the past and present in computing
welcome to the hipster zone
an alternate title for this post could be "why so many people in computer science are hipsters." if you're scratching your head at this statement, look around. you're reading
content that was created on a pubnix server; I had to ssh into tilde.club and
code up the html file for this post. this site itself looks like something from
twenty years ago. have you heard all the other awful hipster stuff that's popular
among this contingent of computer enthusiasts? linux, bsd, gopher, and plan9 are
just a few of the old-fashioned things we chatter about every day. what is it that
compels so many computer scientists to live in this retrofuture? why seek to escape
to a parallel timeline when so many cool things are going on in the modern comp sci
there's always a lot going on in the field of computer science: advances in artificial
intelligence, fancy new programming languages with borrow checkers, pyramid schemes
involving "blockchain", and so on. but there are some problems with this explosive
growth. for one, it demands ever more resources, both in terms of time, money, and
privilege. want to get into machine learning? you better get a computer that can handle
such computationally intensive tasks; you better have the time and resources to learn
how machine learning actually works. want to install this cool new app? better have
enough ram to run it alongside the apps you use for streaming, video calls, and gaming.
it's no problem, any model of computer built three months ago can handle it.
furthermore, it's not like all these advancements are pushing computer science
"forward," whatever that would mean. there's always something motivating the progress in a certain direction. oftentimes,
it's some form of capitalism. saying your company uses machine learning will help
attract investors who don't know what machine learning even is; making your game
have hyperreal (*ahem*) graphics will make gamers want to buy it more. this ends up
creating a culture of excess -- the drive to beat competitors creates a deadly
spiral of complexity, both in software and hardware.
the hipster's choice
and so, we have people who are software hipsters. in the relatively short history of
computer science, there are hundreds of decisions that have altered the development of
the field, guiding it to the point where it's at today. living the software hipster
lifestyle allows one to go back in time and rethink some of those decisions. what if
the web as we know it today never took off, and we used gopher instead? what if
web browsers never existed, and we still did most of our work from a terminal? revisiting these points in time and starting things off in another direction allows us to
reimagine things, to create a future without the dizzying complexity we're suffering
from right now.
why any of this is necessary
perhaps one day, the modern world will choke on its complexity and die a painful death,
like in E.M. Forster's short story The Machine Stops. we can't
sustain an environment that expects endless growth, one where the average person
can't make sense of the gigantic stacks of technology that make crucial parts of their everyday life possible.
after the rococo mess of modern software implodes, we'll need something to go back to.
by rethinking the past, we can create a new future where technology becomes more of
a tool, or even an art form, rather than the mess that it is today.