Reflecting on over 20 years of being part of the Internet_

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December 28, 2022 @11:20

This is a bit of a departure from what I normally post on here. I've had some of these thoughts rattling around in my head for a while and to end the year I felt like finally sitting down and getting them out. While there is some technical background contained herein it's more of a story as to how and perhaps why this site — the very infrastructure holding up the vast majority of my online presence exists. I suspect that it will attract a different sort of reader than my usual posts as it lacks the utilitarian qualities of me documenting a bitter fight with some technology. Nevertheless I hope that if you take the time to read the rest of this that you find some useful information.

Past as Prologue

The top third of the main rack in my basement I have been running an Internet connected network for over twenty years and when I started doing so was a bit remarkable — then over the years it became rather ordinary and now it is trending back towards being remarkable again. At the moment this network includes physical assets in three different locations and virtual assets in two additional locations. It spans the continental United States and is interlinked via IPSec secured VPN tunnels across the public Internet with routing provided by OSPF and BGP. I have several systems (mostly mobile clients like laptops and phones) that are configured to connect automatically when not served by trusted WiFi or Ethernet connectivity. I provide several services to the public Internet and provide several more services including layered security services to my internal systems. In modern terms you can think of my personal IT infrastructure as being a hybrid cloud, though it's almost always been this way.

Looking back over the years I'm pretty happy with the choices that brought me here. The determination of running my own infrastructure instead of relying on others too much. I got my start online in the early 1990s BBS scene — exploring the variety of computers in my area code (long-distance phone calls cost money back then) and the Internet was something for colleges. There was something special about discovering a new phone number (there were BBS lists and even message boards for posting advertisements about BBSes in your area but quite a few existed only on word of mouth, phone numbers scribbled on scraps of paper) dialing in and checking out what was on offer. Most of the people I knew in the community called a handful of boards every day, at peak I probably called between 6 and 8. Some had great message boards, some had the best Legend of the Red Dragon game or the best Barren Realms Elite game or the best Dopewars game, some had a ton of disk space and a great collection of files. Towards the end real time chat became more widely available and groups of us would hang out in what (for me) became the precursor to IRC. With the cost of phone lines being high, these places were still quite rare and the communities were very small. Towards the late 1990s a beta of a new product came to my town — Internet over the cable TV network. It turns out this would change everything. Very early on in my Internet exploits — 1997 or 1998 or so my e-mail provider up and went out of business as Internet businesses are want to do. Even back in those days losing access to one's e-mail was an enormous pain. I swore to myself never again though eventually I predictably gave into the siren call of progress. The hosted e-mail service I had moved to promptly got bought by Yahoo! and killed off. So really, for sure this time, I'm keeping my data. Armed with a sketchy dynamic DNS provider and a copy of the O'Reilly bat book I was well on my way to what I have today.

Blogging as Navel-gazing

The bottom of the main rack I find myself describing this cocoon of technology that I've built around myself as a collection of robots that venture out into the Internet and bring me interesting things purposefully evoking a mental picture of daemons in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, or a Gibson-esque murder of digital crows presenting shiny objects to found friends. Some of this is in fact daemons in the nominal sense, some are scripts run from cron(8), and others are masses of metastasized Python entombed in containers waiting to be freed from some unfortunate fad-chasing on my part. All of these are hand made tools, as dear as a grandparent's pocket knife, designed to navigate the ever more user-hostile islands of data and strip it down to its most important essence. Algorithms, advertisements, behavioral tracking, A/B testing are all stripped away. Salient details like user agent strings and cookies replaced with any number of possibilities, some clearly identifying the traffic as being from a bot, some a light-hearted and whimsical throw-back to a bygone era (I think I may be the last BlackBerry Passport most servers may see), or if your site is particularly hostile to the open web — blatantly profane.

Beyond infrastructure I'm a serial website creator. I've had some form of blog for — as far as I can tell over 20 years and while the current incarnation only has around 170 posts I've deleted or abandoned many more posts than that as I've migrated from various software over the years. I think it's tremendously important to be able to keep your digital garden tended and control the tone you want to set. In the early days I published what amounted to a personal journal. This was one of the things one did online and like so many others it contained what could be charitably called Various Tribulations (often imagined) of a teenager. Like so much else I'm certain some of this lives on within the bowels of the triumph of humanity that is the Internet Archive however I'm similarly certain it no longer has a place here. In the context of modern social media you no longer have the power to truly, publicly forget things. You can try but pieces will live on in backend databases and in unexpected places. (People I had messaged on Facebook still have my messages in their history even though I deleted my Facebook account almost a decade ago.) This leads to one having to be more proactively proscriptive lest you brand yourself in a way that will haunt you for potentially years to come.

