A few years back, I was on a road trip in the States with my friend Dan. We drove through Maryland and Virginia to the sites of American Civil War battles—Gettysburg, Antietam. I was reading Tom Standage’s magnificent book The Victorian Internet at the time. When I was done with the book, I passed it on to Dan. He loved it. A few years later, he sent me a gift: a glass telegraph insulator.
Last week I received another gift from Dan: a telegraph key.
It’s lovely. If my knowledge of basic electronics were better, I’d hook it up to an Arduino and tweet with it.
Dan came over to the UK for a visit last month. We had a lovely time wandering around Brighton and London together. At one point, we popped into the National Portrait Gallery. There was one painting he really wanted to see: the portrait of Samuel Pepys.
“Were you reading the online Pepys diary?”, I asked.
“Oh, yes!”, he said.
“I know the guy who did that!”
The “guy who did that” is, of course, the brilliant Phil Gyford.
Now Phil has restarted the diary. He wrote a really great piece about what it’s like overhauling a site that has been online for a decade. Given that I spent a lot of my time last year overhauling The Session (which has been online in some form or another since the late nineties), I can relate to his perspective on trying to choose long-term technologies:
Looking ahead, how will I feel about this Django backend in ten years’ time? I’ve no idea what the state of the platform will be in a decade.
I was thinking about switching The Session over to Django, but I decided against it in the end. I figured that the pain involved in trying to retrofit an existing site (as opposed to starting a brand new project) would be too much. So the site is still written in the very uncool LAMP stack: Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP.
One area where I’ve found myself becoming increasingly wary over time is the use of third-party APIs. I say that with a heavy heart—back at dConstruct 2006 I was talking all about The Joy of API. But Yahoo, Google, Twitter …they’ve all deprecated or backtracked on their offerings to developers.
Anyway, this is something that has been on my mind a lot lately: evaluating technologies and services in terms of their long-term benefit instead of just their short-term hit. It’s something that we need to think about more as developers, and it’s certainly something that we need to think about more as users.
Compared with genuinely long-term projects like the 10,000 year Clock of the Long Now making something long-lasting on the web shouldn’t be all that challenging. The real challenge is acknowledging that this is even an issue. As Phil puts it:
I don’t know how much individuals and companies habitually think about this. Is it possible to plan for how your online service will work over the next ten years, never mind longer?
As my Long Bet illustrates, I can be somewhat pessimistic about the longevity of our web creations:
The original URL for this prediction (www.longbets.org/601) will no longer be available in eleven years.
After speaking at Go Beyond Pixels in St. John’s, I had some time to explore Newfoundland a little bit. Geri was kind enough to drive me to a place I really wanted to visit: the cable station at Heart’s Content.
I’ve wanted to visit Heart’s Content (and Porthcurno in Cornwall) ever since reading The Victorian Internet, a magnificent book by Tom Standage that conveys the truly world-changing nature of the telegraph. Heart’s Content plays a pivotal role in the story: the landing site of the transatlantic cable, spooled out by the Brunel-designed Great Eastern, the largest ship in the world at the time.
For all the talk of the placelessness of our digital age, the Internet is as fixed in real, physical places as any railroad or telephone system ever was.
Now there are more places I want to visit: the nexus points on TeleGeography’s Submarine Cable Map; the hubs of Hibernia Atlantic, whose about page reads like a viral marketing campaign for some soon-to-be-released near-future Hollywood cyberpunk thriller.
I’ve got the kind of travel bug described by Neal Stephenson in his classic 1996 Wired piece Mother Earth Mother Board:
In which the hacker tourist ventures forth across the wide and wondrous meatspace of three continents, acquainting himself with the customs and dialects of the exotic Manhole Villagers of Thailand, the U-Turn Tunnelers of the Nile Delta, the Cable Nomads of Lan tao Island, the Slack Control Wizards of Chelmsford, the Subterranean Ex-Telegraphers of Cornwall, and other previously unknown and unchronicled folk; also, biographical sketches of the two long-dead Supreme Ninja Hacker Mage Lords of global telecommunications, and other material pertaining to the business and technology of Undersea Fiber-Optic Cables, as well as an account of the laying of the longest wire on Earth, which should not be without interest to the readers of Wired.
Maybe one day I’ll get to visit the places being designed by Sheehan Partners, currently only inhabited by render ghosts on their website (which feels like it’s part of the same subversive viral marketing campaign as the Hibernia Atlantic site).
Perhaps I can find a reason to stop off in Ashburn, Virginia or The Dalles, Oregon, once infamous as the site of a cult-induced piece of lo-tech bioterrorism, now the site of Google’s Project 02. Not that there’s much chance of being allowed in, given Google’s condescending attitude when it comes to what they do with our data: “we know what’s best, don’t you trouble your little head about it.”
It’s that same attitude that lurks behind that most poisonous of bullshit marketing terms…
What a crock of shit.
Whereas other bullshit marketing terms once had a defined meaning that has eroded over time due to repeated use and abuse—Ajax, Web 2.0, HTML5, UX—“the cloud” is a term that sets out to deceive from the outset, imbued with the same Lakoffian toxicity as “downsizing” or “friendly fire.” It is the internet equivalent of miasma theory.
My friend @substitute suggested replacing every technobabble instance of “cloud” with “the Moon” and it’s changed my life— Pinboard (@Pinboard) January 6, 2012
Death to the cloud! Long live the New Flesh of servers, routers, wires and cables.
I always like to have a good book with me when I’m travelling. A few years ago, when I was making a trip to the States, the journey was made tolerable by some excellent reading material. The Victorian Internet is a wonderful true story written by Tom Standage, author of The Mechanical Turk. It tells the history of the telegraph while subtly drawing parallels to today’s revolution in information technology.
When I finished the book, I passed it on to my good friend Dan in Baltimore. He then read through it as we spent a few days together on a mini-roadtrip through Maryland and Virginia to visit American civil war battlefields.
This week I got a small package in the post from Dan. Inside was an item that pre-dates the plastic age: a glass telegraph insulator with the words
New York embossed on one side. A note accompanying this gift said:
Jeremy, congrats on the book! I send this artifact from the Victorian Internet which I’d found for you ages ago (but now am obliged to send post haste). Please enjoy and reflect on the technological ripples your efforts will create through the decades.