Another Why Roll Your Own?
Some nostalgia and musing on proprietary content systems.
Story written on: March 18, 2021
Another...Over the last months I've been playing with a variety of new and old web technologies. In part the motivation was to re-engage with web development and on the other it was a growing weariness with the push button mentality of CMS web development.
The web used to be a place of rampant experimentation and innovation far removed from the social media platform it has become - a place where we explored what potential network technology held. In the last ten years we have increasingly relied on platforms to deliver the functionality that we sort. Some have argued a kind of 'platform capitalism' overtook the development of the internet.
There was no need to reinvent the wheel when someone else was producing and maintaining the wheels for us. Until we started to forget all the assumptions that were and are built into that wheel and all the potential that was marginalised in these assumptions. Then we forgot how to make a wheel altogether.
Once of the things that really started to bother me as I lost the will and ability to build my own wheels was the fact that even those with a great deal of knowledge, practice and experience building modern wheels chose to do so with layer upon layer of tricky frameworks , libraries, services and platforms. It was clear reading forums as I tried to navigate and understand these layers and the myriad of choices that they necessitated that may people using these systems had a threadbare understanding of the systemic, cultural, and technical dependencies and assumptions they were building into their systems.
For my own part I had tended to use Wordpress in order to design learning, course management and publishing systems. When someone asked me to swap to another CMS I groaned at the expense of having to transition data from one place to another and I knew what I could do with a Wordpress install without the cognitive and temporal load of working within and working out another new paradigm.
I could do a lot quickly with Wordpress and I could use it headless and no-one would be the wiser - except that I started to spec systems with the constraints and assumptions of Wordpress embedded. There was nothing really interesting in this process - I felt like a builder rather than an architect, my response to a development query was more 'yes I can do that' rather than any enthusiasm for building something new.
Back in the old days when I was thinking about network and web architecture more than I am now I argued that information systems should be built to the mantra; Open, Flat and Decentralised. It seems that with the development of the social network and web service as cornerstones of internet use we have moved completely in the opposite direction - toward large proprietary systems that are essentially closed, Byzantium or deliberately opaque in the structuring of data, and completely centralised in terms of control.
Most of this direction serves and is served by the development of the Surveillance Capitalism most interestingly written about by Zuboff in her 2018 book. It is worth the read. At a more personal level however I've noticed a lack of concern amongst a next generation of network producers for how things work and why they work the way that they do. Culture seems to skating on a proprietary veneer. That is in some sense what culture does and was for me a way of explaining away the dominance of any particular platform. Culture was agile, stubbornly contrarian and progressive - it would move on and whatever corporate behemoth was dominant today would be forgotten and ridiculed the next (MTV, MySpace, Facebook). That said I find myself with a middle age disregard for the current culture of social media culture. I see what should be a fascinating development of a discourse made of popular media, a hyper-cultural literacy but i just don't feel compelled by it. Perhaps it lacks poetry or lyricism. From the outside it looks insular and reactionary by its very nature - a closed loop. I'm not sure if this is just grumpy old man talk and it'd service no one to develop the critique either way. If I've become skeptical of internet culture I've become infinitely more so of the culture and practice of critique - academic or otherwise - another story for another time and place.
As someone who writes a fair bit about a vast array of things across a variety of disciplines and interests I find myself writing from many different formats and many different platforms most of which have their own means and methods of encoding and presenting that writing and very few of which do so in a way that guarantees me ongoing control or even access to the work I do. In essence I have had to become 'Open' (to corporate exploitation), Flat (in terms of writing and producing content in any medium according to the dictates of medium and platform or in a form that is limited by the constraint of working on all platforms), and Decentralised (In that agency is always and again given over in order that I can 'take advantage' of this closed, opaque and centralised systems effectively. I should have exercised more of my bargaining power when engaging with these sites and services. I should have insisted on that beautifully poetic clause and option of the creative commons license - 'share and share alike.'
By 'I', of course, I mean 'we' because only as an organised network could have we shifted the inexorable tending to a centralisation of service provision and data collection. Instead we accepted the terms and conditions in the service of individual agency relative to the collective which we dissolve in the same instance. It is the classic move of late industrial capitalism : to individuate (or individualise) the collective, dissolve collective power by offering small relative gains over your neighbour. We see it in the development of our urban landscapes, in the operations of representative democracy, in labour agreements; we give over the power and interest of the collective in the service of meagre gains in individual advance. Much to be added here in terms of contemporary democracy, big government and network governance but lets save that for another missive.
Perhaps if we'd been more organised as the internet developed we could have had a network that was indeed open, flat and decentralised. A network in which my willingness to contribute data in exchange for utility was repaid with a likewise openness of data rather than an intent to control and to capitalise on the surplus that the control of data supplies. Think of it as a much more effective tax regime of surveillance capitalism than the largely failed tax on profit. You can make money by collecting data, but the data must remain open, flat and thus effectively decentralised. We then may have maintained a data commons that would have allowed the more effective development and use of AI, Analytics (and etc) in exploitation of that data for governmental and welfare as well as for profit taking.
What has this got to do with my little web site? Not much. Except that I have found myself increasingly alienated from the techno-culture that once filed me with revolutionary fervour. The utopian pretensions of the pioneering age of network culture have been blown away. Hyper centralised and proprietary service provision has usurped and coopted the vaunted ideal of a new collective intelligence. That collective intelligence has had all of its agency and development, its cognitive and therefore economic surplus handed over to corporate interest. The network just isn't the place I hope it would become. It is tempting to use this as an opportunity to walk away from it all - to become a version of the grumpy old naysayer, the wizened hag, the hippy dropout.
This little revamp of my old site is kind of a half measure, a return to the digital homestead where I can re-engage and rethink what interested me over the last 20 years of being immersed in digital culture. What are they? The nexus of creativity and computation - the strange place where computation provides a means of opening onto the new - some version of moving beyond the biogrammatic assertion of my own habits and tendings. I'm still interested in what this means for things like the definition of intelligence and creativity more generally, the implications for our understanding of both human and machine intelligence as integral to each other, as the torsional coalescence of thought and felt, of affect and technic, somewhere there is the very definition of our being as becoming, 'technics as the very possibility of a future'.