I am trying to break the Internet

I don’t see how we can remain enthusiastic about network culture. In the decade since the release of the iPhone, the Internet has gone from being a playpen for geeks and outsiders to the primary theater for politics and culture. Even three years ago the thought that a major global leader would use Twitter to announce major policy initiatives would have seemed futuristic and a little naïve. Now we have it and it’s the darkest time most America has collectively experienced in memory. We lurch headlong into a future, but it’s a new bad future.

And, as we seem to be drowning in information, we seem to have lost our ability to communicate and absorb knowledge. Almost nobody reads and writes blogs anymore (please don’t get me started about Medium and the final, thorough destruction of independent content its startup model is premised on). Magazines and journals are well and truly dead. Most books by theorists and academics are soundly ignored too, which is probably a good thing given that theory has become permeated by a neo-fascist identity politics. Outside of the telecocoon of our partners, children, closest friend or two, and immediate work associates, we no longer call each other, we no longer e-mail each other, and we ghost each other as much as we text each other. Earlier forms of Internet culture are also on the rocks: listservs have become replaced by Facebook groups that produce no thought or discussion of any substance whatsoever, and most online forums have died as well. The aforementioned Twitter should be dead, but is kept alive by our desire to see what the lunatic in the White House will say next, and otherwise serves as home to a few misfits and general oddballs. Facebook absorbs everything, reducing all human communication to nothing and algorithmically directs us to only see those posts that give us a fleeting satisfaction. It’s more imagistic spawn, Instagram, is the model of the new Internet, driving us to constantly one up each other with a lifestyle pornography. There are, of course, exceptions—I actually like Reddit and there are some niche online forums that have moments of productivity—but it’s bad out there. I have played my own part in migrating to these awful commercial platforms and regret it. Something must be done. Endless promises and little delivery.

In the case of this site, I’ve resolved to fix matters over and over again, but each time was undone by the content management system, Drupal. Drupal is awful. Way back in 2005, Drupal seemed like a good choice, with its module-based open architecture, and the promise of a content management system that could go far beyond a blog. At the time, I was fascinated with the idea of the networked book and Drupal seemed to offer such functionality built in. Unfortunately, Drupal long ago began to resemble a 1980s American car company, suffering from over-complexity, putting design and user interface last, and unable to got basic features working. A critical flaw is that the development team long ago decided that “the drop is always moving”: each major version of Drupal breaks all the existing plug-ins and themes without which a site is ugly and limited. And therein lies the rub. I should have updated my site eight years ago when Drupal 7 was released, but the horribly botched release of that version would have broken my site thoroughly if it had been possible to update it at all (I am now forgetting if it was Drupal 7 or 8 that did not have upgrade capabilities when first released and the upgrade cycle to Drupal 6 cost me over a month of work). Add to that constant trouble with excessive memory overhead, the obliteration of comments by spambots, together with a general feeling that the whole creaking mess was going to explode like a steam-powered Soviet tractor meant that I knew I’d never be upgrading Drupal. But where to go?

A New Year’s resolution for 2017 had been to redo my site in a new content management system and I upgraded the front end of my site to Kirby. Kirby is fantastic. It took me an afternoon to build the site (I am still running Kirby over at the network architecture lab. In Drupal it would have taken a week. Still, although now I had a decent portfolio together, the blog languished and I made a handful in 2017 and only one post in 2018. In part, this was due to life: I am still cleaning up after the decades of neglect that our house suffered before we bought it, I am spend more time with my family, and I am working on my conceptual art and sound practices. Still, doing anything in Drupal was a nightmare and I stayed away from any substantive blogging.

So it happens that we were away skiing at Smuggler’s Notch in Vermont this week and, as so often happens, we had freezing rain all day. So I decided to finally upgrade this blog and move it to WordPress. I had used WordPress before in Jo-Anne Green’s Networked book project and that had pushed the platform beyond what it was capable of at that time, leaving me with a bad opinion of the platform, but during the intervening years, WordPress has matured into a capable platform (even with the recent growing pains caused by the Gutenberg blogging interface).

