Interview with the makers of the Web Stalker browser, Simon Pope, Colin Green and Matthew Fuller. By Geert Lovink
Made for the First International Browserday, Amsterdam, april 17th, 1998 For more information: http://www.waag.org/ The Web Stalker: http://www.backspace.org/iod
GL:'Everybody is a browser designer' - but it is not everyman's hobby to build one (yet). Where does the idea, to create one's own browser, come from? Normally, designers are working with content and have to make it look nice. But now there is the new profession of the 'interaction designer'. Are you one of those? Are you techno determinists, who believe that the shape of the interfaces is determining the actual information?
Matthew Fuller: Hmm, this is one of those statements along the lines of 'Jederman ist ein kunstler'. (Joseph Beuys) These statements sound democratic, but actually have the subtext of meaning *Everyone wants to be like me - the great man!* No, not everyone is a browser designer for sure. And certainly it would be unwise to want to be like us. People should actually have aspirations right? The idea of making another piece of software to use the web with came about for a few reasons. First of all, I/O/D had been working with different ideas of interface and a general praxis around speculative reinvention of the computer anyway. Secondly, we were bored by all the hype. Thirdly, we knew it could be done, but didn't have the skills of the knowledge to do it properly - so we had to do it. As for the normal behaviour of designers I reckon I'll leave that part of the question for Simon or Colin to answer with a firmer grip on the handle of the knife that needs twisting. As for being techno determinists? I guess we are interested in finding this out. What comes into play using the web? The material on the URL being used, which encompasses the programs, skills and materials used to put it together as well as the specific items of data; then the actual hard infrastructure - computers, servers, telephone lines, modems and of course the software running on them, (in short, bandwidth considerations); then the software being used to access the web - a great big pile on top of which sits the Browser, terminal viewer or whatever. All of these elements and how they mix determine to some extent the nature of the interaction. For instance, try using a web site packed full of java-scripts, frames and vrml with a browser from a couple of years back. You'll find that the type of interaction available to you is pretty much fully determined by the technology you have. You're locked out. On the other hand, just looking at all of this misses out on the key piece of equipment in the relationship - the user. One of the things that drove us to make the Web Stalker was that we, and pretty much everyone else don't really use web-sites in the way that they are suposed to be used. Whether it's switching off gifs or blocking cookies or whatever there's an element of street knowledge that you use to get to the stuff that you really want. We made the Web Stalker to work in the same kind of way. It's designed to be predatory and boredom-intolerant. At the same time though, we hope that as a piece of *speculative software* it just encourages people to treat the net as a space for re-invention.
Geert Lovink: Web Stalker is showing us the backstage of the browers. Could you explain us how it actually works? What kind of code do we get to see? Is it just HTML or hidden directories of the servers? What do webmasters and sysops try to hide for us and what can we learn from it? Web Stalker as a hackers tool for extra-governmental gangs that are trying to undermine the effeciency of global capitalism?
Simon Pope: the Web Stalker moves only within the limits of html space. any co-conspirators needs to be fore-armed with at least one URL which refers to an html document. give this to the 'crawler', and the stalker begins its process of parsing, hungrily searching for links to other html resources. initiating a 'map' window, opens a channel onto this process, through which urls are graphically represented as circles and links as lines. the stalker will thrive on known links and resources - as long as each html document contains a link to another html document, the stalker will live. pitch it into a netscape, microsoft, macromedia or java-only space and it will soon perish.
Colin Green: When we began to use the stalker as our primary web-access software, we became aware of the extent to which html has become a site of commercial contention. Browsers made by the two best-know players frame most peoples' experience of the web. This is a literal framing. whatever happens within the window of explorer, for instance, is the limit of possibility. HTML is, after-all, a mark-up language which indicates structure and intention of a document. There is no imperative to interpret "cite" as "italic", as there are none which demand the use of 'forward' or 'back' to define a spatial metaphor.
Matthew Fuller: We've had reports from users that amongst other things, if you use the Web Stalker on a site with extra content being added to it every few hours, such as some news services for instance, you can start to find files whilst they're still in the queue - before the news 'happens'.
Simon Pope: Commercial interests have tried to exploit the web by controlling the velocity of browsing. the stalker subverts this - it confounds the faux-melodrama of the click-thru by automatically making the link for you. Suspense is ridiculed and fluidity is returned to a realm where processes of delay and damming are recognized advertising opportunities. It is here that the convention of the "web page" helps to solidify html, presenting each document as the potential apex of the user's experience. A leaf-node rather than link.
