potato.cheap is home of the...

☃︎ The "Cheap" Web

The "cheap" web is a solarpunk philosophy of web design.

cheap ≠ free

Making nice things is difficult and time-consuming.

If we want people to make nice things for us, we have to pay for their rent and grocery bills and raw materials.

If you are spending less than $1 per hour on your entertainment (podcasts, videos, articles, games, books, etc.), consider finding ways to support creators and the infrastructure that supports them.

cheap ≠ sleek

I want [the Mac] to be as beautiful as possible, even if it’s inside the box. A great carpenter isn’t going to use lousy wood for the back of a cabinet, even though nobody’s going to see it.

    - Steve Jobs (via Walter Isaacson)

Unfortunately, the HTML source for Apple.com is not so "beautiful on the inside", but Apple engineers shouldn't be faulted for ugly HTML. Their only option was to wrap a sleek skin around shoddy materials.

HTML/CSS should evoke feelings of sculpting with digital concrete, but it feels more like building bridges with uncooked pasta. The whole digital design landscape is begging for simple markup languages that can participate in honest architecture. [I hope to finish one such language in 2024-2025! Email me if you'd like to help.]

Until we adopt simple and stable building materials, all websites will continue to look the same. Software has become too complicated to stay honest. Corporations can't expose their brick-and-wood architecture because it's actually Megablocks and sawdust underneath all that paint.

Wirth's Law threatens to make things even worse. As software rots, multinationals may become the only players capable of making websites.

But people like Bartosz Ciechanowski are forging paths to elegant futures. The source code for his mechanical watch demo is proof that honest software is viable. Each guide is erected as a giant wall of WebGL. It's beautiful, but definitely not sleek.

The World Wide Web needn't be all 3D WebGL wizardry. The websites of Patrick Colison, Edward Tufte, and Phil Gyford are thriving examples of cozy HTML cabins.

The humans are still out there. We can speak sincerely with honest tools and materials. We can stay slippy and celebrate our warts and imperfections together.

A wobbly wooden chair built by a friend beats any designer chair. We need more wobbly websites.

cheap ≠ creep

The central land of the United States is flat, fertile, and windy. Tumbleweed is non-native to the US, yet somehow perfectly suited. Although destructive, it's so ubiquitous that it's become a symbol for the Wild West itself.

Likewise, the World Wide Web connects (1) large populations of (2) dissimilar people (3) at an impersonal distance (4) fueled by ad revenue. Anger is uniquely good at spreading across the web. The bicycle of the mind have become the de-facto vehicle of frustration.

Large parasocial platforms transformed the internet into a hostile and impersonal place. They feed our FOMO to keep us clicking. They exaggerate our differences for "engagement". They create engines for stardom to keep us creeping. They bait us into nutritionless and sensationalist content. Humanity cannot subsist on hype alone.

Small and sincere communication quietly thrives. It's easy to find and even easier to make yourself:

Write on the internet. Find or create a third place. Pick up the phone. Join niche interest groups. Live, don't lurk. Embrace candid culture. Put people you care about on the calendar. Don't play near black holes. Meet people at farmers markets. Learn to communicate. Make wobbly things. Subscribe to local events calendars. Learn to win friends. Learn to feel. Email strangers. And so on.

The peak of Pokémon Go showed us what the future of the internet could look like. With the right technology, we might be able to synthesize serendipity. We could hybridize the best parts of the frustrating thing and the peaceful thing. [I've been casually designing an AR game called "Peace & Progress II" since 2012. Email me if you'd like to help build it!]

cheap ≠ deep

Sturgeon's Law states that "90% of everything is crap".

The non-crap 10% of the World Wide Web may be unreachable.

The deep web (not to be confused with the dark web) is hard to find because it's hard to find.

Computers are really good at finding and storing things, so why is much of the internet broken and/or missing?