Frédéric Gilles’s amazing Drupal to WordPress plugin imported all of the data from Drupal—even comments!—better than I had ever dreamed was possible, better than I would have expected from an upgrade within Drupal. I’ve long loved Indexhibit and use it on AUDC’s site so I was glad to base the new site on Leanda Ryan’s Inxhibit theme (much as I love Indexhibit, it simply isn’t designed for blogging). A day of work later and, although there are some bugs here and there, I am confident enough to replace Varnelis.net with WordPress.

One of the major impediments to blogging that I faced with Drupal is that inputting text on the Web is a nightmare (I can’t tell you how many posts I’ve lost by accidentally hitting the wrong key on Drupal) and uploading text inevitably seemed to introduce formatting issues, no matter how hard I tried. In the case of WordPress, I knew that there were many more tools available at my disposal so I decided to try iAWriter and found it worked flawlessly. I started writing this post on my Mac, seamlessly picked it to my iPad Pro and posted this entry. This is simple, the way Content Management Systems were supposed to be, without losing the independence that blogs make possible.

I’ve also put Feedly front and center for daily reading on my iPad. There are plenty of great blogs out there are acting as a resistance to the managed content of Facebook, Twitter, and Medium and I am setting out to rediscover them. With these changes to my blog, maybe, just maybe, I may once again join them as well.


After 6 (or is 11 or 13 or 16) Years

This month marks six years of varnelis.net on Drupal. I moved my Web site to its own domain, then kazys.net in April 1998, after running a site on lightlink.com since 1995. I began a blog (I didn’t even know that term when I started) on May 14, 2000. There must be something about this time of year, no doubt it’s tied to the extra time and energy I get when the spring semester wraps up.

Drupal is powerful but intensely frustrating. It’s Open Source software and while I’m immensely grateful, I’d be so happy to pay a couple of hundred a year to be rid of the headaches it gives me, but I’ve learned enough about it that I’m happy enough using it to run networkarchitecturelab.org, audc.org, networkedpublics.org, docomomo-us.org, to name a few sites and I can’t see transitioning away from Drupal anytime soon.

Learning the software allowed me to run the blog for the Networked Publics year at the Annenberg, in itself also a crucial transition period, allowing me to move more deeply into network culture.   

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Against Internet Explorer

Somewhere along the way, Internet Explorer has ceased to work with my site. I generally debug against both Explorer 6 and 7 when I do a major site upgrade, but this has caught me unawares. I am also a bit surprised that nobody mentioned it. The logs suggest that some of you still visit using Explorer. I’m going to try to figure this out, but it’s another unexpected task. Explorer is a nightmare to support. If I get my sites working is Safari, they almost also work in Firefox and Chrome, but then Explorer is an entirely different animal. Why anyone continues to use it or why it continues to exist is beyond me. 

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site update

I seem to redesign this site around New Year’s so it’s a month overdue, but spurred by the new C-lab site, I decided it was time for an overhaul.

If, like most of my readership, you’re reading this via RSS, then you’re unlikely to see much difference. But if you visit https://varnelis.net, you’ll see that I created a new landing page containing the highlights of the site.

With four books in two years and a bunch of other publications, finding one’s way via the content on the left hand side of the blog was not easy. So I’ve put together a new page using Drupal‘s Panels module.

But that’s not all: I am going to differentiate between my blog and more rapid-fire Tumblelog-like posts, again done in Drupal.

So, some links:

The index view of my blog content will be at https://varnelis.net/index.
The blog view of that content will be at https://varnelis.net/blog.

The Tumbleblog clone will be at https://varnelis.net/notices.

Content from both the tumblog clone and the original blog will be sent through the aggregator.

Let me know if you have any trouble and what you think.

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A Modest Proposal for Social Networks or, How This Could be the Next Facebook

I’m still trying to catch up with my big blog post (maybe a white paper?) on the research we did on Networked Publics and the Infrastructural City, so bear with me. In the meantime, how about some pie-in-the-sky ideas about Web 3.0 (so sorry)?  

