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In, Nick Montfort describes a simple model for categorizing electronic literature: pre-web, web, and post-web. Nick asserts that the middle category has forever passed, and we find ourselves living permanently in the third, whether we like it or not. While the tools of publishing to arbitrary websites still exist, as does the software for reading them, the audience for digital writing has overwhelmingly moved onto corporate-controlled social-media platforms. And so, Montfort says, unless they have reason or motivation to create something intentionally retrograde, writers too have moved on from the open web as their default platform.
Now, I can resist the egotism necessary to think that Nick had me at all in mind when he wrote this (even though I drop by his office at MIT several times every year for the local interactive fiction meetup), but I found it nevertheless hard not to feel called out by this article, given the direction of my recent work. This compels me to write out the present post to my own blog in response, which will duly attempt to send a webmention — savior of the open web, our last best hope, et cetera — to Nick’s blog. And it almost certainly won’t work, because practically nobody supports webmention yet, so I’ll trudge back to Nick’s blog and post a comment that links back here. And then I’ll slink onto Twitter and post a link there, because nobody (except Nick himself, maybe) would see that comment otherwise.
And all that is why, while I thought about titling this post “Refuting Montfort’s ‘Post-web era’” instead of “Rejecting”, I didn’t; it would have felt a bit too much like denying reality. Sure, I could cry I refute it thus! while slapping down a hand-written hyperlink that works exactly as well as it would have a quarter-century ago. But that would not disprove Nick’s central thesis that, even if HTML still works as advertised, nobody (to a first order of approximation) cares.
And yet. Beneath its veneer of accepting reality, Nick’s article carries an undertone of deep dissatisfaction at how artists have all but abandoned independent, creator-owned platforms in favor of those run by profit-seeking social-media corporations. If share that sentiment, and even if I accept that this is the way of things today, I cannot accept that the dream and the promise of the early, pre-corporate web is forever lost and locked away from us, that the only way forward involves a one-way trudge down the dimming hallways of money-hungry platforms, surrendering permanent ownership and access to our own work in exchange for temporary convenience.
Sometimes my objections do feel out of touch and unreasonable; sometimes I wonder how my complaints must sound to others. In the particular case of processing my gut reaction to Nick’s article, though, synchronicity struck when Wil Wheaton published an article on his own blog titled “The world is a terrible place right now, and that’s largely because it is what we make it.” In it, Wheaton recounts his very recent abandonment of all social media, even Twitter alternatives like Mastodon, as hopelessly toxic (especially for public figures like himself). His pain and sorrow at this comes across clearly; he had allowed social media to become central to his life, and I can sympathize with this readily.
The title of Wheaton’s article struck me the most, though, because it evokes the central thesis of The Future, a short book by none other than Nick Montfort, published by MIT Press last winter. It’s good, and you should read it. In it, Nick reminds us that the future isn’t a house we merely move into: it’s one we all play a role in building. The book tells us that if we want to live in a better future, then each of us should decide on a personal path that will help make that future real — however modestly — and then strike out upon it.
I read The Future in January, and in February I first learned about IndieWeb, and in April I started releasing open-source software supporting it — and this, paired with my ongoing work with an IF nonprofit, has remained the focus of my labors outside of freelance work. This despite my not thinking that my efforts alone will transform the face of either interactive fiction or the open web, and nor I do think that either interactive fiction or the open web, by themselves, will turn the world away from its presently fraught course.
So, seen from orbit, the ultimate outcome of my work, if any, will be all but invisible. Subjectively, though? I feel a profound surety that digital art and the open web are two threads among many, many that can form a braid strong enough to keep hauling our cantankerous human mess into the future, despite all the badness and baggage we drag along with it. And I know that I happen to have the skills and experience to help preserve, maintain, and god willing maybe even improve them, at least at the scale of a single person’s efforts. I have to answer the call to this work. Really, that’s all I can do, for today.
This was also posted to IndieNews.
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