Unix-like elders

Published on 2024-03-25

I remember sometime when I was in high school, Steam was doing this big sale on their old properties, pretty much everything for under ten dollars. I managed to get away with all the old GoldSrc games, like Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat... and Ricochet.

Ricochet is not exactly what comes to mind when people talk about Valve games. It's sort of like a sci-fi shooter, though instead of shooting guns, you shoot these light disks that bounce around.

When you first load the game, you're dumped on a static menu screen where your only options are to join a server or change the settings. There's a few servers left, a few of which have people on them. Joining one, you're cast into a neon arena suspended in the vacuum of space, composed of a number of hexagonal platforms. Some of them let you stand still, and others launch you forward. One wrong step and you're sent falling out of the world. You can immediately feel this space was designed for players to be in constant motion.

Confused, I stumbled onto the Steam community page for the game and found my way into the reviews section. After a bit of scrolling I found this story from one player that seemed to mirror my own. The person had joined a random server, having found them all empty. Shortly after, another person joined and killed them immediately. Having respawned, they tried again, taking advantage of the launch pads, quickly jumping around the arena, to no avail. The mysterious player seemed to always be one step ahead of them, knocking them out of the arena over and over again, before disappearing a few minutes later as quickly as they arrived.

Afterwards, the person scrambled to look up their profile on Steam, discovering that they had over 10 000 hours of Ricochet on their public record.

The server I had joined wasn't nearly as quiet. In fact, there were four players online when I'd joined, already in combat. Similarly, I tried to keep up, mostly unsuccessfully. I was still figuring things out; they obviously knew what they were doing.

A few minutes later, I decided to talk to them, and was met with silence. It dawned on me then that I wasn't playing with real people. The four players were bots, locked in endless combat on a decades old video game server. I was in fact witnessing the digital ruins of someone's old favourite game.

I've definitely talked quite a bit about my misadventures with other CS students at university. I don't talk about computers with people in real life very often, because I don't know how. Often times, when someone notices that I use Linux, they look at me with a strange mixture of reverence and confusion. The few people I've encountered who've interacted directly with Linux since I've landed at university do so in the little window Microsoft gives you through the Windows Subsystem for Linux: a little window of Linux in the bigger window of Windows.

The WSL bothers me. It bothers me because it seems to suggest that Linux ought to be contained--that Windows is safe, and that Linux is this scary thing that must be confined to the basement of our operating system. If it sounds like I'm being needlessly dramatic, I kid you not, this is a real conversation I've had with well-meaning people: one where I was told using Linux was unnecessary and even a little silly now that Windows provides WSL. Everything you need, in the comfort of your favourite operating system by Microsoft.

I got into Linux almost entirely because WSL didn't exist at the time. I had this overwhelming sense that Microsoft didn't want to let me do the things I wanted to do with my computer, though in hindsight, it was equal parts the fact that all the best developer tools were obviously being developed for Linux users first. So, I struggled through installing Ubuntu on my now ancient Acer laptop, and finally, I was free.

It's hard to say whether or not that would have happened, had WSL existed at the time. It was introduced long before I went Linux-only on all my devices, and while I still had Windows on my desktop I made great use of it. It was, indeed, everything I needed, all in the comfort of Windows.

These days, virtual developer environments are all the rage. It's surreal. It almost reminds me a bit of Plan 9, but those investing in virtual developer environments don't seem to be doing it in the same spirit. They are, in many ways, an extension of the continual push to abstract away the complexity of the developer experience.

The black box

And for what it's worth, despite how much I dunk on black-box mentality, I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing. I don't think it's bad to design for a more accessible user experience. But I do think that the desire to shove the network layer between the developer and the software they develop is strange, dangerous and maybe problematic. The computers they work on--truly work on--are no longer real. They're conceptual computers: a complex network of other unrelated devices orchestrated in such a way as to expose the experience of working on a computer, when the truth is much more intangible.

There's a good argument to be made that this is what all computers are, I'm sure, but to me there's something different about working in The Cloud. It's hard to put it precisely. Maybe it is merely the fact that the language itself seems to confess that your computer is indeed intangible, like a "cloud," regardless of whether or not that's literally true.

The consequence, of course, is that the responsibility, the relationship you have with your hardware, is completely outsourced. It's everything you need in the comfort of your favourite online digital platform by Azure.

I really took to being on Gemini, if you haven't noticed. This space felt welcoming in a way that lots of other "old-guard" computer-y places didn't. I've always wanted to get into things like IRC and USENET, but I've always had the sense that I'd be doing it wrong, that I wouldn't know how to replicate the decades of lab-grown social customs they surely have by now. But when I log on, it's in these old-guard spaces I always find myself: the smolweb, Gemini, the Fediverse, the Tildeverse, and so on. Not literally "old," but spaces of people with a classical mindset towards computers. People who all agree, if for nothing else, that everything is a file.

Starting my university undergraduate program in CS put me, for the first time, into a room packed with over a hundred people, all of whom cared at all about things like data structures, algorithmic analysis, and machine architecture. I always thought that having arrived here, I'd discover a treasure trove of people who shared this mindset with me. The older I get, the less convinced I am such a thing exists. If it ever existed, it doesn't anymore. If we were meant to transmit this knowledge to a new generation, I fear we may have failed.

I suppose this is really just me being salty that my subculture isn't more mainstream, but it's deeply hauntological to me, because the question of whether or not FLOSS is to be the norm has real stakes. A world without community built software is one in which the modern information superpowers are in charge of our digital futures, and after all these years I can't say I trust them, and I can't say I trust the powers that be to stop them either.

There's hope though, I think. There's new ideas being introduced to the space. The one I have my eye on the most these days is permacomputing. Free software is uniquely poised to be resilient in the face of climate change, and I suppose that it's in these uncertain moments that we'll need our FLOSS elders the most.

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