(hey, type here for great stuff)

access to tools for the beginning of infinity

Better experiences online & offline? Internet rewilding vs “inferno of the same”

After having a great conversation with Texan designer Ryan Rhodes from LAND, I felt compelled to write a piece on how to escape the walled-garden Inferno and “Rewild the Internet” for better experiences.

The French school system has five holidays throughout the year: Toussaint (Fall), Noël (Winter), Printemps (Spring), and Été (Summer). This propels one big divide in French society: those families who leave their routine seasonally to go somewhere with their children and those with more rigid jobs who enroll their kids in some activity or send them with their grandparents during the two-week school hiatus.

During the many years we lived in France, we took full advantage of school breaks right in the middle of each school period, traveling seasonally like migratory animals. We’d go south in Fall and Winter, whereas we’d travel somewhere in Central or Northern Europe in Spring and leave for the US to spend the whole Summer in North America, from Northern Quebec to Mexico City.

Before the mid-19th century, the Landes in southwestern France was an area of swamps and marshes sparsely populated by grain farmers and shepherds, who walked on stilts to move around in the wet terrain. Jean-Louis Gintrac (1808–1886), Inhabitants of the Landes

I’d make sure to check the car right before every school vacation, making sure that nothing was amis: our old car sat for weeks or months at a time since we only used it for family road trips. Now, I could write a whole Houellebecq-style diatribe about the impracticalities of keeping an old Puch G-Wagon, a 1989 230GE, in Haussmannian Paris, a city with parking shortage and old buildings constraining vertical clearance to 185cm (6 feet) in average in almost every parking available. It was hard, and expensive, to safely park the clunker.

Slowly propelled in direction of the Sun

It wasn’t practical; it didn’t make sense to maintain such a car in good shape for about six weeks or so of use every year. But some things we do don’t make sense from a practical point of view, yet bring joy to somebody. I’ll put it this way: I’ve enjoyed the driving side of road trips aboard that clunker way more than Kirsten and the children, but I’m glad I got to drive—slowly and with attention to its engine—on that car all over Europe while our family was young. It was my irrational, imperfect homage to the ramblings on Romanticism and the “metaphysics of quality” by Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.

During the Toussaint of 2020 (remember the harshness of early COVID times), we left Paris one morning in late October, heading down in the direction of Spain, though this time we had decided to cross the Pyrenees through the Atlantic Coast, driving down on the A10 highway Paris-Bordeaux, then the A63 through a one-of-a-kind natural park in Western Europe, the Landes de Gascogne. It was already late when we got to the area; we had had time to listen to music, argue about one thing or another, and eat; we were doing alright, and the car was also loving the trip across the mostly flat Western side of France, a sharp contrast with the central route (our favorite) through the Massif Central plateau, which required us to climb hills at the speed of semis and vintage campers driven by Dutch, Belgian, or German retirees in search of some Winter sun somewhere in Southern France or Spain.

The drive across the Landes can feel long and desolate at twilight: it’s a flat, scarcely populated area where only a few leave the comfortable highway with safe, well-maintained rest stops every half an hour or so, to stay near the forest. Adding to the detached, almost surreal experience of crossing a forest that doesn’t feel like one, the straight road cuts across what seems like a patchy pine forest. Just to fight car fatigue, we read all we could find about the Landes on the Internet, and we all listened attentively.

Going through the Landes de Gascogne (Napoleon’s tree farm)

It tourns out, the Landes forest is the outcome of a rationalist reforestation project during Napoleon’s time. The area’s swamps were a source of disease and underdevelopment that the Revolutionary mentality wanted to transform: Nature was a resource to tame with the help of scientific management and planning, so the poor, unstable soil gave way to the world’s first project of big-scale forest management, a massive plantation of maritime pine.

In a matter of decades, the Landes became what it is today: a monoculture of maritime pines for tree exploitation, which the regional authorities and the French government have tried to transform into a complex forest through a rewilding strategy. Still, the area remains more a plantation than a more complex ecosystem. The never-ending ranges of maritime pine fed for over a century several sawmills, paper mills, and makers of furniture, joinery, parquetry, fiberboard, cardboard, and pine resin-derived chemicals.