The rack in my workshop Being a part of (or at least thinking of myself as a part of) the Internet as opposed to simply being a user of the Internet gives me more power in the relationship than I would otherwise have. As various web properties struggle around us leading users to lament about what the future will be like without them I find myself largely non-plussed. The reality is that so much of what I "follow" online is brought to me via machines of my own design and construction. I don't particularly ascribe to the notion that I have to use an approved web browser and interact with a website through their published applications. The Internet as a whole and the web specifically were always meant to be open ecosystems — with many so-called user agents being available that can make choices about what and how the information being presented by the server is shown to the end user. In my case an awful lot gets turned into RSS, a machine readable format that I can sync and read across a wide range of devices. This generally bypasses the algorithms that most sites use to try to entrap you and focuses on the information that is contained, stripping all the design and leaving raw the important pieces. Technically this is no different that a vision impaired person using a screen reader and is inherent in the very design intent of the entire software stack (though often flies in the face of the corporate mission of the large websites but that is their problem).

Tinker, Tailor

The colocated hardware running this site I plan to continue keeping this little curated notebook of mostly technical thoughts around. Though my microblog certainly has more posts and will likely continue to be more often updated, the stuff posted here has stood the test of time. I can't imagine ever being happy just being a user of the Internet, of not writing software to bend it to my will. Part of the motivation is the fact that I'm not creating content here. I am writing software, documenting experiences, telling stories, sharing experiences. I don't feel the drive to build an audience and curate the notoriously short attention spans that seem to come along with the enterprise of creating product for a social media space. As such I don't need to churn out posts any more often than suits me to nor do I need to write on any topic that doesn't interest me. I am happy with people finding my work organically, often times through a search for help hastily typed into a search engine somewhere. I get about 2000 visits a month with roughly half of that being automated (bot) traffic. My favorite hits are the ones to my RSS feed as I see those as being kindred souls still adamantly dedicated to experiencing the Internet on their own terms.

It has been bittersweet seeing the Internet graduate from the research project of its birth to being infrastructure. Not because of the influx of lay users, mind you but because it allowed the companies that operate on the Internet — making hardware, software, and services that take advantage of the infrastructure built in the closing centuries of the last millennium to no longer have to envision their users building their own tools. Interoperability and portability which were once the foundation and guiding principles of the Internet have been replaced with a homogeneous browser landscape as our use of the Internet has become increasingly experienced via consumption-only devices. Phones, tablets, and televisions all tend to violently eschew creation. Only the venerable personal computer, likely due to its hobbiest roots and open heritage embodies the ability to create new tools with which to experience the digital landscape we've created.

Now I understand that not everyone has the penchant for tinkering that I do. Just as not everyone is interested in tuning a carburetor or sharpening a knife. For those who do invest in those skills though there is an inherent satisfaction, freedom from dependance, and a sense of security in understanding. As in the real world the heart of the digital scammer and confidence peddler is rooted in the knowledge that most of his marks are ignorant. Technology is after all not a problem solver but instead a powerful force multiplier. The speed and efficiency of modern communication brings to bear a wider net to cast upon the unsuspecting and unwary allowing the law of large numbers to work in their favor separating people from their heard earned capital. This also applies to more legitimate seeming commercial Internet enterprise like social media where you turn over your labor so someone else can make a profit and lose any agency over how your work is used or preserved. The various patterns designed into the user experiences of most of those sites are at their very core reliant on you not looking too closely under the covers lest you find out you are being goaded into the chute for products, not customers.

Turn off The Lights When You Go

Ultimately it seems that the endgame is clearer here too — at some point I'll zip up the git repository that contains this website and ship it off to the Internet Archive secure in the knowledge that it will exist in some form after I do not. Who knows for how long but surely for longer than I could otherwise reasonably hope, perhaps lending some useful information or context to future tinkerers. The hyperlinks may eventually be dead — almost certainly squatted on by some domain-parking parasite but perhaps the words will live on. History has shown that of all the institutions humankind has created the one to bet on against all odds is a library. It is hard to know what the future of the Internet will be, I think it is undeniable that commercialization will continue and that the largely personal aspects of the web that were so prevalent in the early days will continue to wane. Hopefully the open heritage will continue though and those that wish to build tools can continue to do so and participate on their own terms.

Here's to another twenty years. 🥃

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