The National Gallery of Denmark has a nicely designed new website that makes all of their digitized artworks openly available, and about two-thirds downloadable under a public domain declaration. The rest is under copyright but can still be downloaded at a generously high resolution and can be used for non-commercial purposes, like this newsletter. Hence: Henning Damgård-Sørensen’s “Maleri VI, 2004,” above. They also have an API and multiple ways to search the collection, including by color. So go on and add a rotating series of paintings to your website that match its palette exactly.
The novelist John Green recently reviewed the iOS Notes app on his podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed, and what I loved about it was how it focused less on the app itself and more about what he has done with it over the decade he has been using it. He has grown older and so has the app—as his sideburns grayed, Notes lost its leathery skeuomorphism—and Green has built up a stable, useful relationship with the software, mostly opening it to scribble down interesting lines that occur to him, or that are spoken to him, to use later on in his writing.
The review got me thinking about technology over time. We always think of technology as new, but inevitably some of the technology we use ages along with us, becomes old, and we rarely reflect on what that means, and especially what it might entail for how we imagine and develop the next generation of technology.
These newsletters you have been reading have been written for the most part in Markdown in BBEdit, my preferred text editor since the 1990s. We’ve known each other for a while now. In software-years, BBEdit is, like me, middle-aged. I have a half-joking mental model about the age of software, which is roughly human-years divided by two:
- 0-10 years old: newborn and youthful software—still finding its way in the world and trying out new features, constantly seeking coolness, a bit clueless and sometimes wild
- 10-20 years old: early adult software—hitting full stride with a surer sense of what it is, but still with occasional bouts of obnoxiousness and anxiety
- 20-35 years old: middle-aged software—still active if perhaps a little tired, stable and productive and no longer so interested in big changes, generally uncool but doesn’t give a damn what you think anymore
- 35-50 years old: “golden years” software—etched with the lessons of time and decades of use, contains much encoded wisdom, can project a “these kids today!” vibe even without intending to
Despite the tongue in cheek, this is, I hope, a not unuseful rubric, especially when you think of software that falls into these categories:
- 0-10 years old: TikTok, Snapchat
- 10-20 years old: Facebook, Twitter, iOS, WordPress
- 20-35 years old: Microsoft Office, Photoshop, the web browser
- 35-50 years old: Emacs, vi, email
Software that makes it to middle age and beyond has a certain hard-won utility, and an audience that has found a way to profitably and consistently make use of it, despite the constant beckoning of younger software. We’ve worked out accommodations with any frailties within the code or interface, and have invested time in the software-human relationship that is rewarded in some way.
It is worth reflecting on what makes software survive and age gracefully, as I tried to do last year in a reassessment of that good ol’ geriatric, email. This should not be an exercise in nostalgia; it should be a careful analysis about what makes older software tick, and makes us in turn stick with it. I suspect that some of the elements we will discover in this review are human-centered principles that it would be good to revive and strengthen.
In 2010, the Chronicle of Higher Education asked two dozen scholars “What will be the defining idea of the coming decade, and why?” I wrote that Facebook would end up having more users than the population of China, and that giant social networks, with their madding crowds, would provoke a reaction:
Just as the global expansion of fast food begat the slow-food movement, the next decade will see a “slow information” counterrevolution focused on restoring individual thought and creativity.
And here we are a decade later, and we’re still hoping for the same thing. Maybe next decade?
On this week’s What’s New podcast, the topic is a difficult but incredibly important one: how growing inequality is having a troubling effect on the mental health of the disadvantaged and marginalized. Alisa Lincoln lays out the many issues that contribute to poor mental health outcomes, and she suggests some potential interventions that aren’t app-based, but that instead focus on social context and (especially) education. I hope you’ll tune in.