We learned the differences between even-aged tree monocultures—exploited primarily for timber production—and complex forests: forests host a way wider array of soil microorganisms, fungi, plants, and animals, and also withstand better the ravages of pests, fires, big storms, and strong gusts.

The region still hosts a smaller area of post-glacial forests that survived the fuel and construction-driven deforestation from the 15th to 18th centuries. There, we learned that pines are blended with oak, alder, birch, holly, and willow, hosting a rich flora and fauna. We speculated: Could the Landes evolve into a more complex forest over time? It’s been mostly a tree plantation since Napoleon, I argued.

Planting serendipity

It may be the books, the movies, advertising: we still fall for iconic road trip scenes and the promise of freedom brought by a movie close-up of somebody driving a car or motorcycle during the Golden Hour with the wind in their hair. There’s the road ahead, and all that counts is the moment, and “destiny” has little meaning as long as you keep feeling that sense of possibility.

We all have seen the images, most of them in fragmentary nonsense across different mediums, yet their iconic allure fought to keep meaning in us with Darwinistic insistence. The same meaning that adventurers and misfits trying to find their purpose after World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, or Iraq-Afganistan would borrow from European explorers they never knew about, all obsessed with the promise of traveling towards the sunset.

In the summer of 2014, we borrowed a car for a road trip across the US Southwest, from California to Texas and back; we had to hypermile somewhere in West Texas near the Big Bend National Park; me made it safely to the next gas station; prepping in the Bay Area right before the trip

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was — I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road (1957)

But the enduring allure of the road trip as a cultural symbol of life’s motion and dynamism, which literature, movies, and commercials learned to associate with automobiles and concepts such as “freedom,” has lost its sense if used for daily commuting and errands in clogged suburban environments. And “traveling West” towards a sense of freedom clashes with the reality of housing prices and impossible rent before even hitting the fog zone of mild, Golden light-blessed coastal California.

Yet most of us enjoy road trips that one can keep open enough to allow for pleasant discoveries and encounters while structured enough so a sense of purpose keeps a flexible direction to the whole endeavor. Photography, scheduled video stories along the way, sporadic journaling (sometimes on paper, sometimes digitally), and articles like these are an opportunity to reflect on the particularities of each of those trips, keeping them from collapsing into one single story.

Traveling to escape the “inferno of the same”

Messy road trips—especially those with stops and surprises along the way, so we have to get to know food, people, and surroundings—also give meaning to a landscape to the point that it will become memorable and singular —and something we will remember one way or another, emerging from our memories by association with other events or sensations.

Road trips are never interchangeable; not even those we experience in places holding similarities. Traveling on a small road through the Mojave desert near Joshua Tree, Southern California, is very different from crossing the Saguaro forests of the Arizona high desert during a Summer afternoon (say, when the temperature suddenly cools down after a Monsoon downpour) or from driving along the border in West Texas with a low tank, which can also make the experience feel remote. Like that time when we almost ran out of gas in our borrowed Prius, more than forty miles away from any gas station. That time, we finally made it, thanks to hypermiling. And luck.

They make us tired and cranky at times, making it difficult to keep the daily structure that some of us need to make our days productive and fulfilling. But road trips can also inspire us, recharging a part of who we are; without them, life would become a vast array of comfortable (for the lucky ones) or uncomfortable platitudes that we try to pepper up with programmed milestones built around big decisions or purchases: the appliances we need, the car we dream of, the home we aspire to.

Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that easy access to an endless repository of things to see and buy online has confronted us with a crushing overabundance of options, resulting in a paralyzing lack of genuine appetite and meaning (The Agony of Eros, 2012). According to Han, the “expanding technologies of choice” create an erosion and disappearance of particularities in things and people: all landscapes become the same, all people belong to typologies defined by simplified avatars. “The Other” vanishes, and our surroundings turn out to be “the inferno of the same.” (As an aside, Byung-Chul Han is finally gathering some attention in the US. About time).

