Purposing a disciplined effort to reflect on those tech products which have remained too fair and/or too good to catch the attention of the alarmists in us, recently.
I've never been a big fan of holidays, nor do I think Thanksgiving should be a federal one, given its shitty, undebatably imperialist origins, but these opinions are entirely inconsequential. Regardless of how I feel, Thanksgiving will remain as pervasive as ever in the spaces around me, so I thought I'd change things up this year and actually participate in a substantial way. I did my best to travel back to a vastly less complicated self, letting all of the crud that's accumulated atop my love of computers in the past twenty years: wokeness, adtech, Obama wearing VR glasses, etc... When I thought the Native Americans were glad to see white people because they gave them guns and horses and assumed people made things because good ideas were the apex of currency. When I was able to respond to new software discoveries by screwing around aimlessly without wondering if they'd been stolen entirely from a handful of talented developers lacking in the resources and know how required to protect their ideas in the face of Microsoft's ruthless Embrace, Extend, Extinguish crusade.
Forgive yourself for a moment and return there with me. Or perhaps somewhere else, if you need – wherever and whenever you last remember feeling genuinely enthralled with The Future of Computers. (Perhaps it was yesterday! If so, Gourd bless you. Never change.) Let's take ourselves back to kindergarten, before we knew anything about the rapid cyclical consolidation and monopolization within the technology industry that had already established itself as a trend, by then, when all we knew of the software we interacted with was contained within our most visceral reactions: I like Ask Jeeves because I like red and I like Jeeves. I vaguely remember when Google (the search engine) first broached the general awareness of my elementary school's computer lab. I'm fairly sure I even remember the sort of feelings that were elicited the first time I actually set eyes on the Google.com homepage: it looked so modern, then, compared to the rest of the web. (After two decades, it currently looks like shit.) Upon the first first query, it was immediately clear that Google was superior to any of the other search engines we'd been using.
This sort of encounter – with a service that significantly alters one's perception of a given set of tasks – is precious in our lives as users.
A few examples from my own using life which come to mind:
- The first time I witnessed a Skype call.
- Downloading and using the beta Evernote client on the school machines in Junior High.
- The first album I uploaded on Bandcamp.
- Discord's first public release.
- The “moment” I first put a name to Markdown. (I'd been using bits of the syntax for years before I actually read the word.)
- And most recently, exploring Notion as personal catch-all documentation software.
The atmosphere of elation about the future on which I so often lament has been replaced by wariness for most of us – from Californian software developers to tractor-hacking farmers. Now, the conversation is saturated with CEO appearances before legal committees, corporate memo leaks, and somber interviews. Of course, I have unquestionably contributed more than my share. In fact, I wish I could be twice as critical in twice the written volume, and I believe the tech media industry to be far too culturally-embedded within Silicon Valley to be nearly critical enough. For this holiday, though, I think a respite from the negative is worthwhile and essential. I know it is for my personal sanity, at least.
A week ago, I shared this Google Form and asked you to reflect with me on the “really great” software/services you have encountered in your using life built by “technology companies who's business ethics align toward the benefit of us users and who's products are well-priced (or free!)” As of the time of this writing, nearly 80 responses have been recorded on the form, itself, and several more via comments on Hacker News. I deeply appreciate your participation! They're far from predictable, too – I've ended up learning a lot. The very first submission was for Logos Bible Software, which has quite a fascinating history. I feel like those less-secular of us go unexposed to theological software without participants such as the human who submitted this one (thank you, human!,) and end up missing out on an entire segment of software development. Having studied The Good Book in a very much analog fashion through Lutheran school, I wonder in retrospect how software solutions could've changed the experience.
I have never received this volume of feedback in my prompts before, nor have I ever really seen a reason to close any of them to responses, so I'm going to take a blind shot at the dartboard and plan to close the form on New Year's Day, 2021. Until then, please feel free to respond in any way you'd like and/or view all the live answers in this very bad spreadsheet full of these very good responses. (My apologies – I have absolutely no idea how to use Google Sheets.)
I originally intended to go into relatively extensive detail for each of the entities on my own Most Thankful For list, but I do have to actually stop somewhere, so the commentary on these isn't remarkably insightful or educational. It is genuine, though, which is worth something, I hope.
Yes, I have tirelessly promoted my essay about Bandcamp's holiness for years now, but I have done so with good reason: here is a for-profit technology company which is building a one-of-a-kind product that invests directly in independent artists. I spent a whole summer scouring The Web looking for a single misstep or controversy and found absolutely none.
Over the course of this super link-laden journey, we’d consider the alarmingly hypocritical possibility that it’s been overlooked by mainstream conversations only because it has so long operated in the precise manner we claim is so hopelessly absent from its neighbors in its deliberate, principled, and innovative journey towards a transparent, progressive vision.
Before OBS (Open Broadcaster Software,) streaming video was an absolute mess that usually involved paying for or pirating some proprietary software. Remember Ustream? Good God...
OBS is the streaming video equivalent of Audacity and GIMP: an extremely powerful, infinitely-malleable set of tools that allow one to take full advantage of their hardware to capture and/or stream video and audio.
