Thirty years on the web

It's been more than 30 years since I started this site, so I thought it might be time for some "official" reflections. (Perhaps there are even some generally worthwhile experiences to share....) The history of the site itself is, to some degree, always already evident — since sections & pages generally haven't been removed. Some aren't very active however, perhaps dating back decades, while others involve regular updates: I continue to write my remarks on recent early music releases, and even restarted the lapsed Record of the Year feature this year, but releases of high interest in that arena tend to be relatively intermittent these days. Reviews are added more consistently to Jazz Thoughts though, which also comes to include more of what could sometimes be called "contemporary classical." (And I've added an additions page to the "World" section too, but that's even more sporadic). I've sometimes "reorganized" the site in terms of where efforts are dedicated (or how indexed...), but pages have also generally remained where they are. Much of that has been "data" (i.e. factual descriptions of recordings, as well as compiled discographies), but discussion & analysis have also appeared here from the beginning: In that sense, a "Frequently Asked Questions" (FAQ) vibe has been a major factor, but "depth" writing has maintained the entire time. That's beyond, perhaps, what has become a rather thorough orientation on commercially available recordings — the latter such that the site basically occupies a transitional position in the becoming-multimedia of the web, i.e. is text about sound. Yet we've stayed away from offering music per se here, never wanting to undermine artists' ownership of their work, but also so as to focus on written output....

And the "medieval" theme may have been tenuous at times too, particularly considering that it was selected as an umbrella for preexisting activities. Now I'm promulgating a sense of medieval jazz? Not really, but I do appreciate some of the similar, small-group interactions.... Perhaps the hinge, then, is really the "world music" section, i.e. often contemporaneous with (Western) medieval, but involving more explicitly improvisatory forms.... But I don't want to suggest some sort of "a priori" or formal relation either: Much of my work in the early days of developing this material was devoted to disproving the basic notion that Western (classical) music established the boundaries of what music is, or how it needed to be going forward. Both the (musical) history of the West itself, as well as of various highly elaborated musics around the world, indeed disprove such a notion. Ultimately then, I see myself not only as participating in the development of "modernity studies" as a discipline, but as one of the people who defined it. (Pace modern universalism then, history per se is proof of human difference — or of "alternatives," contra the neoliberal refrain.) Basically then, this site began by observing the end of the modern era, and now seeks to frame it according to (musical, historical) transitions on both sides. (I'm thus increasingly invested in dismissing myths of modernity per se, including in my relatively speculative, ongoing Decolonizing Tech series....) So discussions of contemporary music are actually some of the oldest materials here (becoming historical themselves...), such that one can even perceive a theoretical shift from notions of the "postmodern" per se into themes of decolonization.... Another issue then, in terms of maintaining pages here (i.e. in the same places for people to keep finding over the years), is the sort of rigid segmentation, indeed typology, enforced at the beginning of this site, i.e. by dividing into (hierarchical) categories. Since then, notions of transdisciplinarity & transverse motion have become more important to me... something the "rigidity" of the (computer file system-based) site can still resist. One thing the decades have brought, then, is a need for constant renewal here against the various ruts, but also a feeling that everything comes to seem more urgent... including the sense of "culture" (now passing into different terms...) that I originally set out to interrogate. And art & music do continue to seem central to any such social interrogation, in terms of hegemony (& marketing...), but also when it actually comes to forging new worlds & new forms of life....

But the current world is also a world of money (& becoming even more about money, if that seems possible...), and as anyone can see, there aren't ads here — or tracking either. I did incorporate as a public non-profit (i.e. a 501(c)(3)), in large part to honor the collaborative work of others, mostly feeding into the discography projects (vs. "analysis"), such that there was even an era when being an "affiliate" (basically just providing the "where to buy" links) for CD sales brought in healthy operating funds, but that's changed. To be paid reasonably as a writer online these days, it seems that one must have tracking & ads.... And the FAQ project does go back to an earlier era, i.e. with the same basic mentality as the "open source software" movement, in this case people volunteering their time to compile information for the public good. That's exactly the sort of work that was appropriated quickly by commercial interests though, i.e. "framing" content via search etc., extracting profits from what had been the free & voluntary contributions of others. So there was an "academic" sense of sharing on the early web, but that soon turned to greed. (And perhaps I should note that, even in the sharing days, there were often "control" issues....) And I've also felt all along that a commercial orientation would only undermine the sort of cultural interrogation that I wanted to undertake here, so that's basically left me in a position running counter to most internet developments — i.e. shifts me into "starving artist" mode. (Maintaining that tension has actually been possible due to an orientation on text, i.e. consequent lesser need for bandwidth & resources, such that I've been able to keep the site going on a shoestring....) For the tech startups, this was a straightforward matter of exploiting free labor online, especially relegating writing labor e.g. to "comments sections," as indeed the megatech industry is about destroying labor in general (i.e. basically seeks to eliminate all labor rights in favor of property rights). One result is that people have less "free time" than ever, and so are less able to contribute meaningfully to online projects. (In other words, they've been forced to allocate more time toward profit-making for others, including doing more work as customers, etc. This is a persistent theme.) I thus feel that much of my activity here — & of actual contemporary art in general — becomes a protest against commercial orientations, but I also observe that that's not only a stance increasingly challenging for one's economic situation, but perhaps increasingly ineffective as well....