Meaningful travels prompt us to leave the voluntary seclusion of digital work and entertainment; we are obliged to scrutinize around us and perceive the changes in landscape, manners, accent, food, and many, many subtleties we enjoy entertaining. Our world gets bigger, and time seems to expand, allowing us to contain more experiences within its units, and also reminding us that there’s a scientific time, and our own perception of its duration (our subjective experience of time, as theorized by French philosopher Henri Bergson, doesn’t equal the scientific account of time: sometimes, an instant feels like an eternity, and years can go by like an instant).

On traveling —physically and online

When we travel, we strive to escape the inferno of the same and elude the modern limbo of what algorithms deem popular, comfortable, safe, and familiar enough for our cravings so we remain glued. The “good discomfort” is that of getting out and trying to find meaning in what we see, empathizing with people we encounter.

What if venturing into a road trip or a new enriching experience (say, meeting somebody fascinating, reading a good book, visiting a museum where we find things that genuinely move us) enlarges our experience? Though let’s face it, the digital experience is a part of our reality, and it won’t go away any time soon. Fortunately? Well, it depends.

The same way our experience of the physical world seems to morph sometimes into an “inferno of the same,” a world that seems to have lost the “enchantment” of beauty and surprise, the digital experience (especially when fully curated by algorithms) has been optimized to turn into your personal, frictionless array of infinite little variations of Byung-Chul Han’s “inferno of the same”: being served content that is different enough to keep going, and similar enough to avoid a conscious reaction (say, leaving the feed or move on to do another thing).

Lots of memories and happy kilometers on this clunker; picture from our road trip France-Italy-Greece by road and ferry (Ancona-Igoumenitsa)

We don’t need to be arborists to feel the difference between the rich experience that a forest provides to our senses and a timber plantation turned into a monoculture. Extending the metaphor to the online world, not all experiences on the Web remain the same or produce the same impression (and psychological effect) on us.

Internet experts (the equivalent to arborists for trees and forests) Maria Farrell and Robin Berjon use the metaphor in an article for Noema Magazine. In “We Need to Rewild the Internet,” they denounce the evolution of the Internet into a set of commercial repositories that risk turning the digital experience into the equivalent of living in a world in which tree-farm monocultures of perfectly aligned plants replace forests.

Platform monoculture and rewilding the Internet

If the Internet consolidates some of its major trends and the gravitation of “users” toward giant platforms with their walled gardens turns out to be irreversible, the promise of a more serendipitous online experience via technologies like decentralized databases (say, the blockchain, or Tim Berners Lee’s decentralization project through a blockchain-like protocol, Solid) is at risk. Hence, argue the authors, the need for rewilding the Internet so monocultures don’t consolidate the digital “inferno of the same.”

Scientific forestry was one of the apparent advances of the early Industrial Revolution; rationalists of the time thought that mathematically-planned forests would be easier to count, predict, and harvest. The promoters of such a revolution in Prussia and Saxony lived enough to see the disastrous consequences of such a reductionistic approach to forestry:

“It was a disaster so bad that a new word, Waldsterben, or ‘forest death,’ was minted to describe the result. All the same species and age, the trees were flattened in storms, ravaged by insects and disease — even the survivors were spindly and weak. Forests were now so tidy and bare they were all but dead. The first magnificent bounty had not been the beginning of endless riches but a one-off harvesting of millennia of soil wealth built up by biodiversity and symbiosis. Complexity was the goose that laid golden eggs, and she had been slaughtered.”

“The story of German scientific forestry transmits a timeless truth: When we simplify complex systems, we destroy them, and the devastating consequences sometimes aren’t obvious until it’s too late.”

We Need To Rewild The Internet, Noema Magazine, April 26, 2024

Self-organizing ecosystems

The urge to get rid of the organicity of complex systems like those in natural ecosystems to rationalize and optimize them has had consequences as devastating in the Internet: when we “scour away the messiness” that makes complex systems resilient (or, in the case of content, genuinely interesting), rich experiences turn into monocultures:

“Our online spaces are not ecosystems, though tech firms love that word. They’re plantations; highly concentrated and controlled environments, closer kin to the industrial farming of the cattle feedlot or battery chicken farms that madden the creatures trapped within.”

