Hi all, it's been a while. But then I did promise that if nothing else, this newsletter would be erratic.
Back in the mid 1990s, When I wasn't lurking in the X Files Usenet groups, I was learning how to build websites for myself, hand coding HTML in Notepad (a basic text editor). I would do this by finding websites that did things I liked, look at the source code, reverse engineer it and adapt it to my needs.
These were different times, of course, it was a sort of wild west web. Amateurs like me did whatever we wanted according to our own tastes and within the available set of HTML tags. For anyone unfamiliar with writing websites in HTML, there are predetermined bits of code called "tags" that you put around an object such as text to control it in some way. (If you want to know more, try this link, for example).
It must be said, there were a few very grisly HTML tags out there. Notoriously, the <blink> and <marquee> tags. The former blinked the text on and off, the latter made it scroll. Deeply naff, pretty hideous, and obviously would be considered an accessibility nightmare today (what on earth would a screen reader do with them?!). I'm sorry to say that I have used both these tags in previous websites (forgive me, I knew not what I did).
As I was reminiscing about my days as a teenage web designer, littering up the digital domain with horrible tags, I found this short history of the blink and marquee tags, which was all news to me. It demonstrates nicely the messy scramble of the 1990s Internet.
The HTML Tags Everybody Hated https://thehistoryoftheweb.com/blink-marquis-tag/
I also had a refresh meta tag (if I've remembered the name right) on my first website which felt very snazzy; it loaded up the title page with an image and then automatically refreshed to show the main page. These days we would consider that extremely annoying website behaviour. It is no doubt the right thing that these tags have been consigned to the dustbin of the Internet (or, at least, the Wayback Machine), but sometimes I do feel a pang of nostalgia for that glorious ugliness of the nineties online world.
Have I missed any other terrible tags?
Having upped sticks from London to a rural location on the Isle of Wight, I find myself very much surrounded by Nature. It is frequently right up in my face. All green and noisy and sometimes pretty and sometimes spiky, sometimes both. And good, because this is one of the main reasons I moved. I grew up close to nature, and suddenly felt far too removed from it in lockdown. Here it is utterly unavoidable and I love that.
When I say I grew up close to nature, though (by which I mean, very close to countryside walks, not far from beaches, slightly feral, picking blackberries or beech nuts, making stink bombs from wild garlic and dens in the scrubby woodlands by the old mill pond, etc), I do not mean that I knew very much about it. I absorbed some information about when you pick elderberries or how to assess whether a windfall apple will be suitable for juice, but I was still quite ignorant and worse, incurious, about much of the natural world.
As an adult, though, I am obsessed. Suddenly, since my move, it is very important to me to understand what is happening around me with the birds and the bugs and all. In the past, gathering this knowledge would have taken considerable effort. Reading books, learning from one's elders, careful observation etc. There is still a place for all of that, of course, but I feel very lucky to be able to use some really astonishingly good technology that shortcuts much of the effort. And I don't just mean that I can now google things faster than I can look them up in a library.
An obvious example, where once you would be reliant on a bird guide in book form to identify the bird in front of you (the absolute pinnacle for British birds being the Collins Bird Guide second edition, the one with illustrations, imho), now there are various apps that take the book to the next level. Where you can search quickly for bird identification by characteristic or play you the sounds they make. Birds of Ecuador being a niche and expensive but outstanding example, should you ever find yourself in that wonderful country.
Even more miraculous are the array of apps that use machine based learning technology to provide you with, for example. instant and reliable visual identification of this rapidly spreading soapwort or that delicate cuckoo flower (along with notes about their condition), or this rosemary beetle or that stoat. Or the ones that allow you to point a mobile phone microphone in the direction of mysterious bird song, and be quickly informed that what you are hearing is the falling trill of the chaffinch. This is truly indistinguishable from magic to me.
In the case of the chaffinch song, when I use Birdnet for this purpose the app also shows me the pitch graph of the audio, so I am actually visualising the song as I hear it. I can see it stepping down as it plays out and somehow that means it is now firmly lodged in my brain. I believe I will never forget what bird makes that shape of sound.
Combined with this new power of identification, I can also use GPS to easily navigate myself to new spaces with new species (the stonechats by the coastal cliffs, the godwits in the wetland reserve!). And whilst I am out exploring, I need not miss out on the goings on back at home. I have installed a camera trap, accessed via a simple app, that means I know much more about what is happening in my garden when I'm not there (Badgers! Red squirrels! My neighbour's missing cat!).