So the megatech platforms certainly feel like parasites to me, basically taking over the "FAQ" aspect here (i.e. the generalized data & indexing, rather than the analysis per se...) for their own profit. There's also growing information asymmetry at work, such that what used to be evident to the public (e.g. about web sites) is now more often private, i.e. contained in proprietary algorithms. And perhaps it's still interesting to note that when most of these companies began, this site was the "top hit" for numerous search terms, eventually sliding down the list in favor first of Wikipedia & then of various (largely content-free...) commercial sites, now continuing to become increasingly deprecated.... (The commercial web isn't entirely self-referential yet, but maybe soon.) So we've learned here that compilations are what have commercial value, and that they're easy to appropriate. And that "analysis" should probably be deprecated. But not all analysis of course, as some remains hegemonic: In that sense, I'm obviously clinging to a sort of idealism here, i.e. of being able to participate fully in public thought without being economically compromised.... It was my reality for a while, though. (And apparently the FAQ was even viewed as a competitor by major commercial interests in the 1990s, so that's kind of amusing now. There was also a time when people would complain to me that my page wasn't really about whatever they'd searched for, or that it wasn't very good — and they were often right! I tried to tell them I had no control over search engines....) Nonetheless, it's clear that public discussion is now increasingly hijacked & dominated by a few megatech platforms, and that there's basically a battle to monopolize public thought, driving all the way down to the individual level. So perhaps it was wrong for me not to try to create a public forum here, i.e. to rely on an earlier era of public conversation to sustain energy, but then that would've ultimately been only another kind of "private" forum, if non-profit.... And I used to receive a tremendous amount of email & other communication online, too much really, but that's now down to a trickle: It's a matter of the takeover by monopolistic platforms & so a lower status for generic email, but also of people's expectations around communication online, i.e. no meaningful response to feedback. (I thus receive little feedback these days, especially not with any real momentum for conversation, although web traffic is at a similar volume....) When it comes to maintaining an archive here — continuing to trace & to interrogate relations — the lack of a true public forum online these days is probably what alarms me most, then. It's all becoming capitalist media, where public eyeballs are basically to be hypnotized by whatever benefits the rich & powerful....

In that sense, medieval.org (the "medieval" web?) exists still as a sort of pre-capitalist space. (And experiencing the early internet in this regard was surely a formative influence on me. I don't want to suggest it was paradise, though: There was e.g. plenty of cultural chauvinism, as alluded above.) And I'm certainly not here to push the technology, but rather to provide — hopefully — some insights (or at least some factual information). I guess it does bother me a bit, looking back from this distance, just how much of the site concerns details about commercial products, though. (And maybe I should've approached compiling those details a little differently too, but always saw it more as supporting my writing with examples.... Of course, commerce dominates the web in general now, but was forbidden to us when the site began!) Even much of my current discussion involves music for sale, albeit "non-commercial" music.... So including in that sense, it's indeed been difficult to engage art acting against markets per se, even though I do believe "economic impossibility" to be an important arena for protest today. Of course, where many of us end up is basically shunted into gig work, perhaps retaining a sense of independence.... (And I certainly do want to continue to respect the nexus between musicians & their work.) Instead, the web basically becomes the new form of television, mostly broadcast, but now with some limited feedback, more as a way of engaging people (& so exerting a "bubble effect") than hearing them... i.e. cultivates an essentially lazy, anti-social quality. (That's apparently a part of how optimizing for profits always presents itself.) And I'm not sure what to do about it with the sort of material that I'm able to produce here, since it requires some existing thought & engagement to process. Instead, most tech media these days simply seems to be selling access to the public, the less mediated the better, i.e. for mind control & bullying. I'm going to continue trying to provoke some actual thought, though....

And so after those opening reflections, let me turn now to address a few specific topics, FAQ-style.... (Perhaps I'll add some other answers subsequently, but I'm not intending to modify what's already been written here: It's to remain a snapshot for 2022.)

Has it really been 30 years?

