Monday, February 21, 2022

why i don't blog much, any more

I read Tyler’s Why I Blog earlier today, and it reminded me of a draft I started here back in early January. I thought: These are compelling reasons to write in public, or at least I used to think so. Then I remembered I’d been been writing about not doing that any more.

I used to. Lately… Well, prior to a bit about writing on paper from the 7th, I last posted anything of length here in July. In all of 2021, I wrote 19 entries. This is the fewest in any year that I’ve had a blog, including the ones where it lived on GeoCities or still had a tilde in the URL. Reading back over the year, there’s not much weight to any of it. A few incomplete thoughts. Some rabbitholing on mundane topics. Mostly: Going through motions and repeating myself.

I could overthink this, but it isn’t warranted. The reasons not to write here are all just themes I’ve been repeating at (numbing) length for years: Self-expression in the open seems like an attack surface. A public record is, as much as anything, a liability. Kinds of text that once felt liberating now feel like an embarrassment at best. The internet in general is owned by bad people and has gone septic as a culture, even as it determines culture as a whole.

Besides all of that, writing on the internet in 2022 is a lot like photos in 2022: There’s just so much of the stuff. It’s not just that anything I write here might be used to train a language model a la GPT-3, it’s that increasingly it feels like it could be the product of one.

And so it naturally works out that instead of writing more p1k3 entries, I chat with my friends, post to a handful of people on Mastodon, and take notes in local files.

I still feel some kind of an attachment to this. It’s my longest-running project, more or less, and writing here has been a lot of how I sorted out the world for myself. Back in 2017, I wrote:

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.

Over time, though, it feels less and less like something. On matters public, there are infinite voices. The repetition and variation, the algorithmic swell, is vast. If I have anything to say, someone else is probably saying it better. At least if it can be said in any useful way. The usefulness of saying things itself is frequently washed out in the deluge. The impossibility of communication feels like a defining feature of the age.

The only thing that’s left is whatever’s particular to my perspective, and it rarely feels like the networked ebb and flow has a healthy use for that.

Anyway, I’m repeating myself again.

For a while I’ve been thinking about changing the structure of this whole site into something less reverse-chronological, writing something besides the personal narrative that a blog lends itself to, or just publishing somewhere away from the public web. Maybe somewhere away from screens altogether. Who needs Substack when you’ve got a laser printer and a roll of stamps?

I’m not sure what I’ll do any different, if anything. It’s just hard to let go of something you’ve made at considerable length, even if it isn’t worth much, even if it’s just a habit of talking mostly to yourself. Maybe I’ll let it lie fallow for years until I get hit by a bus, or find some better use for the hosting costs and let it drop off the web without fanfare. Maybe I’ll change my mind about all of this in six months or a decade.

(Of course this is more meta-whatever.)

tags: topics/writing

p1k3 / 2022 / 2 / 21

Monday, February 7, 2022

paper again

What is it that paper has that the computer lacks?

The answer might be humility.

Paper doesn’t seek to consume and mediate all things — or at least the age in which it did so long ago fell to digital computers, databases, and networks between them.

Paper forms a part of the world computer, but in so many ways an almost forgotten part. Uncontested, or nearly so.

If it seemingly offers few features and little apparent leverage compared to software, then it also makes very few demands. It extracts little from the user’s autonomy and privacy, while remaining transferable, repurposable, cheap, generic, accessible. It’s not subject to platform degradation, malicious updates, DRM, new rents at vendor whim, or remote code execution vulnerabilities. There will probably never be a CVE issued for my favorite brand of paper, and I do not need to assume that three-letter agencies are automatically indexing its contents with the cooperation of its manufacturer.

What can be expressed on paper is vastly more constrained in many respects, but limited as it may be, it’s also open: To whatever can be expressed through ink, graphite, scissors, glue, binding, tape, staples, stitches, and filing. Paper can’t embed full motion video or execute complex instructions on my behalf, but neither are its possibilities bound by the hyper-elaborated techno-social systems that govern the display of media formats or the implementation of language runtimes.

There’s a line of thinking here that risks the kind of reductive rabbitholing on a tool fetish you so regularly get from people fixated on a process idea: People convinced that only plain text will serve as a format for any purpose. Zettelkasten devotees who will stringently insist that connecting notes remain grindingly manual. Angry holdouts lecturing mailing lists about the evils of HTML e-mail while the world conducts its business on Facebook and Slack. That sort of thing.

All the same, I think there’s something to it, just like there’s something vital that motivates a lot of hopeless impulses to digital minimalism and performative exercises in retrocomputing.

Here’s an age when the computer is the network and the network is a threat — simultaneously the only tool for thought and the thing that makes thought nearly impossible. It’s exhausting, enervating, periodically shattering. Its healthy effects are constantly overshadowed by its pathology. It’s owned by bad people and operated by a fundamentally compromised class of technocrats whose occasional glimmers of self-awareness can never overwhelm the home truth of who and what writes their paychecks.

Against this backdrop, other channels of thought can feel like an escape hatch, respite, a balm, a view of other paths that maybe aren’t entirely closed just yet. Opening a notebook, like going for a walk down by the river or messing around in a garden or sitting with friends around a campfire somewhere away from cell reception, can feel like sanity.

Of course paper is a technology, embedded in an industrial economy: And this, as usual, is to say that it is an ecological catastrophe. It consumes trees, soil, and landscapes. It poisons water and air, clogs transport networks and waste streams, facilitates consumption, and often assists in extending the control of computerized systems deep into the physical realm.

All the same, in the torrent of junk mail, grocery store fliers, BPA-coated thermal printer labels & receipts, redundant bills, bank notices, invoices, address change forms, fast food packages, and all the rest of it — well, the handful of notebooks and letters I spend in any given year feel comparatively benign.

(Drafted on paper.)

tags: topics/notebooks, topics/paper, topics/systems, topics/writing

p1k3 / 2022 / 2 / 7