I have this emerging model of an alternative social computing metaphor, or goal, in my head. It’s still very tentative and prototype-like, but I thought I’d get it out here while I’m still turning it around in my head

It’s mostly formed from Seth Schoen and Cory @doctorow ‘s idea of adversarial interoperability, Joanna @rootkovska’s Qubes, and @mntmn’s Interim and Reform projects

with also (in a way that I haven’t been able to entirely compose together) CHERI cl.cam.ac.uk/research/security , and @cwebber ’s work on Mark-Miller-like capabilities.

So most of our radical ideas about empowerment through digital technology so far have benefited from the general uplift of the last few decades of Moore’s Law and the spread of near-ubiquitous general purpose computing

The energy of that propagation has ebbed in the last decade, and has actively begun to work against those ideals (I have only an intuitive idea of those ideals so don’t press me on that — assume for now they’re your most favourite and inspiring parts of the digital environment)

We have giant abstraction stacks of mostly frozen complexity, with only a slowly moving froth of innovation on top. And it’s mostly proceeding in a direction of increasing complexity, at the behest of the groups whose interests are aligned with the conservativeness of the underlying stack

Sorry, that sounds conspiratorial and I didn’t mean it to. What I mean is that a successful tool or service builds on the browser, or Android/POSIX say, or inside Twitter or Facebook’s ecosystem. Those environments are rich and complex and provide coherent and comprehensible abstractions for doing almost everything that their creators and sponsors want to do (and would like you to do) in the world

Any attempt to provide an alternative vision has always had to be able to offer that alternative while not re-inventing too much of the existing stack. Windows pushes DOS out of the way, but only because they were both balanced on top of the IBM PC

GNU/Linux could build those same IBM PCs but built its new abstraction stack on Unix, the web browser grew up inside the 90s desktop GUI, etc. But you can’t uproot too much of the stack! Some of it is permanently caked-in, too many floors down.

This is the pathos of communities like Lisp, or Plan 9, or Xanadu or Smalltalk :: to even prove they could succeed, they would need to dig down to deep, and then recreate everything above them — it quickly becomes too much work on both the computing and the cultural sides

In earlier years, we were lobbying and picking and working on the abstraction towers we hoped would lead to a better world, but now it feels like those directions have been buried by the buildings built above them: you can think of this as co-option, but another way may be a narrowing of options after a period of abstractions that tended to general innovation - a post-Cambrian winnowing? Sorry for all the metaphors I’m still trying to name and frame this

I should speed up, this is all stuff you know so far. So the choices you have, I guess is to create an alternative top-of-the-stack or *emulate* bits of the stack below (there’s some thinking to be had here about the reasons why one might want to emulate, and its failure states but moving on...)

I don't know the name for this act, but adversarial interop will do for now. You wire yourself up to the existing abstraction framework, and pull it in a new direction. But you only do that to the degree that the abstraction fails to be able to stop you, and to the degree that you can comprehend what the abstraction presents

And we're now at a point where the abstraction tower is entrenched in ways that are difficult to circumvent, and we can't dig back down to the strata where we had some other directions we could go. (The image in my head here is when your game of Tetris is going *very badly*)

What I propose (finally!) is a project which is more dedicated to allowing us to dig deeper, and uproot more, rather than alternatives on the top of the present, or trying to roll back in time to a more pliant, simpler, stack.

Virtual Machines are a good present-day example of this approach: it shows the possibilities, and the challenges. Essentially, VMs enguls almost all of the software stack of entire operating systems. Something like Qubes run them within its (fairly thin) hypervisory world, where it can wrap them in its own model.

VMs have to do a little bit of adversarial interop -- they don't just wrap around the code, they push past its boundaries a little too. They dig a bit deeper into the old abstraction. They'll emulate the machine, but they'll also work out details about individual applications, and bring that to the surface.

We avoid doing this a great deal, because, frankly, it's /really difficult/ and /extremely fragile/. Abstractions have interfaces, and those interfaces are stable.

Everything else is what the abstraction is *meant to be hiding*.

But we are at a moment where *have* to dig deeper -- and perhaps all this computational power can assist us.

We have an abstraction in which *what we want* -- data, patterns, power, is buried deep deep below us -- and we are trying to build tottering, tall, highly experimental alternatives of our own.

(This, you might notice, is also the challenge of alternative political systems. Socialism is tempting -- but you have to build it on capitalism. Anarchism looks promising, but you have to erase millennia of power relationships.)

But! Perhaps we can now use the complexity-wrangling tools of computation to dig deeper into those abstraction stacks, and comprehend what we need?

To be specific and concrete for once in this thread: Facebook's abstraction interface is its webpages. Parsing those to extract the data and services it gives us in a we can use in our alternative software is a painful, fragile, act.

So what could we use to make it less fragile?

I can run an existing app on my new computing environment, because I can -- given our current powers -- emulate it precisely. But how can my new computing environment *understand* what the app is doing, saying, processing?

It needs to be able to dig deeper: Rather than a bunch of syscalls, we need to be able to recognise certain computations -- turn the emulator's understanding of file and network operations into an understanding of photograph collections, contact updating, calendar sync

What if we saw our existing software not as the sources of our limits or invincible black boxes, but objects to be torn apart, interrogated -- like we were archaeologists, or newly free people running through the presidential palace.

In these situations, we can actually build *our* abstraction tower from much lower down. I run an alternative user-interface, an alternative file-system, an alternative *social computing context*, and throw down heavy costly-to-construct forms from windows in towers high above it.

In many ways, this is always the overambitious goal of any reverse-engineer, or someone re-writing an existing system.

But, if we were to view this not as a doomed pursuit, but a topic of active research and activism, using modern tools, how deep down could we dive? How large, complex, universal and interconnected are the things we could dredge from the current system?

I ask this, because of its similarity to what modern applied commercial and academic computing is working on. They too, are faced with understanding a large, ever-changing, overcomplex and non-compliant environment, and recognising patterns with it. And then turning those patterns into large-scale understanding.

Only in this case, they are applying it to better understand and therefore us.

And in my case, we are applying it to understand and control our own digital environment.

Is it an untractable problem? Well, it has been so far, which is why everyone gives up. But maybe it's tractable now, if we took that as the task ahead?

Unknown! But if we did that -- what would it let us do?

Well, imagine what's happening with RedoxOS or even something as extreme as Interim or GNU Mes. If you start at the very base of the device abstraction *and* obtain complex objects at the very top of that stack, you might be construct a consistent, high-level OS that skips a lot of the construction work in-between.

Again, a lot of empty spaces in this thinking, and two huge barriers -- the tractability of the abstraction of complex objects from black box executables (or services), and whether it's possibly to build a viable alternative, liberatory stack that could replace enough of the current one.

God, again I'm sorry, i should have written this as an essay. I hadn't realised how well-formed it was in my head, and how incoherent it must appear when I'm typing it as I go.

Also, disappointing if you thought I was offering an easier solution, rather than just more hard work!

Still, maybe it's provoked some wild thoughts in you too. Let me know! I'm here or danny@spesh.com.

Okay, the next thing I read after this stream-of-consciousness was this Hacker News thread: news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2

Which seems to be talking in the same rough ballpark.

@mala i've dubbed your idea "danny's stack attack" and have some notes for a conversation but wanna let it percolate a bit first.


@crwbot me too! i couldn't sleep last night thinking about it, but I'm not yet sure it's possible or desirable.

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