Terminal days

The “PC is dying” and “Web is dying” tropes that have been bouncing around the meme-o-sphere express a real transformation in the world of computing/media/life. But they express it through the warped retinae of the techno-nostalgist, the high-tech Luddite. The PC and the Web aren’t dying. As cultural forces, they’re more powerful, more inescapable than ever. What the PC and the Web are doing is maturing, the former exploding into a welter of slick consumer appliances, the latter contracting into a corporate-controlled menu of slick services. They’re both assuming what promise to be their stable forms. The high-tech Luddite, or HTL, confuses maturing with dying, because what’s being lost in the maturation process is the thing which the HTL most values, most yearns to protect. Like all Luddites, the HTL is what Kirkpatrick Sale termed a rebel against the future. He wants to arrest progress in order to maintain what he sees as the ideal state of computing, to continue in perpetuity that brief Homebrew interregnum between Mainframe Dominance and Media Dominance. The High-Tech Luddite still thinks Woz will win.

In a new Slashdot essay, the poster known as Unknown Lamer presents the rebel Luddite case under the stirring and quixotic headline “The Greatest Battle of the Personal Computing Revolution Lies Ahead.” He might have called it “Tilting at Clouds.” Unknown Lamer wants to go back — and thinks we can go back — to an idealized “pre-PC” time of truly personal computing, a world in which the user controls the workings of both hardware and software:

You control the data, you control the software; the Personal Computer is a uniquely personal artifact that the user adapts to his own working style. One consequence of this is that creating is as easy (perhaps easier) as consuming content. Another nice side effect is that your data remains private by virtue of local storage.

This is a photoshopped image of the Eden that existed, or almost existed, before Apple started welding its cases shut, before the cloud arrived and started sucking personal data into its vast corporate matrix, before the Wild Web was homogenized, pasteurized and packaged as Facebook, before the return of the dread Terminal. It’s the Eden that would exist again if hobbyist culture suddenly displaced consumer culture as mainstream culture, if everyone suddenly armed themselves with a set of torx screwdrivers.

Unknown Lamer is not blind to reality: “We are staring at a bleak future, and living in a bleak present in some ways.” Yet he still sees the light of the past flickering at the end of the tunnel of the future: “But there is hope for the battle to be won by the Personal Computer instead of the Terminal.” All we need to do, says Unknown Lamer, is to rise up together and overthrow the current cloud paradigm, the current OS paradigm, and the current hardware paradigm. We can bring computing back to human scale by running our own portable virtual servers, replacing corporate OSes with open OSes, regaining local control over our data, overthrowing the systems of The Man. It’s the old Luddite dream, transposed from the early Industrial Era to the early Digital Era. The original Luddites, as Sale explained,

were, like Robin’s Merry Men, victims of progress, or what was held to be progress. Having for centuries worked out of their cottages and small village shops on machines that, though far from simple, could be managed by a single person, assisted perhaps by children, they suddenly saw new, complex, large-scale machines coming into their settled trades, or threatening to, usually housed in the huge multistory buildings rising in their ancient valleys. Worse still, they saw their ordered society of craft and custom and community begin to give way to an intruding industrial society and its new technologies and systems, new principles of merchandise and markets … beyond their ken or control. … They were rebels of a unique kind, rebels against the future that was being assigned to them by the new political economy then taking hold …

Because the Luddites were wrangling over the means of production, they had the people with them, at least for a time. Because the High-Tech Luddites are wrangling over the means of entertainment, they are battling against not only the corporate tide but the populist tide. “Where will we be in ten years?” asks Unknown Lamer. “If Google, Amazon, Apple, and Old Media get their way, in a new dark age of computing. Certainly, you’ll have a fancy tablet and access to infinite entertainment. But you will own nothing.” But a fancy tablet and access to infinite entertainment seem to be exactly what the people want. Ownership, after all, is a nuisance.

My heart’s with you, Unknown Lamer, but history isn’t.

5 Comments

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5 Responses to Terminal days

  1. Deborah

    I read this with a little sigh of nostalgia myself.

