“Does the internet dream of physical spaces?” A hypothetical question someone could have, quickly scrawled in mid-thought, posted on a message board in the early-aughts that has since disappeared from its now expired domain. Perhaps to be reanimated by the Internet Archive in the near-future—reshared on a federated social network, accessible only by an alpha-numeric sequence of letters and numbers described by users as a “hash”, re-syndicated through a decades old protocol (three times removed from its original intent), transmitted through conduits of optical fiber crossing continental distances, buried and submerged—everywhere and nowhere at the same time.
The originating context of the question may have been a reflection on William Gibson’s expression of cyberspace as “a consensual hallucination”.1 Stretching this narrative, we could imagine the author of the original post asking further: what is the hallucination we are in and how can we reshape our current imaginaries of the internet? These resulting questions point to the investigations Hypha has been undertaking through the micro-residency with From Later and The Bentway under the theme of Adaptive Reuse & Creative Misuse.
Our reflections are on the possible futures of the internet and ways we can think about repurposing, and adapting, digital infrastructures to create equitable alternatives with us users as stewards and maintainers of protocols. Can we move beyond the impasse of internet futures based on exclusive, monetary driven, content platforms? What would a resyndicatable internet look, or feel, like?
The following is an exploration of these possible web futures through a retro-futurist reading of the digital protocols that have shaped the internet. RSS, an acronym that originally stood for “RDF Site Summary” by Netscape and later evolved to “Really Simple Syndication”2, is one vignette of this study—an unrealized future of rich, interoperable, content publishing on the internet that continues to exist well after it’s start in the early dot-com bubble. A future where Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), “the language spoken by routers on the Internet to determine how packets can be sent from one router to another to reach their final destination”3, never contributed to the hyperscaling of the internet to the planetary proportions that it is today and instead skewed towards localizing, community-owned, connectivity. And, lastly, a vignette where the internet has been de-gentrified and the protocol walled-gardens we are accustomed to collapses, giving way to new forms of digital place making, maintenance, and care.
Through the network
In thinking of these futures we wanted to take up the technologies ready to hand in our current online—though also attend to the lineage of their development. They are actively present in our day to day but at times living on in afterlives (RSS), or extended in scale and function (BGP), or transmuted beyond recognition (web sites as platforms).
RSS (choose your preferred opened acronym) as a format for syndicating information on the web through feeds got its start in the mid-1990s during the early dot-com years, however for many it didn’t ascend to its height until the rise of a companion piece of software–the RSS reader (or aggregator), in particular online darling Google Reader which launched in 2005. Reader shutdown in 2014 but there were other reasons for the format slowly fading away.4 It exists on the internet as abundant detritus, available automatically on many websites using popular content management systems, lumbering along behind apps as a workhorse of syndication for a content darling: podcasts (“subscribe wherever you get your podcasts”). RSS enabled a way of looking at information that the existing platforms (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) don’t want you to use: on feeds openly published and viewed in your app of choice, or in the browser.
Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) was first proposed in the late 1980s5 and is one of the longest-lasting protocols in use for digital communications. Its primary role is to manage and direct traffic (packets) between the routers of different Autonomous Systems (AS) that manage a section of the internet.6 As a protocol it grew out of a fractured landscape, different organizations and even different countries were using technologies that were incompatible with each other and engineers sought to standardize ways information could traverse those boundaries without the same internal features. The early internet was conceived as a space for internetworking, or connecting multiple different types of networks that ran on different technologies or were administered in different ways. That “inter” has been largely dropped in references to the internet and we are left with “in”networked communities and organizations. In the last few years we’ve seen the rise of a contemporary form of internetworking with the splits between networks ruled by nation-states7 but also an interest in alternative forms of networking that recapture the pluralist and autonomous possibilities of early internet designs.8
The first web page was published to the World Wide Web (www) in 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee, this model of information publishing and retrieval relied on structured and available information hyperlinked. Collections of pages as web sites, all available at the same domain served as early gardens for people to grow and share information in. That isn’t the web we experience currently, if we experience the web at all. As of January 2021 just shy of 60% of people are online, up from just around half the year prior.9 For that slight majority, public spaces have been gentrified and walled off, most spaces (websites and apps) make big asks of visitors: have the personal security to exchange your personal information for access (have the privilege to be real-named), have always-on and stable connectivity, don’t fall too far behind on the latest and greatest hardware treadmill or you can’t run the increasingly computationally expensive software and web apps. Also you better have lots of bandwidth because if you were to be always on data your costs would go through the roof.