We Need To Rewild The Internet, Noema Magazine, April 26, 2024

It requires an effort, and also facing more friction, to try to make our Internet experience a bit more unexpecting and enriching; when it’s not experienced as a giant store or as a repository of engaging memes (pick your flavor: cute animals, perfect DIY hacks, cute babies doing tricks, dances and pranks, confrontational events, cultural wars, influencer-driven hyper-optimization), the Web can feel as refreshing as a road trip.

Even if it’s getting more and more difficult to choose a digital experience that doesn’t depend on recommendation algorithms and never-ending feeds, the concept of “rewilding” in Nature can inspire a doable strategy to re-enchant the Internet so we find ways to grow from discovery, as well as encounters that aren’t maximized for monetized engagement within strict environments. Instead of targeting individual elements, “rewilding” means to foster “ecological processes [which] foster complex and self-organizing ecosystems”:

“Rewilding the internet is more than a metaphor. It’s a framework and plan. It gives us fresh eyes for the wicked problem of extraction and control, and new means and allies to fix it. It recognizes that ending internet monopolies isn’t just an intellectual problem. It’s an emotional one.”

We Need To Rewild The Internet, Noema Magazine, April 26, 2024

Digital homesteading: tending our own digital gardens

The authors advocating for the rewilding of the Internet in Noema magazine argue that the big-platform Internet is more like a zoo than an ecosystem, controlled like forest farms to harvest, in this case, the best advertising-grade attention. Instead of public standards and protocols stimulating competition and activity outside walled gardens, the tools used by the majority are proprietary and rely on companies that exploit their position to impose their will.

Technologists, they explain, are great at incremental fixes, but when it comes to regenerating entire habitats, they can learn a lot from ecologists. No wonder, by the way, that early theorists of cybernetics were also pioneers in systems thinking, among them the California-based English professor Gregory Bateson, whose book Steps to an Ecology of Mind was a celebration of the complexity and nuance of rich ecosystems, including those of human society or information: the best complex systems have a “self-correcting” function to maintain an optimal natural order.

Not only the Internet seems to have optimized for easier extraction, a process dubbed “enshittification” by scifi writer Cory Doctorow, and AI will only intensify a world of information and signaling platitudes in which homegrown originality is replaced by well-sounding remixes lacking the quirkiness of personal voices.

The “inferno of the same” has also arrived in graphic design, which started with the ubiquity of the International Typographic Style with Helvetica taking over the world and ended with the tools and templates that inspire building designs, signage, brand logos, website UX, and the products we consume. In the name of usability and standardization, anything original or different gets tossed away as marginal or even sacrilegious to the forces of low-friction information flows and entertainment.

How can anybody concerned with the evolution of Internet culture and the standardization of design elements dressing our reality, fight a Romantic counter-offensive to the trend? A message board commenting on Noema Magazine‘s article on the rewilding of the Internet brings some interesting ideas by users:

“More people should be tending their ‘digital gardens’ just to have something to curate and share. Bring back the weird, the odd, the deep-dives into topics you never imagined having such detail, bring back the strange animated GIFS, the websites always ‘under construction,’ give me your weird, give me your odd, this should be everyone’s place to be free.”

Romantics of the Grand Tour

During the Enlightenment era, Europeans and Americans with enough disposable income would aspire to make the Grand Tour, a trip of initiation to the enchanted, crumbling and forgotten civilizations of the Mediterranean: young Napoleon having an aha moment in Egypt facing the pyramids, Lord Byron fighting for the independence of Greece from the Ottomans, Stendhal visiting the beauty of Florence’s duomo and passing out in emotion, giving the name of a legendary Romantic syndrome, Washington Irving visiting Andalusia, from Córdoba to Granada, and changing his life forever as a consequence…

The Internet equivalent of the Grand Tour era has been over for years. Now, the services everyone uses are inside walled gardens that never go down and are ubiquitous and easy to use, and only a few diehard Romantics would go back to a Web experience in which it was hard to find things, browsers were slow and crashed down, and metastatic maladies like the ubiquity of Macromedia Flash made impossible to create a similar experience for all sorts of browsers, operative systems, and screen sizes. Another commenter just adds that, to rewild the Web, it would take people to tend to their own work and digital memories on their personal blogs/sites:

“I was just thinking today that I should just start posting my stuff on a personal site. Photos, blogs, life updates, etc. It gives me that control that I want, and I don’t have to worry about Meta, etc., trying to monetize it. Plus I get to unplug from those ‘n liked your post’ dopamine hits.