  • Spam: Corporations and computers manufacture crap at scale, then exploit (and often pay) Google to overwhelm independent search results. Our public library shelves are flooded with junk mail and coupons. Consider supporting alternative search engines like DDG and Kagi.
  • Javascript: Modern websites are built with more JS (dynamic) than HTML (static), and dynamic content is difficult for computers to read. Imagine ordering The Hobbit and unexpectedly receiving a N64 cartridge with an e-book on it. A book is simple and unchanging. A N64 cartridge requires (1) a working N64, (2) a compatible television, (3) knowledge of how to use/repair the equipment, (4) knowledge of how to use the cartridge, and (5) time/energy to load the cartridge and navigate menus. Hodgepodge cartridges do not scale. To keep HTML competitive with JS, we need better tooling. Some HTML resources are listed on the side of this webpage. To supplant JS, the HTML development experience must become 10x easier/faster/cheaper/etc than the current JS experience.
  • Images: HTML is more sustainable than JS, but HTML remains hostile to beginners. Without an easy markup language, people use Powerpoint/Photoshop to share documents. It's hard for computers to decipher/archive images, and it only becomes harder as fewer photocopies-of-photocopies survive. We need something powerful like HTML/CSS, yet simple like Markdown.
  • Accessibility: HTML is generally unkind to people of limited hearing, vision, etc. By default, stuff on the cheap web should work flexibly with many interfaces. Everybody benefits from curb cuts.
  • Payments: Browsers could have implemented digital wallets to manage subscriptions and one-click payments, but consumers had to wait for Amazon and Apple to launch proprietary solutions to public platform problems. Payments were difficult, so nobody paid for things. Advertising became the default way to sustainably make money; piracy became the default way to guard one's attention/privacy. To escape from this advertising hellscape, we must make online payments better for developers and consumers, especially for digital goods. [I made WishWell to make donations easier, but charitable giving is no panacea.]
  • Arbitrary Addresses: The modern internet works much like Amazon's delivery network. Amazon can deliver stuff in its warehouses quickly, but one must wait longer to get products directly from suppliers. But digital goods needn't come from a supplier nor the closest distribution center. All internet data can be sent and received faster by copying data from neighbors! Cryptographers invented magic to do exactly this, but it's not being used at all layers of our digital infrastructure. To get mainstream adoption at the www.* level, we need more browser support and killer apps (an imgur alternative seems like a good candidate).
  • Platforms: Nobody owns email or podcasts (RSS), and everybody benefits tremendously from that freedom and flexibility. Corporations like Slack, Twitter, Visa, Zoom, Google, Amazon, Instagram, Unity, YouTube, and GoDaddy retain control over infrastructure that needn't be controlled at all. To escape enshittification cycles, we need open protocols and designers to make nice interfaces for those protocols. Federated services like Mastadon are promising. [Email me if you'd like to help me launch an open YouTube alternative!]
  • Ad-Hoc Archival: If the internet were built on something like BitTorrent, archiving and indexing everything would be trivial and automatic. Instead, archive.org remains perpetually underfunded in its futile battle against bit rot. Donate to archive.org until we build archivable digital infrastructure.

cheap ≠ dark

NFTs were probably always a bad idea, yet much of the cryptocurrency community espouses admirable aims. Kudos to the crypto folks -- they are actually trying to fix/replace the world's crumbling central infrastructure.

The maintainers of the global financial system have repeatedly failed us. All the games seem rigged and global inequality seems inescapable. Governments and corporations continue to trample our privacy. Banks are slow; credit card fees feel like theft. And so on.

But cryptocurrency zealots also try to set our oil reserves ablaze so that they can hoard Dogecoin in virtual caves.

It remains unclear what role blockchains will play in a sustainable technological future, but surely we needn't squander so much energy to obtain the convenience we desire and the privacy we deserve.

And if we receive privacy, let's use it responsibly -- let's leave all the shitcoin scams and ransomware and toxic stuff behind.

cheap = cheap

  • Cheap to maintain: Most webpages should work indefinitely without falling over.
  • Cheap to leave: Opting-out of the web should be painless.
  • Cheap to access: Most websites should be compatible with screenreaders, etc.
  • Cheap to participate: Interacting with the web should be possible on a Wii.
  • Cheap to explore: Exploring the web should be pleasant on 1W of power.
  • Cheap to contribute: Making/hosting websites should be easier than scrapbooking.