Gemini and tech degrowth

When we talk about “the internet” today, for the most part, we’re talking about a platform that was once called “the world wide web”. The web consists of servers running HTTP, which send HTML (and other documents) to web browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome.

But it wasn’t always like this. When I started using the ’net, e-mail, chat rooms, and discussion forums all had their own protocols (such as SMTP, IRC, and NNTP, respectively) and a plethora of client programs to interact with them. These things still exist — as open standards, they would be difficult to kill off entirely — but their share of internet traffic has drastically decreased as “web applications” have taken over these roles.

But the web isn’t perfect. As you browse from page to page, your behavior is tracked, collated, and sold on the open market. Internet connection and processor speeds continue to increase, but thanks to bloated JavaScript code — much of which exists to display ads (and support the aforementioned tracking) — the experience doesn’t feel any faster now than it did 10–15 years ago (as you read this, Google Chrome is probably using more resources on your computer than all other programs combined). This has developed against a backdrop of heightening centralization, with fewer websites accounting for a larger share of traffic.

So about a year ago, I was delighted to discover a new internet protocol that was designed to contend with many of these issues:

The Gemini protocol

Compared to the modern web, browsing Gemini is a stripped-down experience. The native document format, gemtext, is a hypertext format (the ‘HT’ in both ‘HTTP’ and ‘HTML’), but the markup is intentionally limited: you get a few levels of headings, bulleted (but not numbered) lists, and every link needs to stand alone on its own line. Curiously, you get block-quotes and pre-formatted text (perfect for displaying blocks of computer code and ASCII art), but no way to add links or even emphasis to sections of inline text. However, this set of limitations make it incredibly simple to generate and parse the format, allowing ancient hardware and power-sipping microcontrollers to participate in the ecosystem. Browsing content on Gemini (where the places you visit are called “capsules”, not “sites”) feels more like reading an e-reader than browsing “the internet”.

The protocol itself is similarly simple, especially compared to HTTP — with the caveat that all connections must be encrypted with TLS, baking a degree of privacy into the format itself. There are no cookies and no client-side scripting, drastically curtailing severs’ ability to track your visit. The default port is 1965 (in honor of the first crewed flight of NASA’s Gemini program), which means that server software doesn’t need root privileges to start up, which is a nice touch for hobbyists playing around with it.

If this has gotten you curious to check it out yourself, you can start here:

Once you’re on Gemini, here are some capsules I visit frequently:

In “Left to Our Own Devices: A Program for Tech Degrowth”, my friend Ben sketches out an actionable program for “autonomous tech degrowth”:

Gemini hits almost all of these points. The protocol is basically finalized. Browser development is coming along, but for the most part, the only thing Gemini needs is more people from more backgrounds using it (there was a burst of interest in 2020 and things have slowed a bit since then; the community is generally delightful but understandably skews tech-savvy).

Before I conclude, I must acknowledge that Gemini didn’t spring from the ether fully-formed. Over the past few years, there’s been a subculture growing around the curation of a “small internet”, with people posting content to Gopher (a protocol which predates HTTP and is even more bare-bones than Gemini); building lightweight, JavaScript-free websites (like the web version of this ’log); and generally doing things in remote terminals on public-access Unix hosts that comprise the “tildeverse” (like retrace.club, my host). Gemini is just one offshoot of this movement, and I’m sure we’ll see more.

For some participants (myself included), interest in this movement is surely influenced by nostalgia — whether experienced or imagined. My introduction to Unix was an account I got when I started college some decades ago; it gave me access to servers and physical terminals all over campus. However, this approach to computing is robust in the face of an uncertain future. Centralized services concentrate wealth and power, negotiation between their users and owners are completely one-sided, and when investor money dries up they can disappear overnight. On the other hand, protocols that are decentralized, secure, and lightweight are fundamentally more democratic and unbeholden to the whims of the wealthy.

Nobody expects Gemini to replace the web. But its existence reminds us that the internet has the capacity to be a democratizing, even revolutionary force in the face of corporate hegemony. If that’s as important to you as it is to me, I invite you to spend more of your free time with these technologies and less on the major platforms.