From another recommendation I wrote:
Typora is an infinitely-customizable markdown editor spanning all platforms that's managed to become my primary word processor (and I'm someone who demands a lot from word processors.) It's immensely powerful in all the important ways – my use over the past two years has stress tested it with both enormous (100,000+ words) and extremely complicated (100+ images and embeds) documents. It's able to export even these chunkos to any format you can imagine instantaneously and never crashes.
From a comment I made on The Information's notetaking software comparison:
Typora is a Markdown editor with left sidebar file sorting, very much like Bear (several available themes can make it look actually identical, in fact,) but without its native iCloud-based file syncing. It is cross-platform, open-source, and definitely more powerful, though.
The Typora theming community has been especially on-point, as of late. In the screenshot embedded above, it's wearing the Slate variation of H16nning's Gitbook theme, which is by far the most beautiful configuration I've yet to see the editor in.
The GNU Image Manipulation Program – which just celebrated its 25th anniversary last week – is one of the most powerful tools in its space and perhaps the number one exemplary example of open source software to cite when explaining the concept for the first time. I have used it my entire creative life for all manner of tasks and evangelized it plenty, but it wasn't until I returned to college this Fall and took advantage of Adobe's student discounts that I had an opportunity to thoroughly explore its proprietary nemesis, Photoshop.
What I found was indeed a very powerful piece of software, albeit as arrogant as ever in its stubborn commitment to the original keyboard shortcuts set by default and other legacy artifacts, though not one I would compare to GIMP, necessarily. This shouldn't be breaking news: as far as I know, there are billions of posts comparing the two going back to the beginning of the written word. My personal conclusion: I can accomplish much more, much faster with GIMP in every single one of my own use cases.
I was browsing some FOSS-related article aggregation page a few weeks ago when a post caught my eye: “Audacity exceeds 100 million downloads.” In reflection, I realized in that moment that perhaps no other single piece of software has been so thoroughly present in my “workflows” across all sorts of projects through the years, largely because of its God-sent Truncate Silence feature, which I have used to remove silence from audio files for as long as I've been working within the medium, basically. Every podcast episode I have ever published has passed through Audacity for this reason and others, as have voiceovers, high school punk band demo tapes, personal voice notes, and more.
the world would actually be perfect if audacity's truncate silence feature could be autotied to video timecodes.— David Blue (@NeoYokel) August 19, 2016
Until OBS came along, Audacity was where all recorded audio started for myself and my creative friends. It was Audacity that captured (and caused, technically) the death of my friend's soundcard in audio form during the recording process for Hamura, the first Drywall album, back in October of 2011.
Fucking around in Audacity through the years has led to some halfway creative results on my part, including “SLOWED 'N' THROWED” Hilary Duff tracks and legacy Windows sounds remixes. I still use it for every episode of End User and have recently created a macro for remastering Drycast episodes. (A big feat for me and reflective of Audacity's ingenuity.) As far as I know, there are zero competitors, proprietary or not, which can replicate Audacity's particular usefulness as an audio utility.
Shortly after I discovered NeoCities last Spring, I signed up to be a Supporter for $5/month, not necessarily for the additional storage or bandwidth, but because the project immediately sounded like one I was personally obligated to uplift. Parimal Satyal's essay “Rediscovering the Small Web,” along with the design of the website which delivered it, inspired me to make another attempt at building an HTML site by hand. So far, davidblue.xyz obviously borrows heavily from his CSS, but looking at the code itself was vastly more pleasant than one would expect. Recently, during the course of writing an academic research essay, I found myself listening to interviews with its founder, Kyle Drake and reading articles from its debut in 2013, which prompted me to take even further advantage of my account.
Last week, I moved my inactive automotive blog (dieselgoth.com) from a Writeas blog to a purely-HTML NeoCities website with disturbingly little friction. (I challenge you to spot any differences.) After discovering a backup of the original Drywall Website deep within my old files, NeoCities was the only reasonable host on which to archive it. After I'd finished uploading, I fell down what the youth call a “rabbit hole” of discovery, mesmerized by what I found on page after page of NeoCities' site browser. I did my best to save the best finds by following them within the sites dashboard and have since set up a Best of NeoCities GitHub repository with my absolute favorites among them archived thanks to wget.
Trust me when I tell you that some of the best web design, ever can be found on NeoCities. What's even better: after my deep dive, I was pleasantly surprised by strangers commenting on what I'd found! Replying in a timely, substantial, and genuine manner seems to be a hallmark of the community: my (rather verbose) question regarding the well-manneredness of publishing such an archive without permission in the community Discord I discovered just this morning was almost immediately met with encouraging replies.
A Post you should probably expect soon: “NeoCities is 2020's Best Social Network.” Going forward, I'd like to digitize my poetry collection on NeoCities in the near future while continuing to otherwise brush back up on HTML and CSS – both of which I am also very thankful for, come to think of it.
Thank you again for your correspondence! May your Imperialism Day be a positive experience!