A couple of weeks ago, Traction Software’s Jordan Frank wrote an intelligently-written post titled "Wither Web 2.0 Social Networking? My 2 Cents." Jordan begins with a series of gloomy links on the failure of social networking technology to monetize. It’s pretty obvious to those of you on Twitter or on Facebook…we use these sites all the time. Some 150 million people subscribe to Facebook and half of them use it every day. It costs a lot of money to run Facebook’s servers (the photo below is of some of the over 10,000 servers Facebook uses) and back in 2007, Fishtrain calculated that the server cost alone was around $1.05 a user and of course there are employees, office space, and so on.

In other words, that’s crazy money and for social networks to stay afloat, they are going to have to make some real cash fast. Facebook could well be racing the New York Times for which one will shut its doors first.

facebook's server room

Advertising is the hitch here. Social networks, search engines, and of course newspapers and magazines have long relied on advertising to fund their businesses, but as advertisers are able to see results more directly than ever before, they find that perhaps ads—especially the sort of relatively unobtrusive ads that appear on social networks…but that users still hate—aren’t really generating the kind of results they want.

Remember "it’s all about eyeballs?" I remember doe-eyed business school graduates telling me that a decade ago and look how far that went…

User fees are certainly possible but extremely unlikely, in my opinion, to succeed.

Instead, here’s a thought experiment. With millions of blogs and content-management-driven Web sites out there (like this one, but also online user communities), what if social networks left the corporate-owned ghetto? What if a set of tools were developed—OpenId being only the first one—to allow all the goodies of social networking sites—meeting friends, posting profiles, tracking online actions, sending dumb gifts, unfriending people, posting kid photos, poking—to spread across the Web? How different would this be than losing America Online, Compuserve, and the various online services of the 1980s and early 1990s? What if all this social networking stuff just went into the cloud—not a cloud owned by Amazon or Google—but a cloud owned by everyone? A few new tools and Drupal 9.0 could certainly do this, I think. 

Surely some important technological breakthroughs would have to be made to make this a reality, but really, why not? 

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First Impressions: the iPhone, Proficiency, and the Internet as Appliance

Being the Director of the Netlab means that I have to try anything being touted as a fundamentally new way of networking, right? Of course, it doesn't mean that the Netlab pays, unless by that you mean that I pay!

So what are my first impressions?

To be sure, this is a paradigm shift. The gestural aspect of the Interface seems to work well. Assigning some rough values to proficiency, I would say that I am about 70% proficient with it now, whereas I might be 98% proficient with my Mac's interface and ever only reached 95% with my Treo.The difference between 95 and 98 may be small, but it's big enough that whenever I used the Treo, I felt like I wasn't at home. That was significant. In contrast, there's something about drawing pens that doesn't work for me. Whenever I use one, my hand cramps up and I've never been able to get beyond 75% on them. In other words, they're unusable. The first big test of the iPhone is how quickly I will get used to the interface.

In certain ways the interface is contradictory: on the one hand, web pages are rendered as exquisite miniatures that you zoom in on to read, on the other hand, settings pages have inordinately large text for such a small device, making it necessary to navigate multiple menus to accomplish a task.

An obvious solution would be for the user to have some access to the settings, but this isn't possible. There is definitely a locked-down feeling on the phone compared to my Treo. On the Treo I was limited in my options, but I had them. For example, I could set up my screen as a set of icons or as a list. Not so on the iPhone. The most frustrating aspects of the Treo was the phone application which was impossible to configure. The iPhone is entirely like that, which is disappointing, except that unlike anything Palm has done in the last few years there is some sense of design here.

Now on to another, serious issue that has larger implications beyond the iPhone. Over the last few years, it's become rather common to see the Internet as a place of media convergence and the web as the means by which this will happen. In particular, open APIs such as Google Maps, Amazon, or Flickr have allowed programmers to build applications that remix online content in a plethora of way, some ludicrous, some, like hopstop.

The iPhone's interface undoes this completely. If you go to a YouTube site in iPhone's Safari, a notice that you either have javascript turned off or an old flash player appears instead of a video. Quicktime videos from Apple's web site work great (perfect for watching trailers from Apple's web site!), but flash doesn't play. And of course you can't download anything so forget about trying to install Skype or Google Earth.