A few months ago I read Jenny Odell's thought-provoking How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. Amongst other things, it is a call to reconnect with the rhythms and processes of the natural world. I agree that this is vital, for both our own souls and for the future of the planet. You hear variations on this a lot these days, as we feel overwhelmed by the firehose of online information and increasingly disconnected from the here and now. But often this argument is framed as being anti-technology. Put the phone down and look around you!
By and large, that is no doubt true. If you are always looking at a screen you are not looking at the world around you. Perhaps, though, there is also cause here to celebrate our digital advances. My experience and understanding of the plant and animal life that I am surrounded by has been hugely enhanced by my access to this technology. And that in turn helps me to be a better custodian of nature. It might feel reductive to understand nature by labelling it: should I not just be in the moment and let it wash over me? But as Odell herself states, that categorisation process is required in order to start seeing patterns, to know how to manage the land, to help it along as needed or to stay well out of it when that is best.
I think, probably, that we are only just scratching the surface of the ways in which technology can assist with our understanding of nature*. We must be careful as even well meaning attempts could be harmful (sharing locations of rare orchids, for example, that then get swiped by unscrupulous collectors). But, all the above is really to say, this has been an exciting journey for me, my fuzzy view of the world around me has begun to come sharply into focus, and I hope sharing will also lead to some exciting journeys for you too.
Some nature apps what I like:
Picture This. I never get over the speed at which this will tell me that the thing growing all over this shady spot is hart's tongue fern, or that this yellow flower is a celandine. Naturally works better with good photos, when plants are in leaf or flower. And also be careful about using this for foraging if not experienced (obligatory warning about mushrooms in particular). It is not free, however, so you might want to try...
Seek. When I asked on twitter https://twitter.com/marthasadie/status/1505522090694303754 for similar examples this was suggested, which is like PictureThis but for animals and bugs too. It doesn't always work and not everything will sit still for it of course, but when it does it can be quite astonishing.
Birdnet. As long as the bird is making a loud enough noise, it will tell you which one it is. A marvel. What used to just be filed under "generic ignorable bird noise" in my head is now a much more detailed 3D picture of the birds around me, without necessarily seeing them. Makes me feel like this is really the birds' planet, and we are just living in it. I believe "Chirpomatic" does the same but I haven't tried it.
UK Bird Sounds. Simple app, for when I want to run through the noises of different birds to get better at the ID (and sometimes also attract them).
*of course digital consumption also consumes energy and hardware production can have a negative impact on natural resources. See the talk in the list below. I've been thinking a lot about this recently, but where we already have this technology in our hands, we might as well be putting it to good use.
Things that I have been reading and thinking about. Inclusion doesn’t necessarily mean full endorsement.
I have recently started working with Butterfly Conservation on their digital verification tools for butterfly and moth records, another positive use of technology for conservation purposes, I hope! They are currently running their Big Butterfly Count to get a snapshot of butterfly numbers in this country. Take 15 minutes to sit outside and watch the butterflies. Big Butterfly Count website.
Adrian Chiles perhaps disagrees with my nature tech optimism and thinks we've gone too far with the identification apps when it comes to pebbles.
Another counterpoint to the "make everything an app" mentality, a reminder of the people we might be leaving behind and how devastating it can be for them.
What, really, is the point of the Ted Talk?
A YouTube Playlist of talks from Camp Digital that I highly recommend watching. The talk from Gerry McGovern on the mess we are making of the planet through technology is deeply sobering, but Rachel Coldicutt offers a hopeful message, let's occupy technologies with love and care!
A BBC report on London residents 'experimenting with using the "The World Wide Internet" in 1997 to communicate with one another via "electronic letters"'
Not online technology but I loved this article about dance arcade game fans.
Not very cheery but how to plan your digital legacy.
Do you like maps? Have a play with this https://magic.defra.gov.uk/MagicMap.aspx.
All movies can be improved with added velociraptor.
Old Hollywood bloopers are rather charming.
Finally, niche and nerdy reasons to love the Internet #100404, this fan-created Our Flag Means Death breakup robe pattern that I wish I had the skills or energy to make (IYKYN).
Thank you for reading. If you enjoyed it, please do share it with others. And if you didn’t, I welcome constructive feedback!