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.
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:
- The Gemini Portal gemini-to-web proxy can support initial exploration
- Wobbly is a Gemini browser that runs in a web browser
- The Lagrange Browser is probably the most popular and delivers a visually pleasant experience (because plain text needn’t be ugly)
- Offpunk is an offline-first browser for Gemini that has added support for RSS feeds and other protocols
Once you’re on Gemini, here are some capsules I visit frequently:
- Antenna is a popular opt-in aggregator
- Cosmos scrapes Gemini and threads the conversations that develop across capsules
- Station is Gemini’s first(?) “social network”
- Astrobotany is “community gardening experience” (I visit daily)
- And, of course, you can view this site in capsule form
In “Left to Our Own Devices: A Program for Tech Degrowth”, my friend Ben sketches out an actionable program for “autonomous tech degrowth”:
- Identify software or software types that should be replaced (basically any Software as a Service will do)
- Create a low-powered, encrypted replacement to that software
- Using an autonomous, structured, horizontal development system
- With the goals of familiarity and usability as top priority
- And use existing social graphs to drive adoption
- When a usable product comes into existence, avoid the temptation to enter an eternal dev loop. Add features and fix bugs only as obviously necessary.
- Allow forks to take care of “new and improved versions”. (Sure, you may be part of that fork, but we don’t want to replicate the system we seek to replace.)
- Move on to the next thing
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).
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.