Actually, the oldest articles here are from 1991, i.e. 31 years ago. (So I was slow to write this piece.) But they weren't originally presented in HTML via HTTP: Those standards were first implemented online in 1990, and I was aware of them very soon after, but not eager to be an early adopter (now speaking relatively...). So this "site" began via anonymous FTP, which was the norm at the time. The "web" then exploded into public consciousness with the release of Netscape Navigator — with a graphical user interface — in late 1994. And the Early Music FAQ had just started the month before (over HTTP), although I only began hosting it myself in 1995 (after having contributed articles earlier). Around that same time, I also converted the older "plain text" articles here to HTML, created indices, etc. (And the domain name "medieval.org" was registered in 1996: Prior to that, "the site" moved around in internet terms, depending on where I was, which was also generally the norm....) The official incorporation for the non-profit wasn't until 1999, but that didn't change much for readers.... (And time flies. My children are in their late 20s as I write this....) Indeed, I also don't want to suggest that this early web (which was an inclusive concept from the beginning, i.e. not only about HTML) was some sort of paradise, despite noting some "idealism" above, because online views did tend to be very narrow (albeit with some "breadth" in the academic sense), and always featured plenty of (latent or not...) racism & sexism. At the time, I would lament that we didn't have a greater diversity of people participating, but now that the online world has been colonized by profit-seeking corporations, it seems that some of these bad attitudes end up colonizing more of the outside world in turn (rather than the reverse...).

Doesn't "medieval" mean violent & uncivilized?

I probably should've been more attuned to the impending dominance of Hollywood-style conceptions online, but do note that work here began in a more academic environment. So no, "brutal" imagery was never how I envisioned medieval history or music. (Some people over the years have even asked, in some disbelief, if there was even such a thing as medieval music....) For me, beyond the framing of modernity studies (per above), the medieval era presents an era between imperial epochs, i.e. corresponds to a decrease in violence relative to the Ancient & (Early) Modern periods. Moreover, there's been a basic implication that anyone studying history wants to turn back time, so I also feel a need to reassure the reader that I'm not suggesting something nonsensical (i.e. turning back time), but rather more attention to actual histories (vs. myths...), i.e. to the various trajectories of the present, and indeed to more possibilities for the future. But then, why does "medieval" have such a negative public image (i.e. "dark ages") in the first place? Precisely as part of glorifying modernity & indeed empire, i.e. so as to convince people that they have no alternative, i.e. that they must accept the bad with the good! Things are always changing, but the underlying notion of "progress," i.e. that change is (inherently?) for the better, is also clearly nonsense: We must choose the better, i.e. actively sort the good from the bad, and not simply expect such a process to occur in a useful way otherwise. Rather, such a process — e.g. colonization — occurs so as to be "of use" to those driving it! (The web was first colonized & now it becomes the colonizer, or tool for further colonizing.... And this double process has also inflected my original intent to present a broader range of "medieval" material here....) Finally, "civilized" is generally an overloaded term: I insist that the first gesture of civilization (per se) is, in fact, the many uniting against the bully.

But seriously, why these plain web pages?

When the web began, the ability to present materials online obviously appealed to me. A big part of that was about being able to pursue niche interests among geographically dispersed researchers, as well as to update materials quickly & transparently (although expectations around the latter facet haven't necessarily corresponded to my real life limitations over the years...). HTML presented, at first anyway, a simple format, as well as the ability to link to other resources, and I found that to be valuable too. (Searching for terms within a text was also very helpful, in a basic way, and predated HTML.) In that context though, the original notion was that the reader would choose their own preferred colors & fonts etc., i.e. whatever worked for their own reading (& accessibility) needs. This ideal of user configurability resonated strongly with me, and I guess I've been stubborn about it — as more sites indeed specify their own "designs" & apparently try to look like magazines (or catalogs). I never disliked books, though! That was no part of the motivation here, so I've wanted to present texts in a straightforward way. (I indulged more in "the art of linking" for a period, but quickly found that external links tended to vanish, compromising any such project....) I suppose there's also the art of medieval illumination, and so that could've conceivably been a motivation here, but a medieval manuscript was about being a unique object... whereas to me, a web page is more about its (infinitely reproducible, searchable) text per se. (I wrote a variety of back-end gadgets here in the early days too, before such things were standardized elsewhere, and in fact wrote similar software for people to use with their own web applications, focusing on efficiency on shared servers in the 1990s....) I also personally prefer a simple look, and dislike the way most sites look. (But I wouldn't characterize the medieval aesthetic per se as actually being about simplicity... rather, a sort of technical intricacy.) It's also amazing how slow so many commercial sites have become — again. Anyway, maybe the "design" itself here has become sufficiently "medieval" (in internet history terms) to become its own theme, i.e. design? Maybe the site can be "cool" again then, something that amazed me when it first happened.... (Or maybe not, but I'm still not intending anything flashy.)


To opening diagram.

To old about us page.

Todd M. McComb
13 September 2022