The Magic Rectangles on the Old Web

I miss the old web sometimes.

Hi. This is Can. It is now my turn to reminisce after Ranjan’s post on tape trading.

The famous 2advanced homepage. This was incredible in 2001.

Do you remember the rectangles? Those things that were embedded in the early web pages. They were sort of part of the page; but not really. You could tell, I think, that some parts behaved differently than the others even if you had no idea how it all worked. You didn’t know your HTML from your CSS, but you knew, again, maybe, some parts just didn’t belong. They wanted out. Be careful what you wish for.

We got internet at home back in Turkey, when you also had to get on the computer to be on the computer. The guys (obviously) who came to set it up at home told us we were probably one of the first households in the city to get it. I am not sure if they were just angling for a hefty tip from my parents, but I was impressed. It’s not that we really planned to Get It anyway, but dad’s work was getting all wired up. We were a distributor, and the HQ wanted better inventory management. Somehow, it, The Internet, also trickled down home.

I was always fascinated, if not obsessed with computers. My mom figured early on that the computer wasn’t very useful without the keyboard, so she’d hide it occasionally. It was a primitive and much more effective version of Screen Time. Little did she know, with whatever pocket money I found, I bought another keyboard. Then it became more of a game of hide-and-hide, as I had to make sure I also hid my own keyboard so that she didn’t know I was using the computer when she was out of the house.

Internet, though, man, that was something else. It took me in like no other, and it never let go. I knew enough Computer to figure out what The Internet was, and how it sort of worked together. Not knowing enough English was a significant hurdle at times, but I had several (physical) dictionaries handy to help me out. Hyperlinks, Send and Receive on Outlook Express, mIRC, DCC connections, the weird sounds our modem made, CuteFTP, Warez, SubZero, ICQ, Mirabilis. There was a lot to learn, but I took all in stride.

And then there was HTML, and those rectangles.

I don’t know how I decided to build a website. My guess is, at some point, I realized Netscape Composer actually made things that you could feed into Netscape Navigator. It’s easy to understand what was going now, but to me, a Turkish kid with barely any English, it was all a word salad. The words Composer and Navigator didn’t mean more to me than names of car models. So I literally had to take those programs (not apps!) for a spin to understand what was going on.

Anyway. I basically clicked around in Netscape Composer until I came up with something that looked exactly like the website of an artist I liked. I spent hours and hours tinkering until I managed to embed a RealTime G2 (!) player. I think that was my first time figuring out something was different about some of these rectangles. They behaved differently.

One of the first Flash videos I remember watching. NSFW, for Turkish readers.

A few years had passed, and slowly more people started getting internet at their homes in Turkey. There were relatively popular gaming magazines who dedicated a page or two to The Internet, and through those, you could find others on it. The #zurna channel on the DALNet IRC server was the unofficial gathering spot of the Turkish people. It’s from there, I think, where you found other websites. It’s all a blur.

While I was busy duplicating cheesy pop singers’ sites, more creative people were busy, if you can call it that, giving birth to the Turkish internet’s first popular touchstones: funny videos in rectangles. That’s how I learned of Flash. The rectangles started making sense, all of a sudden.

I am a bit hazy on the details; both because these things happened more than 15 years ago, but also I was just very young, and all this stuff was new to me in a language I largely understood through several layers of indirection including but not limited to my parents, dictionaries and magazines which mostly printed reviews of new hard drives.

But here’s what I remember had happened: I found a way to email the author of those videos, asking him (obviously) how on earth he made those characters move, speak, animate so freely. Clearly, those weren’t just marquee tags or scripts you embedded to make the googly eyes. Those rectangles were something else. Could he, please, share the magic?

One of the later websites I made in 1999 using Microsoft Frontpage

Again, a few steps in between here are missing in my head. He must have told me about Flash, and I must have found a way to acquire it. I remember a trip to a sketchy computer store in my hometown, asking them if they could give me a copy of Flash. But somehow, probably through one of those CDs that computer magazines gave out, I acquired a copy. Or maybe it was a Warez website? Or some friend in #zurna? Who knows?

Regardless of how I got “it,” for the next year or so, my life was Flash. I was never the creative type, but Flash clicked for me in a way that nothing else did. It took me a few days to understand what tweening was. Putting a bee on a hand-drawn path, and animating across the screen kept me entertained for weeks. In a few weeks, I got it. I knew Flash.

It’s not that I was arrogant. Lacking any and all artistic skills, I knew that I’d never make animated videos like those, but I knew if I learned how to draw, I could. I probably wouldn’t be able to create Homestar Runner, but those rectangles no longer held any secrets.

