“…Perhaps unique among hyperobjects, the network is an emergent cultural form, generated from our conscious and unconscious desires in dialog with mathematics and electrons and silicon and glass fibre.” -James Bridle, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
There are several different kinds of obsolescence that affect buildings. Two of them are:
Physical obsolescence, when a property suffers long term neglect and mismanagement until it becomes too costly to repair to a usable state again.
Functional obsolescence, when a property loses value for reasons relating to its design. This is evident when an old building can’t physically be updated to standards of heating/water/electricity that modern residents expect, like the inability to install central heating, plumbing or other comforts, or even when it simply becomes visually unfashionable or behind the times.
These problems of ageing affect all sorts of structures. In the past, humans mostly built things to last, as it was a great sacrifice of time, effort and energy to construct buildings; we didn’t have the luxury of machines to assist us in the same capacity we do now. In modern commercial development there’s now a very different model, falling under the umbrella of planned obsolescence. Housing skyscrapers, restaurants, shops, all of these can be cheaply and easily built with steel frames and synthetic stucco, which is less like wood or any natural material and more like cement-y marshmallow fluff (Dryvit is one common brand). These buildings are intentionally designed with a lifespan of around 40-50 years at a maximum before becoming either functionally or physically obsolete. At that point they can either be torn down or stripped to the metal and rebuilt as something else.
The transition from predominantly static, long-lasting architecture to predominantly fast-growing, planned-obsolescence architecture was huge, and I think something similar has happened to the internet already. Just as the technological developments of plumbing and refrigeration permanently affected how homes have to be planned out today, the demands of internet users and what habits we’ve become accustomed to will shape our design futures. I’m sure you, reader, have witnessed both physical and functional obsolescence in websites. That might be how you ended up in this corner of the web, as it was for me. Places I fondly remember are now either defunct due to the physical causes of servers/funding/acquisition, or functionally obsolete after being exterminated by bigger, shinier platforms promising never-before-seen functions and amenities.
The suffocating spread of the social media world is simultaneously too much and not enough. In our modern Facebook/Twitter/Instagram etc houses we’re given a little smart-home style shoebox apartment and all the luxuries that come with it, but there are rules, and while you’re allowed to hang photos on your wall (once they’ve been approved by the Invisible Intelligent Approval Machine installed by the landlord), you are certainly not allowed to repaint, or install new locks, or buy new furnishings. And over time that’s what so many of us have gotten used to, we’ve forgotten what it feels like to be able to give our digital homes a new coat of paint and change out the sofa, or even do a total remodel. And just with our physical homes, these activities make place attachment, create a bond with our environments and the objects in them. Especially in the case of NeoCities, and to an even greater degree self-hosted sites, you’re literally building your house from the ground up- getting a good look at the beams and the nails. Instead of the hidden-away processes of the smart-home corporate web, you know exactly what’s going on in there; it’s your house, after all.
GeoCities applied the concept pretty literally through their neighborhood structure, but the internet really does seem like a sprawling metropolis. Over there is the social media city centre, clustered with cameras and ads and traffic jams and hordes of people living in little identical boxes. Across town is that one really big old library/Internet Archive that some people totally ignore and some spend way too much time in. There’s shopping districts, of course, there’s Amazon, and there’s Google, who could be any number of things at this point including the postal service, phone company, public transport, etc. And then way out of town, past where most of the bus routes go, there’s NeoCities, Spacehey etc and the self-hosting gang, a comparatively tiny, slightly unruly and wildly decorated neighborhood beyond the miles of suburbia. That’s what it feels like, anyway. Like a place you could go to see weird lawn decorations and wacky paint colors free from an overbearing Homeowner’s Association.