    I was a mom of teenage boys in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I trembled with fear when they opened the magic computer box and replaced sound cards and hard drives. I thought for sure that the magic box would never work again once they had breeched it’s screwed on cover.
    That somehow, if you pulled back the curtain to gaze at the mysterious inner workings, it would consider it some kind of violation of digital protocol, and go circuits up on you in spite.

    But lo, and behold, the magic box worked BETTER after the operation.

    Those WERE heady days. You have to admit it.

    Now I’m staring at an iMac and KNOW that if it decides it doesn’t want to work any more, I will be at the mercy of the hidden geeks somewhere in the bowels of an Apple Store Near You…

    I miss with all my heart the Wild Web as it was about 8 or 9 years ago.

    I found the most fascinating web sites wholly dedicated to some rare hobby or another, human beings who were absolute experts in their endeavor of choice, that enriched my understanding of them and the world outside my small mountain town.

    But now when I go to Bing or Google, all preference is given to commercial sites. Homogenized is right. I miss the spice and tang of eccentric stamp collectors, ancient artifact studiers, and obscure masters of philosophy that were easily found in the “old” days.

    As one who has read your book, “The Shallows” I am aware that I am being influenced by this medium in ways I don’t really want at times. Thank God I have wood to stack and potatoes to dig and printed books to fondle in bed at night. Otherwise… well, we won’t go there.

    I’m trying to hold my technology lightly, in one hand, while my other is firmly grasping my knitting needles, garden hoe, and hatchet for chopping kindling.

    Balance Grasshopper, balance.

    ;-)

  2. As a person that grew up with this industry and as a part of this industry, I like what I am seeing for the most part. The part that I don’t really like is the invasion of privacy aspect with the targeted advertising that I constantly get. I am a total tech head and I am an opinionated one at that. I still think Novell had better technology than Microsoft in the server world (MS has come a long way) I now think that the Mac is better than Windows (I resisted for years) and I think the iPhone is the best smartphone on the market. Android is ok for people that want a cheaper phone or are geeks that want to modify their phone beyond recognition. PC’s and Mac’s are maturing but the Internet will belong to mobile devices in the near future. Smartphones and tablets are the way things are going.

  3. Daniel Cole

    PC or Mac is indicative of the way we’ve come to think about choice now, or perhaps I should say to not think about it. We choose from that kind of commercial menu, but we don’t make choices about the menu itself. The idea that we should even want that responsibility is constantly under attack both overtly by advertising (let us make your life more convenient by making these choices for you) and more subtly by the system itself (it’s increasingly impractical to attempt to parse the amount of decisions we’re faced with, so we can allow ourselves to be ushered by the paradigm of efficiency or essentially give up on living socially functional lives).

    Lately I’ve been thinking about the difference between the way teenagers and young adults today look at all this and say, the way the Gen X’ers did. Back in the 80’s and 90’s personality traits and interests were already being commodified and sold back to us. Entertainment and advertising were already the kings of culture. It was certainly a media soaked environment, but there was also a self conscious uncertainty about it. There was definitely an instinct to establish one’s identity as distinct from the mainstream even though no one seemed to know how, and anything with a whiff of authenticity was replicated as quick as the media could find it. People loved mass culture but were ambivalent about it even as they indulged.

    I think that one of the biggest differences roughly since the new millenium is that people are sick of being their own apologists in this regard. No one now is going to be embarrassed or feel guilty about whether they watch 50 hours of TV a week or spend all of their time playing video games or if Mom just Skypes the kids’ recital to Dad while he’s doing something else; it’s expected. I don’t think I could even explain to a young person now why those early public cell phone users looked like such yuppies to most of us. The “system” poeple used to fret so much about is just the background now. It’s no longer part of the discussion; it frames the discussion.

  4. Deborah

    Daniel…

    “and anything with a whiff of authenticity was replicated as quick as the media could find it. ”

    I SO remember being aware of this some years ago. It was like a commercial vampirefest. Now, it seems the vampires have to be content with manufacturing their own ‘food’ by creating cloned consumers. I’m sure it’s a less satisfying food for them. It certainly looks a lot blander and less nourishing doesn’t it?

    Lord. This is depressing.

  5. Daniel Cole

    Agreed, Deborah.