In a recent online note simply called “j”, Summers gives a simple example of how a little shell script can improve your life. Ed's post inspired me to do something similar for my Gemini site.
Some librarians from University of Kansas have publshed an interesting paper on their internal culture around computing tools and skills. The tl;dr for developing tech skills is right in the title of the article: Time to play, access to attention. Ruth Kitchin Tillman has some succinct comments on perceptions of technical skill in libraries. In short:
I will never be as attractive a candidate to (many) folks looking to improve their tech as a man who comes in and overpromises the impossible.
... I want to work for and with people who understand that maintenance is critical and that creating an exciting thing is generally not worth it if nobody uses it. But I also know that when people aren't necessarily familiar with technology, they can't always tell the difference between an awesome thing we should do and an awesome thing we shouldn't.
This is so, so important, and I also see these dynamics all the time. Jeff Huang is also a big fan of building things to be easily maintained, publishing A Manifesto for Preserving Content on the Web in 2019. I'm pretty wary of anything called a “manifesto”, especially when it comes to computing technology topics, but this one is pretty sensible. I feel like Jeff might enjoy Gemini.
Finally, a project that is currently on hiatus due to COVID-19, but I just absolutely love. DeepMay is:
a 10-day intensive bootcamp in the mountains of the North Carolina that brings together the technical rigor and intensity of the hackathon with the communal ethos of DIY world-building.
Students, instructors, and organizers come together and experiment with data models, user interfaces, brand identity, and the misuse of technical systems—all while cooking, cleaning, and tending the farm schoolhouse and surrounding land that is our home for the week.
The concept and philosophy is outlined in an article in Inhabit:Territories, and if you're wondering why this appeals to me, go back and look at Marginalia 19! Our correspondent at Inhabit explains:
DeepMay is not an attempt at a redemption of technology – we are far more ambitious than that.
...Even those who are largely self-taught must market their skills to make a living, or accrue funding for their vision. We find ourselves selling our labor to make websites we don’t care about, or branding products to imply a better world can be bought. Your craftsmanship is laid to waste as your well-written piece of code gets integrated into a machine you’d rather break than buy. From the university to the start-ups, avenues of inquiry are explored insofar as they create a market advantage.
...The neoliberal ethic of a work-life balance creates perpetual oscillations between fragmented realities – eating healthy, hitting the gym, maintaining a social life, while always maximizing productivity. At DeepMay, a consistency between these otherwise discrete spheres was established through the rhythms of communal life. We exercised together each morning and took turns cooking for the camp. Late into the night people could be found huddled together in front of a laptop solving a problem, or returning refreshed from the wood-fired sauna. Taking a long hike together did not feel like a side activity or a distraction, but as aligned with the purpose of the camp as time spent coding.