To be fair, I still remember the bad old days when every architect had to have a flash site built. All of these were equally wretched and I welcome another nail in that coffin. But the the iPhone has reinscribed the isolated nature of flash sites. The widget based nature of the device suggests that Apple sees a future in single purpose applications for the web. Really the weather and stock applications (who needs the latter, really?)—front ends to Yahoo! services—aren't much different. So what's next, Wikipedia and Flickr widgets? Certainly I have nothing against such projects when they make Internet resources easier to access, but in the iPhone's closed architecture they suggest that Apple will lock down the web into a series of discreet applications with Apple the arbiter of who gets to be a provider (read provides a sexy widget and good corporate sponsorship).

The iPhone is less than a day old and Apple was scrambling just to get it out the door, but the device clearly will make the Internet a true mobile platform for the first time. How this will play out, however, is far from certain.

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Blue Monday

kazys with blue monday
It’s been a Blue Monday here in Montclair in more ways than one. It’s foggy and wet with patches of drizzle. The doorbell rang this morning and the Fedex man came with my advance copies of Blue Monday. The book looks fantastic and I can’t wait to get it into the wild. It is the perfect size to be “A Guide to the Operating System of the System itself” as Reinhold Martin calls it. If the dot.com era was marked by Verso’s somewhat (deliberately) cynical Communist Manifesto with the Komar and Malmid cover that was supposed to “fit snugly in a Prada purse,” then Blue Monday is the irony-free successor.
Regrettably, ever since I moved to a so-called “failover” web hosting plan, my server has done nothing but fail. Varnelis.net took a turn for the worse today and the not-so-very-helpful staff weren’t able to account for (or admit) what they had done. As a result, instead of being able to post this account to the blog quickly, I had to move the site over. Oh well, it all makes the eventual transition to a new host easier! In the meantime, some links will have broken. Unfortunately, it will probably be a long time before I can spare the cycles to rebuild them.
But, with the site up and (largely) running, I’m pleased to finally be able to report this news along with this photo of the first American Blue Monday and its owner.
Did you know there’s a whole site dedicated to photographs of copies of Blue Monday and their owners ?

drupal, network architecture, network cities, network culture

Some subtle changes this morning. The first is the implementation of Drupal 5.1 behind the scenes on this site. Discovering RSS and moving to Drupal got me back into blogging in 2005 after a year's absence. I have spent a huge amount of time learning this content management system (CMS), but it has really been worth it, not only in terms of being able to maintain this site, but also in being able to build sustainable infrastructures for the LA Forum, Networked Publics (offilne at the moment, but ready to be updated next week), Docomomo, and Netlab sites. During this time, Drupal has matured significantly, making layout and site administration much easier and making the program much more of a CMS than a blogging tool. The Open Source nature of Drupal often leads to quirky decisions about priorities (image management is not in core) and branding (it's called "community plumbing" and it could use more well designed themes out of the box). I'm never sure if the entire thing is going to derail in the next version or not and remarkably often developers of specific modules vanish into the ether (as the developer of a popular wiki module and the maintainer of a WYSIWYG editor recently did), but on the whole the Drupal community has been great and this powerful software deserves a plug. Who knows, maybe this year I will finally get to site development and even contribute a theme.

I am fairly sure that this is the longest running individual architecture blog on the web (see the lonely archives for entries from 2000 onward) but the idea goes even further back, to 1994. For a long time, it was enough to collect general observations on architecture and urbanism, but as blogs on those topics have proliferated (I count 20 in my RSS feeds alone), defining just what you are up to has become necessary. To this end, the other subtle change is a new mission statement (to the left, below my bio) and a new tag line at the top, "network architecture | network cities | network culture" that better reflects both my research work at Columbia and the focus of this site.

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david reinfurt

David Reinfurt of O R G and Dexster Sinister came in to talk to my seminar on the Architecture Machine Group today to discuss his work with the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT and his research on designer Muriel Cooper, the first designer for MIT press and the Founder of the Visible Language Workshop at the MIT Media Lab. Cooper is responsible for the MIT Logo as well as for the first edition of Learning for Las Vegas among many other projects. All of the preceding links go to David's work and are well worth following up.

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