On alternatives

John Ohno
John Ohno
Sep 21, 2018 · 3 min read

I love Ted Nelson’s concept of “ALTERNATIVE COMPUTER UNIVERSES” (more than I love Ted’s actual hypertext ideas, which is a whole damned lot) because I really do feel like we made a whole bunch of wrong turns.

Many times in history, we had the opportunity to do the right thing (“fight for the users”, build that “bicycle for the mind”) and instead we did the profitable or easy-to-imagine thing. Then, once we realized our mistake, there was a whole legacy locked into path dependence and a whole industry dedicated to ensuring we never forgot or corrected the mistakes of our youth.

Unix is the typical example given for the “worse is better” philosophy, but it’s not a good candidate because Unix, for all its flaws, has the kind of respect for its users that leads it to trusting them with powerful and flexible tooling. Two better candidates are the web (and all of web tech) and the original Macintosh’s UI ideas.

The web is a master class in taking a bunch of already-flawed off-the-shelf technologies and hammering them into places they don’t belong without thinking about how they might be used in the future. The web standards are a Kafkaesque museum of technical debt. Using web tech is always something that seems like a good idea during a half-burnt-out all-nighter and then continues to make your life harder for the rest of your days, because that is how each element of it was developed. But, at least it has reified the capacity for regular people to make ugly hacks, which should be considered their right.

The Macintosh is the other side of the worse-is-better coin: they were so focused on making a rushed and underpowered machine look polished and well designed that they decided to enumerate all the things that could be done on it and polish only those, removing the capacity for a user to actually treat it as an augmentation for their mind. A computer acts as an extension of one’s mental space, but the original Macintosh is the cognitive equivalent of one of those example rooms in an Ikea: it looks desirable from a distance, but the same six rooms exist in every store, none of the televisions have power cables, and all of the pages of all of the books in the bookshelf are blank. Such an inflexible environment can never become a home: it is too sterile. You can only create a home through forcibly changing the elements of your environment that clash with your desires (functional or aesthetic), and with the Macintosh and its successors (in the movement it inaugurated) you didn’t own the furniture in your own computer & didn’t have the right to modify it.

I engage in a kind of archaeology of computing’s forgotten experiments because in the end, almost all of the decisions we’ve collectively made have been bad ones: in terms of the state of computing, we live in the worst of all possible worlds, or close to it. Luckily, we have a power we rarely acknowledge: from a technical perspective, doing better is easier than continuing on our current path, so great is the friction from the mistakes of our youth. It is literally easier to rebel against the currents and create our own private utopian experiments than to continue downstream. Our primary antagonists are lack of imagination and ignorance of history — and fixing one will fix the other.

John Ohno

Written by

John Ohno

Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net