Longform computing

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2021-04-09

This is a short post of freewriting about some nascent thinking on longform computing, which may be similar to or even the same thing as heirloom computing.

I'm writing this as a response to Steve Lord's newsletter issue The 100 Year Computer as well as Permacomputing on Solderpunk's capsule. The first whetted my interest. The second more closely aligns with my values and thoughts.

The 100-Year Computer

Permacomputing

Steve Lord describes the goal of making a resilient heirloom computer that could be handed down over generations. Then he proceeds to explain he is a hardware person. Then proceeds to describe building a new hardware device modeled on previous generation tech. Then builds some prototypes, marrying it with C/PM, an obscure 80s operating system that rivalled Microsoft DOS and lost out. Then he explains that someone forked and made a better implementation of C/PM and then walks through how to (obscurely) get that operating system working on some hard-to-get tech, and the available languages and software tools from the 80s made for it.

So....yeah....I have some questions. What are you making an heirloom? What are you preserving? and why?

If you're trying to counter the 2-3 year wasteful product lifecycle of big tech, then making a new "primitive" computer in some gee whiz fashion like this kind of misses the point for me, even if it is intriguing and fun. While I admire and think using all of these old text-based software is great, and that text alone can preserve a ton (here I'm talking about one's personal writing), I think personally I want to preserve text and images and movies, maybe even games, that are born digital. I also think that C/PM and this particular fork is too obscure, and there's little evidence that folks in the future would have interest/ability in deciphering how to use this obscure (modified) OS. And I don't think it can handle saving images.

What I'm saying is that I don't think this is ubiquitous technology, easily replaceable, and able to be operated or used by large number of people in the future, nor able to store images/videos which I want to preserve as well as text. I also think it just makes ONE MORE consumable device.

So what I'm envisioning is.......wait for it............Linux.

Unix-like systems have been around 50 years. Text files work the same on it. Basic text editing / reading / file editing / browsing software can be very simple. You can ship POSIX and 20+ (40 year plus!) CLI software on it. There are thousands of not just websites but physical books about using it. And the basic tools, while varying in implementation details, largely in their basic form work the same. From this, I'm conceiving of making a SD card image with some kind of browseable main menu, good and easy text documentation, and a startup splashscreen, even if it boots into text first. In other words, it's a glorified USB drive, aimed at having some basic Linux CLI software and minimal GUI that can be launched as well. Maybe a minimial Debian since that runs on everything and powers the Raspberry Pi. Ideally this can run on Android phones, CLIs and old computers. Perhaps it looks like an 80s browseable bulletin board system when you log in. A directory, help, guides and (text) software launchers.

For software, perhaps there are journal entries, spreadsheets, family trees, books, heck, maybe even saved emails. Here I'm thinking about how we like to read correspondence that folks wrote hundreds of years ago, or find old postcards or letters between ancestors. Though do people want to save these ubiquitous emails anymore? Maybe more intention is needed to figure out what to save.

In Solderpunk's gemini post on The Standard Salvaged Computing Platform he describes some good 'solarpunk praxis' which I register with as well.

These two in particular stood out to me:

Do not buy any new computing device unless you really feel you absolutely "have to". Buy used instead. Only decreasing demand will slow down manufacturing, and only slowing down manufacturing will substantially reduce environmental impact. This is the single most important point in this list. It extends even to things "normal people" wouldn't consider computers - fitness trackers, voice activated personal assistants, smart lightbulbs, etc.
Identify projects which develop software to run on "old" or "slow" or unsupported computing devices, or which try to "jailbreak" or otherwise liberate locked down devices to make them more general purpose, and if you can contribute to them by donating hardware, writing code, writing documentation or donating money, do so, to whatever extent your skills and circumstances allow it. These projects are far more important than projects to design and manufacture new, "better" hardware in the interests of sustainability. Manufacturing is the *problem*, it cannot be a large part of the solution.

Hear hear! Consumption is a disease. Preserving our tattered digital files of writing for our future selves or future generations is our cause. And bootstrapping and remixing and envisioning new futures (or preserved futures) for old tech is our (possible) solution.

At least that's where I'm at right now.

In the future, I may actually start to build this using some of my old machines, and then write about the process. I may deploy some similar software as listed by Steve Lord. More than likely I'll make some alterations to the shell to launch some help, directory guide, and an ability to export / backup. It might be mostly text files and maybe a bash script that launches on start and links to launch lots of other linux software. Still in the brainstorming stage at this point...

Could this feel like a book you give to a future relative? a time capsule? or is this a glorified backup? Some of these questions need to be answered on who it's for and what and why.