Living on the new internet
The resyndicatable web
Quinn sometimes thought about the interfaces they encountered as they moved from one page to the next either through a click on hyperlinked text in a paragraph, or a deliberate typing of addresses given to them in passing. The action of typing out an address is straight-forward, though the translation of a friend’s scribble to the precision of the computer input has been a recurring inconvenience in remembering context on why they were navigating to the website in the first place: curiosity, feigned interest, or a last ditch effort to get at relevant information.
“Colon, forward slash, forward slash…I think he meant an “i”? Or is that an “L”?” Quinn said as they made passing vertical glances between their screen and the three times folded yellow sticky note—without the context of the laptop, this would look as if Quinn is listening to music without the music. The door to the lab opens and a pause. “My writing is not that bad…” as Candance takes a seat next to Quinn, with her phone making a reverberating sound against the kitchen table.
“Quinn, I’ve been thinking a bit on what we have so far and I know it’s just a start, but I really think we should explore publishing more stuff. You know, the stuff we see on NearNet!”. Candance gestures with both arms over her head, palms opened, as if to manifest magic. Quinn remains fixated on completing the task of typing the address into the 6 years old, slightly dented, laptop. Running on screen is an empty browser window with the familiar features of a web browser with nuanced differences—a tiny custom panel offering glimpses of Quinn’s web ring feed, a green indicator icon indicating everything is “synced”. A small quiver floats through their fingers as Candance’s proclamation echoes in the room and the enter key is pressed.
Some elements appeared the same; a persisting header area with links arranged, flush right, in a line. A running footer with a smattering of coloured micro-copy at the end of the site. NearNet’s default styles were instantly recognizable; the looseness in visual structure accented by a computer blue that directed your attention to links beyond NearNet itself. A feed of feeds as Quinn sometimes describes it to those who are more familiar with RSS2; a contentious protocol that saw many forking paths over the previous decade and has since been reconfigured to allow a flourishing of communities known as the resyndicatable web, or REweb amongst those in, and around, the NearNet community.
“Okay okay, this is where we can start from. Just keep in mind NearNet is just an example. And, and, remember we have that list of other publishing rings we want to connect with.” Quinn explained with an index finger on the trackpad, cursor circling the links. Next to the links is a small icon with radiating lines. One could misread this as radio waves, but actually it’s the RSS3 feature Quinn and Candance has been scheming to use since the start of the year allowing them to publish their articles to multiple places on NearNet and allow communities to build unique applications to view and engage with their content without loosing their connection with the pieces.
“I think Corey can have a lot of fun with our pieces in her web community. They can remix the content from our RSS3 feed and everyone can see the changes compared to what we started with.” Said Candance as she clicks through to a RSS3 feed. “Yeah, I think we could do something like that as well. You know, building a small tool to bring their content into ours. Kind of like a library without the walls. Maybe…” Quinn clicks through to a link.” Something like this. Like a dynamic block on our page that shows how our writing is directly responding to Corey’s articles and readers are able to see our back and forth. You know, just a thought.”
“That’s not how it works anymore Daniella”
“Ugh, I know, but why can’t we just say ‘here, our traffic wants to access your content and we’re following the protocol’ and have them take it? They keep changing the agreement!”
“It’s because they know what they have—they control all the legacy IP that people still want to access—but we know we have routes to a lot of current popular content through peers we have good relationships with…”
“And who follow their agreements”
“Right—peers we have good relationships with and who follow their agreements. But some of this older stuff from the aughts isn’t easy to get elsewhere legally. The co-ops over in Riverdale are having some strange days redux watch parties and we keep getting hit with overages… and complaints when the acronym mafia drops their packets. We’re a little too established now to revert to the scrappy grey market routing we all started out with.”
“Why do we think they’ll honour this agreement?! They didn’t honour the last one”
“They are slowly coming in line, we knew it’d be a long process and that we’d have to drag them kicking and screaming but there are more people in the city on community nets than the legacynet so their bad behaviour doesn’t really have any legs.”
