Digital Creation: Now, Then, & Again
Sometimes we need to look to the past to help us meet the challenge of building for the future.
The early days of the internet were fueled by a wild mash-up of unorganized communication and experimentation. In the mid 1990s, there was a hint of what the commercial internet would become, but it was still more “Wild West” than “Wall Street.” The sense of unexpected discovery online is what prompted my career in building digital products.
Moving around the internet (not just the web, but also public FTP servers, IRC servers, Usenet groups, and Gopher servers) was exploratory, anonymous, and exciting. For the first time, you could easily connect with like-minded people anywhere in the world and team up to create something new.
Peter Steiner’s seminal 1993 New Yorker cartoon captured it perfectly:
Today, we absolutely know you’re a dog. It is commonplace that aggressive tracking and algorithms follow you everywhere online. Companies, large and small, are laser-focused on continuously measuring and inspecting every aspect of your behavior.
The story of corporate internet dominance has grown so large that it’s eating itself. Apple, who arguably has taken one of the biggest “bites,” in an attempt to differentiate themselves, is advertising how they help you escape being tracked online:
But, is it possible to step outside of the shadow of the big digital platforms today and get back to the same sense of freedom that drove the early internet?
Three years ago I would have cynically said “no” and that the digital world was being strangled by dominant platforms. However, today I’m seeing more and more signs that the internet is leaning into the early roots of creating for people rather than for data.
Two projects landed in my browser tabs recently that capture the spirit of the early internet while simultaneously pointing towards a hopeful future. They use pre-web internet tools to build modern experiments in a form of digital retro-modernism. These tools are intentionally free of everything that’s familiar about the modern web. They focus on the core of digital communication for its own sake.
Happy Net Box is a project by Ben Brown that uses a simple network directory tool called finger to create a text-based pseudo-social network
I spoke to Ben Brown about this project. He is a veteran of creating digital tools and he talked about the excitement of the internet in the 90s and how building something felt like you were “unlocking a secret”.
Happy Net Box came to be after thinking about “what a social network would look like if it was really hard to use.” Ironically he landed on a tool that’s actually deceptively simple to use and already installed on most computers worldwide. When I asked him about what the future looks like for independent digital creation, he pointed to the need for simple platforms for launching ideas. Ben noted that platforms like Glitch, which allow you to “create your next web project in your browser,” are a big part of what’s going to drive the future of experimentation online.
The second project is called A New Session, an experimental digital magazine focusing on queer and trans writing. Similar to Happy Net Box, A New Session is only accessible via a basic, antique network tool (in this case, telnet).
Cara Esten, the creator of A New Session, is more explicit about a mission on their homepage, writing:
It’s funny: when we talk about optimism, we usually imagine it as pertaining to the future, rather than the past. But why not be optimistic about the past too? It’s not hard, just a matter of examining all the paths not taken. Picking the earliest point at which you could imagine a divergence, something to pull away from a troublesome present.
I connected immediately with the optimism here. It creates a framework for building an idea by taking it to its logical conclusion and then rewinding it and going down another path not taken.
After looking closely at these two projects, evidence of the digital retro-modernism as a trend and the importance of simplicity, privacy, and creativity was appearing everywhere:
- Apple’s Privacy commercial highlighting privacy issues to a whole new audience
- The growth of the privacy-first search engine DuckDuckGo
- Google recently announced a new experiment to use RSS (Really Simple Syndication) to give people a simple way to connect directly with publishers
- A re-emergence of email newsletters (ex. Morning Brew) and a re-discovery of the simplicity of writing for the inbox
When in doubt, subtract.
Sometimes you have to look backward to go forward. In both the projects mentioned above, they started with the essential idea and stopped there, as if the web didn’t exist.
We have a series of Maxims at I&CO that guide and inspire the work that we do. One of my favorites is “When in doubt, subtract.” It’s a four-word reminder that your idea needs to have a center that you can point to. For me, this Maxim is a safety net. If you’re burdened by complexity and uncertainty, subtract until you find the center.
Now, I can see how “When in doubt, subtract” can be an engine for creativity. It asks you to look in a new direction, even if that direction is backward. It challenges you to find a new path.
Where do we go from here?
I don’t know if I’d call these projects a trend, a forecast, or a lesson. Maybe they’re a mix of the three. I think they collectively point to a growing hunger in many people to reorient their relationship with technology and rethink how they exist online.
I believe there’s a bigger market for digital simplicity than ever before.
More people than ever want the tools they use, to be honest, and forthright about the data they collect. They want these tools to be accessible, respect their privacy, and deliver their services equitably. As new product builders, this is our responsibility. Sometimes sacrifices are made to create the products that our customers want and need. However, the success stories of the internet’s next decade will consist of builders, brands, and companies who can meet this challenge.