Others don’t fall for the idealization of the past. Perhaps they are more conscious of the risks of caricature, platform aversion, or mere age to remember how poor the Internet experience could have been twenty years ago:

“The geocities times weren’t THAT cool. We mostly had to go through pages and pages of crap stuff, cause we couldn’t find shit.”

Bringing back user-curated indexes

My personal experience tells me that, as algorithms and AI lower the friction and show us content that is more sugarcoated and easy to consume—just like any addictive substance or activity—, my agency over what I see on the Internet decreases, and it scares me. I sense I’ll be alright, but having two teenage girls and one pre-teen boy at home makes me think that all they’ve seen so far is algorithm-curated content. To them, it’s “natural.” They haven’t seen any alternative to it.

That’s why the death of user-curated indexes should concern us all. Back when I was a teenager, we would rely on the charisma, knowledge and altruism of a few to get to the music, comics, books and any other cultural artifact reaching our corner of the world. In a way, the first Internet was also powered by user-curated indexes, and the first Instagram or Twitter were basically a similar experience.

Now, it’s very difficult to discover things the old way, and nobody is missing the mind maps we need to weigh the relative quality or relevance of things. Instead of reading something somewhere or talking to friends, we just give in our agency to machine learning tools that have been designed to keep us engaged —and willing to buy something.

Given the ubiquity of automated recommendations, I’ve learned to cherish the serendipitous moments in which I discover somebody’s work and can explore a website or a well-curated Instagram account. When I discovered the Austin-based creative consultancy LAND, founded by Ryan Rhodes and Owen Everitt, I spent a good deal of an evening going through pictures of their patina-friendly, Tex-Mex, very symbolic graphism. Who were they? Artists? Designers? Brand developers?

Going through their ageless drawings felt like deciphering ancient mythology, but the language was fresh, original, and related to their experience. I knew they were Texan, and having traveled through South Texas and other places of a State that (like California) feels like a country on its own, I sensed that they had tapped into the culture, inventing their own expression. All this came to me thanks to Instagram, too (here’s LAND’s feed), so it’s still possible to discover pearls in a sea of convenience. For how long?

Finding meaning amidst machine learning hyper-optimization

I mention this digital event of my quotidian life (bear with me, I don’t stay around much in places like Instagram, and I have lost any appetite whatsoever to use X when it comes to signal detection amid the noise) because one day, not long ago, I discovered an email by Ryan Rhodes on my inbox.

He had sent a message to the *faircompanies contact form. It was dated August 19, 2020, but I answered it recently. When I did, I looked at the avatar logo and domain, and also the name, and connected the dots: the same Ryan Rhodes whose work I had appreciated some time ago had indeed felt a similar connection with our work.

We recently celebrated serendipity in an interesting video conversation last Monday, May 15th. We talked, among other things, about his work at LAND, lifestyle, vacation place, work setup, and also about the Biokabin project Kirsten and I are involved, the possibility of creating a connection between interesting online experiences and physical places, and many other things. I found it fascinating.

The Internet can also bring a sense of direction, joy, discovery. I guess it takes more effort now than ever to not let go the commands to some discovery tool and make sure you do the meaningful work yourself. I guess we forgot that most times there’s somebody at the other end of interesting things, and one day our sense of time syncs, making fruitful encounters possible.

If you find stuff online that you find meaningful in any way, I encourage you to reach out and leave some words that also make the world better for the people at the receiving end. It’s easy to like viral content or to keep our eyes open to whatever the algorithm feeds; by contrast, it’s refreshing to feel you arrived at meaningful stuff on your own genuinely. That way, if you ever feel left out by your algorithm of choice, you will be alright.

Maybe, the next step is aiming at creating a homegrown online environment capable of hosting authenticity and arising awe.

To write this text, I mainly listened to Khruangbin and Leon Bridges Texas Sun and Texas Moon EPs. Special mention to the song Mariella.