Daniella thumbed aimlessly through her feed on the local social media Scuttlebutt, not paying attention to the words on screen but also not ready to look at Eduardo and agree. The other meeting attendees in the room looked on apprehensively. They were new to the East End network governance council and didn’t want to step into conflicts they didn’t fully understand. Eduardo and Daniella were stewards from the beginning.
Eduardo waited patiently before speaking again, more for the benefit of the others than Daniella. “You know things are better than they were even a few years ago, we’ve made huge gains in getting the big content providers and traditional ISP monopolies to respect the decisions we make here at communities about how our networks are governed. Having the ability to run our own networks, get our own AS numbers and make decisions together about access to the inter-network has made things more affordable and more equitable for us all.” He stumbled a bit at internetwork, they all did, most of them had grown up calling it the internet and were still practicing how to use a reclaimed term that tripped off the tongue.
De-gentrifying the network
Kyyla almost always forgot her phone was in asynchronous mode until she had a time sensitive message from dispatch notification buzz, rattling the device against the frame of her bike. Usually it was a slow dribble of messages coming in, the default algo on her device making it look irregular enough to feel like she was getting them as they arrived, rather than slowly released after a cache were downloaded after she cycled by a node. However when she had an urgent message from dispatch everything came in a burst and she got a glimpse of what it would be like to have real time always-on notifications—the algo defaulted to pushing all messages and notifications through that were queued up when an important message came in. She slowed down at the light and flicked through to the message on screen, a change in order for her next few pickups. She was glad for the notification now as it meant she should take a right at the next intersection instead of her original plan.
The original plan was a roundabout detour crossing through familiar parts of the city or at least the parts of the city that felt attuned to the cadence of information streaming through Kyyla’s phone. The abundance of connectivity in the city casted a constant disposition for those deeply vested in synchronous, just-in-time, information. It was the micro-gestures and landmarks that stood out; the precision of notifications, and receded telecommunications infrastructure grafted onto building facades, were the gestures that Kyyla wanted to step back from, at least for the moments between pickups. Her phone, quietly dented, but otherwise still functional, runs at a lower clock speed compared to other devices that are of the same generation—under-clocking strategies have been a staple for preserving device longevity and, more broadly, a deliberate gesture of a new relationship with persisting connectivity.
The software running on the phone, familiar to many, is also “under-clocked” in nuanced ways—the rate of information display is variable and mostly textual. Largely purposeful in the act of finding and viewing information. In place of high-resolution images, dithered, bitmapped versions are displayed. Sometimes surfing the internet the device looked as if byte-sized chunks of contents cascaded in slow motion. Other times, like an urgent dispatch, content snaps into place with a haste felt like torrential rain.
The detour would take her to some of her favourite city caches—low traffic community moderated hubs. Asynchronous forums of various topics with the odd mixtape.mp3 update from an eager poster. Nodes were expressive and the act of receiving a cache’s update felt timely and attuned.
“Maybe I can catch the next cache” Kyyla said under her breath while stowing the phone away now that messages have been cleared.. Looking down the street after taking the right, signage started to enter her peripheral vision promising more connectivity and instantaneous information at one’s fingertips. Kyyla made passing glances at the copy. “I don’t need another reminder!” agan, under her breath. She starts to see the micro-gestures in the people walking the sidewalks, reflecting on the last time she had a meaningful download from a node. Her pickup is one block over—recalling her notification.
She slows to the intersection before her pickup. A glow is casted between buildings, drawing deep shadows on surface details. Kyyla looks above the sidewalk’s horizon. A small node mounted on a pole just outside her upper-right field of vision is made visible. The node, noticeably custom built, was mounted with metal strappings flushed against the pole. Stickers on the node clearly declaring it’s community affiliation to a part of the city Kyyla is not extensively familiar with. Kyyla pulls out her phone and sees the steady stream of new cached content from the node.
“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…” Neuromancer (1984). ↩
See this opinionated review of early internet protocols: https://2018.ournetworks.ca/video/?ipfs=QmRteJr9TSyLoWgki5ZVnYikmBfCrKE2L2XvaY128egGPh ↩