Fearing for Gemini

After posting about the utility of data URLs, particularly as they relate to images, a few people contacted me with their concerns about how this could impact Geminispace. Let's reflect a bit.

People on Gemini undoubtedly have a lot of affection for this circumlunar space. I feel it myself. This small and simple protocol is beautiful as it exists today, and trying to "advance" it could mean Geminispace changes in substantial and negative ways.

Image aversion

A lot of the outcry has been about images.

Of course, Gemini takes a neutral stance on data types. If you want to link to an image, go for it. Perhaps some app on your computer is able to show the image. Link labels are there to act as alt text for those who are unable to see the image, either due to software or physical limitations. Likewise, you can use HTTPS links to web pages, or Gopher links, or whatever else.

The issue is not with the technology, but with the "code of conduct" that the community decides to build around on it.

Gemini has a clear focus on text. This has many advantages like small size, accessibility, and ability to view content in a terminal. I'm sure this implies that Gemini users are text-oriented as opposed to the masses on the web that prefer watching videos on TikTok/YouTube to reading even a single paragraph of text, let alone a long-form article or a book. I'm no cognitive psychologist, but it seems to me that people who prefer text have been and will remain a minority, as images and videos are more immediate and captivating — they capture your attention as if by force unlike text that you have to consciously maintain focus on. When it comes to speech and communication, nothing beats audio and video in being intuitive for the participants: even infants and toddlers can appreciate video without any prior experience or education, and one has to put serious work into becoming literate. Gemini therefore seems destined to remain a relatively small niche. Unless, of course, images and other "exciting" forms of media manage to find their way here. Thus we see the dangers of embedded media and clients that enable it.

Various forms of media are suited for different needs and situations: an image is worth a thousand words, video is worth ten thousand, etc. However, one requires sight to benefit from images and video. Music can convey emotion and atmosphere in addition to just being entertaining, yet you must be able to hear to enjoy it. Games have eclipsed movies in popularity and as a business, and they masterfully combine images, video, audio, and interactivity to create unique experiences and tell immersive stories. Yet you need manual dexterity to enjoy many games. Each type of media, text included, has its advantages and drawbacks. We shouldn't fixate on any single type to the exclusion of others. Instead, we must acknowledge which type works best for a given situation and who is the intended audience, and then be mindful not to exclude audiences whose abilities and preferences differ from our own. This may be challenging even after getting used to such changes of perspective, but it is the core of what accessibility is all about.

Regulation

It is very difficult to create a set of rules that are proof against clever workarounds. Therefore, in addition to technical requirements, a specification should also communicate the vision and intent behind the rules and restrictions, enabling people to judge for themselves what is appropriate. A specification is then also a kind of a political manifesto that allows one to calibrate their world view, to make it frictionless to work with the technology and to contribute to the community around it. If these matters are just unwritten rules, newcomers will fail to understand them, and if the newcomers arrive in high numbers, there is no way to prevent the community from transforming in ways detrimental to its original vision.

We are fortunate that Solderpunk is eloquent in communicating the ideas behind Gemini. However, Gemini is very young. There is no official RFC — even the speculative specification isn't quite frozen. We remain in an exploratory period, where the nooks and crannies of the rules are examined. Otherwise, all the problematic edge cases would not be accounted for in the final specification. We would end up with a lax and vague set of rules, benefiting those who seek subversion toward their own ends.

Ultimately, concrete decisions need to be made regarding the boundaries of Gemini. These are not easy decisions, and not just because people won't agree where the fences should go and how high they should be. Controlling a system via regulation brings with it opportunity costs: rules and restrictions will deter people from seeking out new solutions that could be beneficial in the end. If the rules are too strict, the system may atrophy. However, insufficient regulation will embolden bad actors to seize control and allow them to profit via unfair means. It is a difficult balance to strike, and seems more like a continuous balancing act given that no environment remains static forever. In this light, the plan that Gemini's specification will be frozen at some point emphasizes the need to intimately know all the pitfalls well in advance.

Big money

Some people sound the alarm about the risks of corporate and financial infuence.

Could a tech giant swoop in and stake Gemini for themselves? Out of the big players, I think Microsoft today is the most dangerous in this regard. They seem to be on a quest to own the hearts and minds of developers and technology-minded people, having bought GitHub a couple of years ago, and controlling the highly popular Visual Studio Code editor. I believe Gemini draws in a similar crowd (although not exclusively). A company like Microsoft might look at Gemini and see an influential group of people whose attention they would like to absorb into the "Microsoft Cinematic Universe". In contrast, advertisement-fueled companies like Google would have a hard time extracting anything of great value out of Gemini.

I doubt such a takeover attempt would be very successful, though. Both the software and many people here are resistant to commercial influence, especially when it originates from the big industry bogeymen. The people in particular may have found Gemini as they were trying to flee the chaotic circus and the power-hungry giants of the web. The protocol is so simple that new clients, servers, and tools can be developed if untoward things happen to the existing ones. The grassroots independent mentality will keep Geminispace going even though a large company starts pushing their own "lite web" version of it.

Fearless exploration

Fear is an appropriate emotional response to uncertainty. Will some external force ruin Gemini? Will people not see the value in remaining text-based and simple? Will technology drive itself off a cliff, once again?

However, fear is only an emotion. Truly dealing with a problem requires us to recognize how we feel and then follow a concrete plan of action. The best way to fight the fear is to reduce uncertainty by gaining knowledge and understanding:

My concluding thought is: have fun playing around and discovering new possibilities! This is part of the joy of new software and protocols. A firm consensus will ultimately form as to what are the rules and guidelines of proper conduct, and these will be codified in an official specification. Geminispace is already quite well-established in this regard, yet there remains opportunities like ANSI escapes and data URLs. Nothing in the current specification prevents their use, and they have qualities that are beneficial in the Gemini environment. However, these are not to be universally forced upon everyone: they are at best an ancillary part of Gemini, and to be employed only in special circumstances. The same goes for all non-text media: recognize their worth and use them when appropriate, but be mindful to provide alternatives so people who cannot access them are not excluded.

See also

📅 2022-02-21

🏷 Gemini

CC-BY-SA 4.0