I still have my Gameboy Advance I got for my birthday in 2001, one of the blue translucent-cased ones. There’s a lot to be said for the translucent tech phase- beyond being stylish, it was uniquely a product of its time, perhaps the last 20th century example of product semantics, those being defined as "the study of the symbolic qualities of man-made forms in the context of their use”, ie communicating the functions of an object through its physical form. We see the opposite of this in modern ultra-slick tech design like smartphones and laptops: smooth, streamlined, all processes secreted away from view. Not that they can’t be beautiful, but their physical reality, how they work, just like that of much the internet, is now hidden from us by manufacturers seeking to sell us product based on a false vision of perfection. These things aren’t designed to be modified over time; they’re designed to be thrown out. We’re not supposed to customize them (though we’re certainly given the illusion that we can, as a selling point), or grow attached to them as they age and change. They’re designed as utilities, but are surprisingly un-utilitarian. We’re meant to use them without thinking about the fact that we’re using them. The charm in translucent design for me, conversely, is that it requires we look into the inner workings of the machine and realize that we don’t know how it operates. It forces us to think about the complexities of our technologies that we don’t understand, even if only for a moment. This is why the more I learn the more I think it’s important not just to use the internet, not just to use the apps, but to realize that we really don’t know what they’re doing- and to try and amend that. Knowledge of the digital services we use every day is hidden from us, and it’s absolutely not on accident.
Surveillance capitalism depends on ignorance of its processes to generate wealth. So often, when we hear about AI, when we hear about smart homes and devices, it’s from the perspective of what they do to take the cognitive load off of daily tasks to free our time up for other things- an idea that sounds, in theory, pretty sweet, until you realize how essential the decision-making process is to human cognition. We’re designed to recognize patterns, evaluate chances, and make choices- remove our opportunity to do these things completely within our own environments, and it really can make us dumber instead of the other way around, serving to "homogenize society into an ever more programmed, predictable and mono-cultural mass."" (Chapman, 2005) For the people making profits off of behavioral predictions- the engine of surveillance capitalism- this is a dream come true. As artist and technologist James Bridle says, “We are inserting opaque and poorly understood computation at the very bottom of Maslow’s heirarchy of needs- respiration, food, sleep, and homeostasis - at the precise point, that is, where we are most vulnerable.”
I remember the late 90’s techno-utopian optimism that the design language of the time seemed so sure was coming. The boundless exuberance surrounding consumer electronics. The brightly colored ‘blobjects’ meant to ooze happiness and excitement. One definition of utopia is “an imaginary place in which the government, laws, and social conditions are perfect” according to Merriam-Webster. One of the problems with utopias is that a ‘perfect’ lifestyle looks different for different people- what to many of us (likely you if you’re reading this zine) is a bland, hyper-surveillant dystopia of a future, where our interactions with digital spaces are entirely made by and controlled by corporations (or pure, entrenched monetization in the case of Web3 evangelists), would almost certainly be a utopia to the executives of these companies and others who benefit from the same economic models. The development of soulless visuals, dark patterns and psychologically predatory algorithms so prevalent in modern web design was no accident, even if many of the discoveries that led to them happened organically. The mainstream web, in present form, is the utopia of surveillance capitalist businessmen. It’s about us, but not made by us, and not meant for us. The modern state of technology design produces things that pretend to be utopian, but are only based on a single designed (corporate) vision of reality- this leading, ultimately, to an internet monoculture. We already see much of it now. Chapman puts it well when discussing the ‘trap’ of utopias: “…they streamline culture into one approved version, snuffing out creativity, diversity, individuality and spontaneity in the process.” This also seems to be what the particularly rabid crypto advocates who believe they’re the future of the web aren’t getting. True freedom on the internet isn’t about the ability to grow capital from anything you touch, it’s about being able to make the choice whether you want to or not, or whether you just want to be left the hell alone.