Geert Lovink:but is the Web Stalker not also a bit protestant, in the sense of anti-image - pro code? HTML and the WWW are being presented to us as the big step forward for the normal user, to have an easy-to-use interface. what is so disgusting about all these fancy websites, funny graphics and sexy buttons? isn't the stalker a bit step back, very male and hackerlike in its approach? i don't say that the explorer is female...
Matthew Fuller: The Web Stalker establishes that there are other potential cultures of use for the web. The aesthetic conventions of current Browsers are based on the discipline of Human Computer Interface Design. To describe the predelictions of this approach to interface you only have to note that the default background colour in page-construction programs is grey. Progress is marked by the incremental increase of fake drop-shadow on windows. Here, the normal user is only ever the normalised user. Time to mutate. For us, software must also develop some kind of relationship to beauty. This can in one sense be taken as something that only happens in the eyes. But it is also something that happens at a level that is also profoundly interwoven with politics in the development of these potential cultures of use. It is in this sense that we call The Web Stalker 'speculative' software. It is not setting itself as a universal device, a proprietary switching system for the general intelligence, but a sensorium - a mode of sensing, knowing and doing on the web that makes its propensities - and as importantly, some at least of those 'of the web' that were hitherto hidden - clear. Rather than taking an ascetic view we see that a key problem with the Browsers is that they don't allow the Spew to manifest itself *enough*. This software is a call for the voluptuation of the nets and everything they connect to. As the union leader Big Bill Heywood used to say, stroking his belly and sucking on a tasty dog-shit-sized cigar: Nothing's too good for the proletariat.
Geert Lovink:After having done Web Stalker, what is the relation between the small, arty, conceptuals anti-browsers and a perhaps more serious one that will be free public domain software? It is maybe hard to estimate how influencial marginal autonomous software production actually this. There are many different estimations about this. How do you see the Amsterdam effort of the 'International Browser Day' in all this?
Matthew Fuller:The Web Stalker proposes another model alongside the two other main models of radical software production. The first is obviously that of Free Software. The second is that of programmers working in collaboration with specific client groups whose needs are not met by the programs developed in a 'free' market. A good example of this is the icon-based email program being put together in de Waag. Both of these models are based on a specific or wider consensus. The Web Stalker proposes a complementary model, one that is interventional. That is designed specifically to make a far reaching breach into the material and imaginal space of the technical and social context in which it is placed.
Simon Pope: Until recently,there were few points in the development of pc software where source code was opened-up to end-users where applications could be modified or extended. With Netscape's recent announcement, at least there is now an awareness of the existence of this type of development, even if the take-up by end-users (rather than developers) might not be that widespread.
Colin Green: We develop software from a very specific position: Lingo has been our language of choice and from necessity for the past 5 years. During that time, there has been a gradual shift in the method of programming, from proceedural to object-oriented approaches. This change happened as much through an ad hoc engagement with Lingo by frustrated users than from the imposition of methodology from another programming language. The result has been that there is no standard way to deal with Lingo, so it's not been practical to share sourcecode - it takes too much time & effort to decipher someone elses scripting. The days of being able to get away with cut & paste of other peoples scripts are over - nothing interesting came out of that approach anyhow...
Simon Pope: Also, there has been no real percieved benefit in giving away Lingo scripts. If you can write good enough code to be able to give it away, there's probably very little out there you actually WANT in return. This is changing. Once-novice coders are now gaining in confidence and turning-out software with the intention for others to use it, tear it apart and rebuild it according to their own design. We'll open-up the back of next software project to expose it to this kind of developoment.
Matthew Fuller: For us, the Browserday is a very useful initiative. Once the breach has been made, proving that the net can be used and develeoped in ways largely at variance with the proprietary browsers and the interests they maintain, the floodgates can - potentially - open. A thousand different net sensoriums can be launched. The Browserday is important because it was done in a way that was at once informed by both technique and theory without priviliging either and done in a populist celebratory manner. It's not just done to force the didactic proof that software can be -exciting- but also that people can make actual, rather than virtual, reconfigurations of ways of seeing, knowing and doing. And some of the wild stuff that the students came up with!!! In this alone it went beyond the usual dreary parade of technoculture events that people have become accustomed to.
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