10 September 2019

I was unhappy with my old site’s design, which used a prebuilt Cryogen theme. I was using Cryogen, a Clojure-based static site generator. It was ugly and unwieldy and I needed something different. At the same time, of course, I also was mindful of my own loathing for web design. I have enormous interest in technical topics but very little at all in web design. Why? Well, for me web development is illustrative of Paul Dourish’s argument that algorithms or even programs aren’t really representative of the vast majority of information systems we encounter day-to-day. HTML, CSS, XML, and similar markup languages/stylesheets are ways to describe how a computer should render documents. A lot of other stuff is configuration languages of varying sorts. If there is a program or algorithm as we often understand it, its often distributed between multiple interlocking components and emerges implicitly rather than explicitly. And infosec people are perpetually finding programmable “weird machines” in even relatively straightforward frameworks that aren’t intended to be programmable in the way C, Java, and Python are. It’s a mess and an increasingly bloated mess.

So all of this this makes managing even relatively simple web frameworks like static sites a yuuuge pain in the ass. Because even simple things can be a kluge. Is there a better way? I really like retrocomputing/vaporwave/etc aesthetic so naturally I looked to that for inspiration. But this also posed a paradox. I wanted a look that resembles something from older computers but also wanted to make a site that is accessible to people that, you know, aren’t living in 1995. I looked at the Tildeverse, Paul Ford’s crew of retro web enthusiasts. I also looked at werc, a “web anti-framework” built off Plan9. Nothing really seemed to fit until I spotted BOOTSTRA.386, a Twitter Bootstrap mod designed to resemble the world of late 80s and early 90s MS-DOS computers and BBS sites. I was sold. And because there was a Jekyll version of it, I could use it with Github pages. I spent a long time tweaking it and optimizing it, using Firefox’s device toolbars to try to plan out how it would look on mobile. After all, far more people likely would read this on their phones than regular computers. From the beginning, there was a tradeoff between style and readability.

The basic DOS-Bootstrap framework, for example, uses a blue backdrop with a gray foreground. This looks a lot like a DOS computer. But it’s hard to read. I really, really wanted something that looked like this. But I also didn’t want to put my readers through it. So I scrapped the original colors and, with the help of my Twitter followers, did a series of tests to figure out what could replace it. I thought I had the answer – a black on gray color scheme designed to look like an old Game Boy, so old it could have played the first Pokemon game. This was a big step up, but not as much as I thought. It still looked ugly and hard to read, and due in part to some configuration issues with Jekyll it rendered poorly when I actually deployed it. So back to the drawing board again. After a lot of trial and error I eventually – for now at least – settled on a creamy color scheme I literally discovered by doing Inspect Element on a rather well-known Japanese otaku bulletin board. Great! Especially because I had previously grabbed a PC-98 glitch gif from giphy to use for my site header.

This feels good for now, but I’m almost certain to keep revising it to improve readability over time. The site is also under construction in general and I’m going to iteratively add some of the old site features and a proper bio for myself now that it is up again. The obvious question that comes to mind is why I would go to such lengths to get old web looks. Nostalgia, right? I was too young to really experience the DOS/BBS world. And in the early 90s I have only hazy memories of what it was like to use the web at all. I was very young. What was I nostalgic for? Unlike Ford, I’m too young to have developed emotional attachments to the world that retrocomputers of his generation actually emerged from. I have no important memories attached to them, at least not until the early 2000s. And much of my “a e s t h e t i c” nostalgia is also atemporal, stretching from the mid-1980s to the mid to late 1990s. Still, there is nonetheless something that tugs at my heartstrings when I look at window managers like FVWM95, Motif Window Manager, IceWM, and WindowMaker. I researched what computers, operating systems, and window managers were used in some of my favorite animes – much of which took place in the mid-90s.

I could go on about my custom-made primary computer, Linux distro, and window manager (as well as my love of 1993 Doom) but I think you get the picture that I’m kind of a walking hipster cliche. All nostalgia maybe is about the narrowing of the future, and today it’s hard not to connect all of these things to an era of your life when the future was wide open and anything was possible. As you age, this image of boundless horizons inevitably decays and fades. But I also strongly believe that there is something more to all of these old technologies than merely the impossible desire to bring back the past and the lamenting of time’s passage. Today, computing’s horizons have narrowed by choice as well as fate. Today’s software primarily offers the promise of completeness. That once you log onto one of the small number of social media platforms that your life increasingly revolves around, you will have everything you will ever need delivered to you hyper-optimized by enormous cyberpunk nightmare corporations. This was not always so. There was once a time when the computers you used and the software that ran on them were more about the desire to explore and play. And there was something about them that, even at their worst (Myspace blingees that made every page load slow to a crawl), also invited people to put something of themselves into their screens.

I searched long and hard for a way to make my main personal computer feel like something from Serial Experiments Lain. While unable to fully emulate Lain’s setup, I found a display manager customization that makes every login resemble the way she logs into her system. It’s a very moody and cerebral anime but it is also fundamentally one about discovery. Lain Iwakura is an introverted and shy Japanese girl that discovers an entire hidden world within her computer, and one that actually connected to every aspect of the offline world. One way to look at the anime is pessimism – there is no subjectivity possible outside of technology. At the same time, there is also a suggestion of postmodern play, blurred identities, and infinite possibilities. At best much of the 1990s animes I like suggest a profound ambivalence about this, leaving it up to the viewer what to make of it. So maybe those of us that like retro aesthetics and the various hardware and software associated with them are seeking to regain some of that ambivalence, especially in a time when opinions about technology seem to be polarized between dark despair/cynicism and increasingly absurd optimism. We want to be able to make our own decision rather than have it be forced on us. Only time will tell whether we get that opportunity.