The Foxfire Browser

Stephen Ramsay

In the very earliest days of the pandemic—January of 2020, before covid had a proper name and people in the US were just learning of a mysterious and dangerous virus emerging somewhere in China—it occurred to me that I should go back to baking bread.

At the time, that felt not only like an obvious thing to do, but vaguely original. For people who like to cook, baking sourdough bread with your own starter is not an obligatory achievement, and when I had learned how to do it years ago, it had seemed about as à la mode as developing expertise in lutherie or card magic. So when I say that it felt “original,” I mean not that no one was doing it, but only that most weren’t, and for this reason, my private impulse felt special in some way.

But my complete lack of originality was made plain almost immediately. I soon realized that everyone was thinking about making sourdough boules. Every cooking site was suddenly talking about Brotformen, the ideal standing mixer, and the secret health benefits of wild yeast. It became hard to find ordinary bread flour.

I’ve always felt that the idea of “memes”—as originally conceived by Richard Dawkins—mistook metaphor for mechanism. But even if Dawkins’s rigidly physicalist notions about culture had any truth to them, they still wouldn’t account for the strange ways in which some ideas move around without any apparent logic at all. Ideas not only don’t circulate the way we think they do, but don’t circulate the way we think they ought to.

It is tempting to imagine that there is a simple explanation for why a contagion quite literally on the other side of the planet should change the predilections of suburban cooking enthusiasts in North America en masse, but one should probably approach the subject with a certain humility (if only to avoid the absurdities of imagining that intellectual history is just like the activity of recombinant nucleotides). The line between cultural analysis and a “just so” story is perilously thin, and causation is just as confusing a matter now as it ever was.

But let me offer a more consequential—though no less complicated—example.

I am just old enough to remember the Foxfire books. I remember, in particular, coming across one on my parents’ bookshelves when I was a child of maybe nine or ten. It seemed odd to me that my folks would own a volume on how to make whiskey, butcher a hog, or maintain a flintlock rifle, since these tasks were rarely, if ever required in the exurbs of Boston where I grew up. When I later discovered the extraordinary story that led to the publication of this material, it felt as if the matter made more sense. In 1966, an English teacher in rural Appalachia, confronted with the perennial problem of how to get his students to care about writing, had conceived the idea of having his students write about the wisdom and folkways of their own community. The result was a self-published ’zine, of sorts, that later became a wildly popular set of books—on subjects ranging from basket weaving to faith healing—that is, among other things, one of the priceless records of an exquisite culture. That teacher, Eliot Wigginton, rightly won a MacArthur for what is undoubtedly one of the most incandescently successful instances of experiential learning in the twentieth century.

But explaining how the results of that effort ended up on my parents’ bookshelf in the 1970s is another matter, because to ponder that question is to be confronted with the conundrums of infinite regress and genetic fallacy. The Foxfire books (which eventually ran to eleven volumes) were important resources for a strident “back to the land” movement in the US in the 1970s, but the books were neither the immediate cause of that movement nor an obvious effect of it. And even to say such a thing is to beg the question. Why was there a back-to-the-land movement in the 1970s? It seems to have been preceded by a self-sufficiency ethos that had permeated some quarters of US society after the Second World War (primed, perhaps, by “victory gardens” and other war-time austerity campaigns). But enthusiasm for things like smallholding and vacant lot farming precedes the war, and goes back even further in Europe. In fact, push on this even a little, and we are finding evidence in Augustan Rome for why my parents had conceived a desire to make their own soap. You can build that bridge, but you might not want to walk on it when you’re done.

Some time in September or October of this year I started thinking about two things: the Common Gateway Interface and the Forth programming language.

The former is an old way of creating server-side web applications, and the way I mostly did it in the mid-90s working as a back end web developer. I am told that it persists (perhaps the way cobol persists) in certain application domains for a variety of mostly sociological reasons, but cgi was the new thing a couple dozen new things ago in server-side programming. The latter is among the oldest of programming languages, and a real oddball—a “stack based” programming language that can be easily bootstrapped with a few lines of assembly. It, too, has its applications (mainly in bare metal embedded programming), but is rather more like Smalltalk (or, dare I say, Lisp) than cobol—the software engineering equivalent of artisanal bread baking among a stalwart band of enthusiasts.

Why was I thinking about these things? I don’t know. I was installing nginx on an old Linux laptop and wondering if it was still possible to use cgi (it is); if you can you still write a Fastcgi program in C (you can); and if anyone ever does that these days (I’m sure). And Forth? I had heard a podcast a couple of years ago about how Forth (a language about which I knew next to nothing) was designed for situations in which power was inconsistently available—or something like that. And since I was trying to upcycle a computer, I started reading around about Forth (though I never did find the bit about inconsistent power). Anyway, it is autumn, and I’m going down one of my usual rabbit holes, as I am wont to do. Maybe I’ll pick up Forth over winter break.

Then the Twitter meltdown (or whatever it is) happens. All my friends are moving to Mastodon. Everyone is talking about the #IndieWeb, and the #smolweb, and #POSSE (“Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere”). Anarchy is in the air. People are shutting down their accounts on giant corporate panoptikoi and talking about hosting all their stuff on Raspberry PIs (which is a problem, since they are very hard to get at the moment). Mass migrations to Gemini seem imminent.

And then, to my complete astonishment, people on Hacker News—that urbane arbiter of what is meet and right in Silicon Valley—starts talking about cgi. Then they start talking about Forth.

All of this obviously reeks of confirmation bias. What’s more, it’s not even a very accurate description of the dominant discourse in my own circles (where people are mostly chatting about large language models—a genuinely astonishing, epochal technological development that bores me for reasons I can’t quite identify or explain). But how did this whole thing start? My private, and seemingly random musings about how cgi was actually a pretty cool way to do things and the thought that I should learn yet another forgotten language were surely not random. Something was in the air. But that thing could not have been the obviously precipitating events (like Elon Musk’s antics), because by and large, those things hadn’t yet happened.

Recently, I heard someone use the obnoxious phrase “soft humanities subjects.” Since I am one of those flocculent swishes who teaches such subjects, I was perhaps more than primed to be offended. But really, the problem of how influence works is at least as big a riddle as the hard problem of consciousness or the mystery of dark matter. It’s the central problem of history. “How A led to B” is among the elemental narratives of the humanistic endeavor, and every part of that quaint, broken syllogism is a bottomless exegetical pit. What is A? What is B? What does “led to” mean? What are we even talking about?

Yet as the old song puts it, “Somethin’s happenin’ here / What it is ain’t exactly clear.” 1 Most people aren’t leaving Twitter. Most people aren’t on Mastodon. Most people have never heard of cgi. Most people don’t read Hacker News. Most people—and really, in practical terms, nearly all people—have never heard of Forth. But for all that, it’s hard not to think that these narrow and parochial matters, viewed through a glass darkly, are not of a piece with something larger and more substantial. Not every age is characterized by nostalgia, or by modernity, or by a dawning conviction that the happiness on offer isn’t happiness. Only some ages are. And while it’s possible that your thoughts have the satisfying ring of originality, it’s more likely that “cultural forces”—the squirreliest word Humanitas knows—are acting upon you in ways that only later generations can properly discern.

Assuming, of course, that they can discern it at all.

Incoming: home blog index

Keywords: cultural criticism, humanities, IndieWeb, Forth, CGI, Foxfire Books

Last Modified: 2023-03-02T16:08:50:-0600

  1. I am not quite old enough to remember when Buffalo Springfield released the single, “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound)” in 1966.↩︎