“Because everything moves so fast, and we cannot stop it, we have to create some islands of slowness. Design, in all its history, but especially in more recent years, has been an agent of acceleration.” (Chapman 2005 again) This is a decent example of what I think spaces like NeoCities and the Yesterweb community, among others, provide- islands of slowness. A friendly village to stop and look back, look forward, rest for a minute, grab a bite to eat and evaluate your surroundings. Yeah, it’s a bit out of the way, and most of your friends and family prefer to stay in the shoebox apartments in the city, but if you ask them why most of them seem to just say ‘because that’s where everyone else is’. Humans are social creatures, creatures of habit, and of convenience, and corporations weaponize this for profit; we only make them money if they can keep us living in their pre-built cities. In that sort of climate, learning carpentry is a radical act. In 2008 Chapman was invited to present a theory of emotional design to the British House of Lords, where he suggested a framework for creating more durable products, four of which I’ll add here:
Design for Narrative: users share a unique personal history with the product; this often relates to when, how and from whom the object was acquired
Design for Surface: the product is physically ageing well, and developing a tangible character through time, use and sometimes misuse
Design for Attachment: users feel a strong emotional connection to the product, due to the service it provides, the information it contains and the meaning it conveys
Design for Fiction: users are delighted or even enchanted by the product as it is not yet fully understood or known by the user; these are often recently purchased products that are still being explored and discovered by the user
These are holes in the modern internet I feel the process of web design, of learning, decorating, and maintaining your own space on the web, absolutely fills. The process of teaching yourself things, of changing as a person over time and having a customizable space that can change with you, these are experiences that create wellbeing in participants and add lifespan to not only physical objects but digital ones as well. I like the sensation of being confused by a piece of code but knowing I can figure it out, or I can ask someone to help me. That’s the sort of process that endears my projects to me and gives me a sense of pride in my work, even if it’s ugly, even if nobody likes it but me. I’m not doing it for engagement or money. I’m doing it because problem solving and customization is what my big wrinkly biped brain is designed for. A personal website is something that can grow with you over time based on your input, more like a plant than an object.
The internet itself is our most amazing technology to date. Fifty years ago everything we’re doing now, the online communities we make, were impossible. It’s whatever we make of it, really. NeoCities, for now, is where I’m building my house; it's a nice place to get steady on my feet after abandoning the corporate web, and there's plenty of other folks doing the same. We’re not out here fabricating a techno-utopia. We’re crafting a weird little town based on individuality, community, problem-solving, passion and genuine fun, and I think that’s probably better. As with physical products, we need spaces on the web that are built with hammers, nails and commitment, built to last, built to age and evolve, and I think this is a step in the right direction. Nothing is set in stone, not surveillance capitalism and certainly not Web3. We can build our homes on the web again and make them as tacky or as neat as we like, full of finely curated collections, weird wallpapers and lampshades, garden gnomes on the lawn, and whatever else. I’ll leave off with this:
“When one has a hammer, so goes the saying, everything looks like a nail. But this is to not think the hammer. The hammer, properly conceived, has many uses. It may pull nails as well as drive them; it may forge iron, shape wood and stone, reveal fossils, and fix anchors for climbing ropes. It may pass sentence, call to order, or be thrown in a contest of athletic strength. Wielded by a god, it generates the weather. Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir, which created thunder and lightning when it struck, also gave birth to hammer-shaped amulets intended to provide protection against the god’s wrath- or through their resemblance to crosses, against enforced conversion. Prehistoric hammers and axes, turned up by the ploughs of later generations, were called ‘thunderstones’ and were believed to have fallen from the sky during storms. These mysterious tools thus became magical objects: when their original purposes passed away, they were capable of taking on new symbolic meaning. We must re-enchant our hammers- all our tools- so they are less like the carpenter’s, and more like Thor’s. More like thunderstones.
Technology comes with an aura of fixedness: once immurred in things, ideas seem settled and unassailable. Hammers, properly employed, can crack them open again." (Bridle 2019)
Bridle, J., 2019. New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future
Chapman, J., 2005. Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experiences and Empathy
Chapman, J., ‘Evidence Paper’, in House of Lords Science and Technology Committee 1: Enquiry into Waste Reduction, House of Lords, London, February 2008