Monday, October 16
Paul Ford wrote about starting ftrain 20 years ago:
I started this website 20 years ago, give or take a week. The original address was www.interactive.net/~ford. Eventually it migrated here into the form you see. I took it very seriously for many years and it earned me thousands of readers, thousands of emails, and tons of opportunity. It was better at generating opportunity than money. I drifted away for all the regular reasons.
Which got me thinking: The oldest surviving bits of this website go back to April of 1997, so it's 20 years, give or take six months. It lived other places for a while (GeoCities and a shell box with a tilde in the URL) until I actually got a domain for it. p1k3.com was the first domain I ever bought, and I chose it because my middle name is Pike and I like the number 13 and it was four characters long, which even in the early years of this century was getting to be kind of hard to come up with. There was also this running joke with friends from IRC, about whether a pike was a weapon or a fish, and I guess that must have played into my thinking somehow.
p1k3 has clearly not made me into a low-key internet celebrity. I don't know about opportunity, but it has helped me get a couple of good jobs, and probably prevented me from getting several more bad ones. To guess at its current readership, I think that about a dozen humans might see this post sooner or later.
I wrote one possible variation on the post you're reading now back in February — the one where I regret writing so much stupid bullshit. That one doesn't really explain why I've written so much less this year than most, though. This other one where I worry about self-surveillance in an age of weaponized data and network fascists comes a lot closer to the mark.
In 2017, I've fully given up on some things. A big one is the World Wide Web. The "open web", as such, is dead. Or at best on life support. The actually existing web is, mostly, bad. It's an abject failure in the terms I thought I was involved with it on, and its architecture has helped bootstrap an internet that's hostile to my values, if not ultimately to human life itself.
It's no longer possible to use the web in a way that respects your privacy, autonomy, basic personhood, etc. And for the same reasons, it's incredibly difficult to work on the web for a living in any kind of ethical fashion.
But then: So what?
I think it's broadly true that most of us should treat the network as a hostile environment, and that any information we publish about ourselves will be used against us and our communities by systems we have no control over — systems operating under few legal constraints, answering only to the profit motive, under the authority of complete assholes with no sense of responsibility, proportion, or historical perspective.
It's really tempting, in the face of this conviction, to shut up and just focus on sequestering myself from the network to whatever limited extent that's still possible.
On the other hand. Writing is one of the only real powers I've ever had, and the surface of this terrible website is still mine to write on. The web is dead to me, as a hope or a cause, and the world it's made — the world that so many thousands of us helped to make — is in bad shape and getting worse. But why should I give up my only real canvas, the only place where I have any voice at all?
Possibly (almost certainly) having a voice is itself an illusion, irrelevant to the course of things now. But I guess it's something.