I became so good, as we used to call it back then at least in Turkey, at Flash, that I became a small-time celebrity in the Turkish Flash forums. (Maybe I was arrogant). Things like 2advanced were, yes, too advanced, but I could generally play with it enough to understand how to rebuild all that if I had the time, which I did, or the motivation, which I didn’t.

Sometimes I wonder what has happened since then. How did we lose Flash? Or rather, how is it that we still don’t have anything that comes close to it where you can author something fully interactive, wrap it in a single file, and expect it to work everywhere.

The technical part of me understands it now: Those rectangles, be it Flash or Java or ActiveX or RealPlayer (G2!!), were runtimes. Virtually computers that lived in your browser. The web was hacks over hacks on top of a system to share scientific papers. Those rectangles, however, were actual computers that could access The Computer and not be limited to the browser they were running in. In a sense, they were windows (!) to the innards of your machine. That level of access to the computer of the computer, as opposed to being stuck inside a browser, meant you could do things the web couldn’t, both good and bad.

Moreover, running a computer inside your computer wasn’t cheap. For a while, it seemed like computers would get fast enough every year or so to compensate for the added hurdle, but the rectangle computer got heavier and heavier. When the smartphones came, and we had to take a step back in terms of performance for a few years, the rectangle computer was just too heavy and too tied to the old desktop paradigms. The documents worked fine on a small screen, but those rectangles which assumed they were on a real, desktop-sized screen didn’t scale.

Rebuilding Apple’s Interface Builder on the Web in 2008

Yet, while I am intellectually satisfied with that explanation, I am still in distressed awe that we are still far from being able to create web experiences that easily like it was in Flash. We are, for everyone’s sake, past the point where there’s a new JavaScript framework that web developers get paid to migrate to every week.

Yet, for example, when I watch the 280 North’s Atlas demo from 2008, in our lord’s year of 2019, I wonder if we really took any steps forward, or just still treading water 11 years later. I know it’s not really the same thing as Flash is, but if you launched that demo today, instead of 2008, it’d still be almost as impressive as it was then. Steve Wittens’ homepage, Acko, is amazing. But what has come close to it since then, and more importantly, are we more close to creating something like that than he was in 2013? Is that not a problem? Even today, on a high-end MacBook Pro, that website stutters for me on Firefox, with aliased (pixelated) graphics and doesn’t even work fully on Safari.

And this isn’t to say some things didn’t get better. If you want to create a web presence (ugh), you don’t need to sit and browse through actual GeoCities directories to find a short URL, like I had to till I got Geocities.com/Tokyo/Bay/7416. You don’t need to download CuteFTP from a malware-ridden Download.com and crack your installation of Microsoft Frontpage. From Squarespace to WebFlow to whatever WYSIWYG tools are called these days (NoCode? LowCode? SomeCode?), some things are undeniably better and easier.

Yet, I still look back and yearn for those weird rectangles, those small computers inside the computers. Maybe I’m just too old now.


What I’m Reading

America’s Risky Approach to Artificial Intelligence: Tim Wu, the influential law professor (author of many books which formed my thinking) argues that America shouldn’t rely on gadget makers and advertisers to compete with China. Especially in the light of current trade tensions and capitulations from American companies to Chinese demands, this definitely #makesyouthink.

The plan seems to be for the American tech industry, which makes most of its money in advertising and selling personal gadgets, to serve as champions of the West. Those businesses, it is hoped, will research, develop and disseminate the most important basic technologies of the future. Companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft are formidable entities, with great talent and resources that approximate those of small countries. But they don’t have the resources of large countries, nor do they have incentives that fully align with the public interest.

Universal Laws of the World: Morgan Housel at Collaborative Fund puts together a fun list of “Laws” that govern the world. It’s more amusing than informative, but I enjoyed reading through it and learning the origins of those common adages. I often think of Parkinson’s law, that the work expands to fill the time allocated to it, when managing projects. My new favorite is one of Wiio’s Laws

“If a message can be understood in different ways, it will be understood in just that way which does the most harm.”

Twitter says it wants to solve the “journalists’ careers end because someone digs up an old tweet” problem: Permanence is a feature of the internet, but it’s not some natural law. It’s just what we decided should be the norm. I think we should rethink that. And more specifically, I think you should also delete your tweets, unless you want them weaponized against you as you evolve and change, like any other sane person should. Anyway, Twitter is pondering about the same thing now, which is nice. Let’s see if this gets build before we are all living in The Matrix anyway.