Silly computer things

Published on 2024-03-04

I've been writing a lot on my capsule these last few months. If you're not familiar, a "capsule" is like a web site, but instead of being on the "web," that is, the network of all the pages you browse online using the familiar HTTP protocol, it's on what we call "gemspace," or, a network of pages using the Gemini protocol:

Project Gemini

It's kind of like the web for hipsters. You need a special piece of software to browse it, and so as a project, and more broadly, as a sort of ideology, it has detractors. Today, I came across this article from a few years ago:

Gemini is Solutionism at its Worst

And, of course, it felt a little disingenuous to publish my thoughts on this piece criticizing Gemini on my capsule where only geminauts can see it, so it's going to land here as an article on my website instead.

I find a lot of the points made in this piece interesting. The main argument the author seems to be making is that Gemini isn't a solution to the problems it "solves," so much as an escape. And, importantly, that we should be working to solve our problems rather than escape them.

For context, under the hood, Gemini is a lot like the familiar HTTP. It works in similar ways. But, importantly, it makes a number of design decisions to actively limit what you can do with it. It's much more simple. It feels like it works in the same spirit as ethical anti-design (something I WILL write about again, eventually...)

Ethical anti-design, or designing products that people can't get addicted to.

The author seems to think that instead of creating this new protocol, this "gemspace," this totally new and separate realm in which we experience the internet, we should instead focus our attention on fixing the problems with the web. Gemini is escapism; it is to ignore the crisis, to live off in your own private oasis of comfort and low-tech simplicity.

I don't disagree with this point. As is always the case when I "respond" to someone else's article, I'm not trying to condemn them so much as relate their experience to my own. I've also written about this exact same topic: how Gemini feels more like an escape than a solution. "Should we seek revolution or evolution" is an interesting question in the context of protocol development. Probably one that deserves its own article, because that's not what I plan on writing about here.

What I find most interesting about this article is that it almost feels anti-fun.

I got into Gemini late in the game--after its heyday. Maybe at the time, people were being evangelical, forcing it on people as a miracle cure for all their virtual malaise. I got into Gemini not really thinking of it as a solution to anything. I got into it because it was an escape, and I don't really feel ashamed about that. I got into it because it was, well, a silly computer thing.

The characteristics of a silly computer thing

On the most high level, I like to think of silly computer things as anything you do on or with a computer that is not in service of progress.

Too often do we build things with an obviously useful purpose. Computers can be made to be useful, but they can also be fun. I got into computers because I found them useful, but I stayed because they're fun.

Silly computer things enrich our experience as developers. They give us the opportunity to express new and creative ideas. They remind us of why we got into computing in the first place.

Gemini is, in many ways, a textbook case study in silly computer things. It is, as its detractors will repeatedly and insistently remind you, not all that useful as a general purpose application-layer network protocol. You can't inline images in documents (I mean you can, but not with the communally-accepted document format). You can't take advantage of any of the speed-ups implemented in HTTP. It's slow. It's inexpressive in design. The protocol literally warns you against transmitting large files because it has insufficient reliability checks to guarantee safe delivery. Compared to protocols like HTTP, it's not good by several objective parameters.

It's absurd to think we might invest our time and energy into developing applications for a protocol as useless as Gemini, and I think that's where it gets its charm.

The nature of a silly computer thing

I could go on and on about the many ways in which using things like Gemini has promoted a certain kind of creativity I simply wouldn't get working on a traditional web stack, but I'll leave it at this: HTTP is prose; Gemini is poetry. Constraints force you to think outside the box. Reduced markup encourages you to think of ways to express yourself without relying on the same kinds of signifiers HTML gives us. Technical limitations encourage you to think of new strategies to develop networked applications.

There are legitimate reasons one might want to practice working under constraints; it can make you a better creator, or a more invested reader. But we don't work with silly computer things because they make us more efficient workers; we do it because it's fun.

It is strange to me, whenever I come across someone who writes indictments of Gemini. Again, the most charitable explanation I can come up with is that someone was being mean to them about it at some point in the past. Then, I could maybe see why someone would be so invested in tearing it down. But ultimately, to me, I stick with silly computer things not because they have any sort of objective, measurable utility, but because they're fun to use--fun to do. I'll stick with them so long as I find them fun, and I'll give them up when I don't.

People who don't like Gemini or what it stands for will often point to its "death," like how Drew DeVault left it for whatever reason (I can't find a copy of his article lol), or how makeworld left, or how interest seemed to peak around 2022. There's still plenty of people there, nonetheless. Some nice. Some weird. If you have the time and energy to set up a client—if you have a similar passion for silly computer things—then you'd be welcome to join too.

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