Web dev at the end of the world, from Hveragerði, Iceland


I’ve always been a bit of a film buff. Some of it’s part of my upbringing. My dad thought it was important to make sure that we didn’t just watch new movies, so, as soon as we got our first VCR, he made sure that we got to know the full range of film history.

Harold Lloyd. Charlie Chaplin. Laurel and Hardy. James Cagney. Humphrey Bogart. Katherine Hepburn. Donald Duck. Looney Tunes.

He’d even have made us watch Roy Rogers serials if he’d been able to find them in an Icelandic video rental.

This worked. Both me and my sister ended up being film buffs to an ever greater extent than either of our parents. I did a stint where I was involved in film-making, radio, and TV before switching to interactive media full-time. My sister studied animation even though today she does work more in illustration and painting than animation.

I obsessively watched movies—classics, cult, international, art house—for years.

Streaming services and the collapse of the DVD market disrupted that for a while. It didn’t matter where I lived—Canada, UK, or Iceland—the film selection in the streaming services I have had access to has generally been mediocre.

I never got into Blue-ray. The convenience of streaming made it easy for me to always put off looking into it.

I’ve been getting back into it recently, focusing on older movies. Between Netflix, Prime, Viaplay, and Disney Plus—the streamers we have available here in Iceland—you have a tolerable selection of older movies and I’ve been able to regularly find older movies that I hadn’t seen before. When that fails I find something I haven’t seen for at least twenty years. And when that starts to fail I guess it’ll be time for me to look at getting into Blue-ray in some way.

There is one aspect of older movies that is less common today:


All of the movies, even many of the horrendously bad ones, feel like they’ve been made by people, each lending their own personality and style to the project. It’s not just a question of how the role of the director has today been watered down by the uber-producer, such as Kevin Feige, or how second unit directors now commonly handle all of the action scenes for a blockbuster.

It extends to every other aspect of the movie. The music is weird. The editing has character. The photography and composition has personality. The soundscape leaves its mark.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a unique creation of the forceful personality of Ennio Morricone’s music, combined with Sergio Leone’s so subjective-it-borders-on-surrealism direction, and Tonino Delli Colli’s use of close-ups, long-shots, and very little in between.

Even the bad movies, such as those made by Albert Pyun, had a visual and narrative personality you get in a modern schlockbuster.

Bad stuff with personality is infinitely preferable to good stuff with no personality.

Only a few film-makers today seem to get to have this kind of authorship in mainstream film-making.

I watched Night of the Hunter for the first time in twenty years the other day, and I was struck by the thought of how synthetic much of our visual media feels today, even the series and films that are inarguably well made.

It isn’t a question of it being manufactured—all of our media today is manufactured to some degree unless its individually handmade. But it’s synthetic in the sense that its authorship is a synthesis of corporate interests. Individual workers may help shepherd that authorship into being, but the personality the work inhabits and its emotional reality are facsimiles whose shape and weight are a synthesis of prior corporate successes.

We even see this in software. The path that the software industry has taken might have been a bit different from that of the movie business, but the end result is similar. Apps and websites today have very little character and idiosyncrasy has been all but banished.

Web media design has essentially deteriorated into “which of Medium’s many pivots are we cloning today?” and the apps all look like an undergraduate’s hasty reimplementation of the example app provided by the platform their targeting—just adjusted to suit the business case.

It hasn’t always been like this, but it seems to be the reality we have to live with as end-users.

Generative models could, potentially, accelerate this process even further. Since corporate authorship is already a synthesis of prior successes, a mathematical model that’s entirely based on the principle of synthesising from prior works should—in theory—be a good fit for modern software, film, and TV. It lets executives drain what’s left of personality from the products their companies release.

What makes the tragedy of modern software and media even keener in my mind is that the possibilities for creative expression for an individual or small team have never been greater.

Writing has always been in a league of its own in terms of authentic authorship and personality, but other forms of expression have been making headway.

You can get great audio equipment for prices that would have boggled my mind when did my short stint in radio back in 2000.

Static site generators and straightforward hosting means it’s never been easier to make and publish a web site.

Making and distributing interesting apps—web or native—is much simpler than it was twenty years ago.

Cameras today are far more capable than ever before.

What’s missing are ways to pay for all of this.

Aggregators, such as the Kindle Store, Google and their ad platforms, Facebook, the app stores, and YouTube, were supposed to fix that.

We were supposed to be able to just make stuff, give it to the aggregator, and our audience would simply find us.

But, when a single aggregator owns the point of contact with the customer, that aggregator will take all of the money.

iPhones might compete with Android, but the iOS app store owns the iOS customer and so will take the brunt of the value created.

Large aggregations also inevitably invoke the Matthew Effectthe rich get richer—which leads to a small number of products dominating each platform.

Modern software and media devolves into a clash of giants, the biggest producers battling the biggest aggregators for dominance, the rest of us scurrying about like Tokyo citizens dodging the stomp of Godzilla’s heel.

We have the worst of both worlds. The greatest tools for creative and original expression ever seen in human history, but a market where only the synthetic, repetitive, and mechanical gets the oxygen they need to persist.

I’m not convinced that the Aggregator Bargain—where all of an entire creative industry hands itself over to a tech company—is one that benefits those of us making the media. They may have almost the entire audience in the palm of their hand, but they also take all of the profit. Many of us don’t really have that much to lose by opting out and bypassing the aggregators, even if that means that our potential audience is several orders of magnitudes smaller.

My bet is that a healthier relationship with a smaller audience is more likely to be sustainable in the long run.

At the very least, if we aren’t going to be making any money from our work, we might as well release it where we have full control over our expression.

The combined units sold of my two ebooks, The Intelligence Illusion and Out of the Software Crisis, should hit seven hundred copies at some point over the next few days.

That’s not bad. Not bad at all.

Meanwhile, I’ve only managed to sell ten copies through Amazon’s Kindle Store, and I’m pretty sure every single one of those ten sales was driven by one of my own links.

My direct ebook sales are not really a living, so far.

But it’s a damn sight better than the pocket change I’d be getting if I’d gone all in on Amazon and the other ebook stores.

You can also find me on Mastodon and Bluesky