Old and Small Technology

Old technology is any tech that’s, well… old.

Small technology is any tech that has a small footprint: doesn’t require a powerful machine to run, doesn’t have a lot of bloat, doesn’t have anti-features like spyware and tracking.

Technology that is old enough is almost always small because, by modern standards, that’s all that was possible back then. Some small tech is old, some is modern. Embedded systems are an example of modern small tech development in many cases.

Benefits of Small Technology

According to the Small Technology Foundation, small tech is:

  • easy to use
  • private by default
  • peer to peer
  • zero knowledge
  • non-colonial
  • personal
  • share alike
  • interoperable
  • non-commercial
  • inclusive

While these don’t describe all old and small tech, they are certainly aspirational values for the movement. They are much more commonly found, and to a stronger degree, in old and small tech than in more traditional contemporary “big tech”.

The Value of Old & Small Technologies

Older technology - UUCP, Gopher, Usenet, and so forth – often has some properties that are valuable today. We can start with system resources; a Raspberry Pi may be underpowered for many of today’s common tasks, but $40 can buy a computer that’s way more powerful than $200,000 machines from the 70s or 80s.

Nowadays it’s common to write client software using frameworks like Electron that often use RAM by the gigabyte. What would the world look like if we still cared about resource consumption?

Programs written when resources were a lot more constrained – or modern programs written with constraints in mind – can run on less-powerful computers. Those comptuers are cheaper and therefore accessible to more people. They also use dramatically less power, can be easily powered by alternative energy, and so are environmentally-friendlier also. What’s more, it defeats the cycle of planned obsolescence that so often plagues us now; if a 10-year-old computer is still perfectly capable, it doesn’t have to be replaced or thrown away.

Old technology returns control

Older technology, especially when it’s Free Software, can put you back in control of yourself and your privacy online. It tends not to support all the privacy-violating technologies the web is full of nowadays, and also tends to defy the stranglehold large companies have on technology.

Modern takes on old technology

Software such as NNCP (updating UUCP), Gemini (updating gopher) and the like take concepts of old tech and add modern improvements such as encryption, leaving a system that has a lot of the benefits of old tech but also benefits from innovations since.

There are also entirely new developments in the small technology field; for instance, Meshtastic and Yggdrasil both are focused on secure, private communications free from the need of large corporations.

Examples of Old and Small Technology

Tech Old? Small?
Kermit Y Y
gensio N Y
Usenet Y Y
Gopher Y Y
Gemini N Y
NNCP N Y (also can be used with large systems)
Filespooler N Y (also can be used with large systems)
Web Not in common usage Not in common usage
Small Web N Y
Email Y Y (usually)
Raspberry Pi N Y
Emacs Y Y (usually)
Linux Y Depending on how used
Pinephone N Y

It is possible to use the web in a way that is compatible with the old/small tech ethos. This site is one example; it usually loads in just a few hundred KB and has no resources pulled from offsite. The Small Web project aims to bring the patterns of small tech to the web, while projects like Gemini and Gopher aim to be a small alternative to the standard web.

Operating systems such as Linux Lite, Raspbian, and Debian (when used in text mode or with low-footprint desktop environments like XFCE) can be useful on older or small hardware.

Other organizations active in this space

UUCP is a system for exchanging data and requesting remote execution. It dates back to 1979, and was primarily used over Modems using telephone landlines for most of its days of popularity. It is an Asynchronous Communication system, which transmits data from one machine to the next on the way to its destination. Each intermediate node may store the data before passing it on to the next.

I am a programmer, manager, hobbyist, advocate, volunteer, dad, and nature lover. I live out on an old farmstead in rural Kansas that once belonged to my grandparents. The nearest paved road is about 3 miles away, and the nearest town (population 600) is 7 miles away. I have three incredible children, which I might occasionally mention on my blog.

Gemini is a modernization of Gopher. It is an example of Small Technology. It uses its own protocol and a document format based on Markdown.

This site is built for modern clients using Small Technology. It is served from static files, which are themselves small. It should make no references to any resources from other servers, which helps protect the Privacy of visitors.

Gopher is an interactive Internet browser. It is something of a successor to FTP and predecessor to the Web. Gopher had a brief moment of popularity in the early 1990s, but was eclipsed within a few years by the web.

Kermit is one of those things I’m fond of that’s really hard to describe. It is:

quux, noun:

An effort to bring the values and benefits of Old and Small Technology to the modern Web. That is, using the existing web technologies in a way that makes the web small.

Filespooler lets you request the remote execution of programs, including stdin and environment. It can use tools such as S3, Dropbox, Syncthing, NNCP, ssh, UUCP, USB drives, CDs, etc. as transport; basically, a filesystem is the network for Filespooler. Filespooler is particularly suited to distributed and Asynchronous Communication.

Planned obsolescence usually refers to hardware that is designed to become obsolete sooner than necessary in order to enable the vendors to sell more units.

Usenet, of course, originally ran over UUCP in quite a few cases. Since NNCP is quite similar to UUCP – in fact, you can map UUCP commands to NNCP ones – it is quite possible, and not all that hard, to run Usenet over NNCP. In fact, in a number of ways, it works better than Usenet over UUCP!

Usenet is sometimes said to be the world’s oldest social network. Since 1980, Usenet has been a massive, global discussion system. Participants can read and post messages (called articles) in discussion forums (called newsgroups). Unlike web forums, Usenet newgroups are available from thousands of independently-operated servers worldwide (instead of just one particular site). You can also use the client of your choice to access them.

Here are some (potentially) interesting topics you can find here: