The recent fad of the metaverse is all about digitizing the physical world and moving our shared experiences (even more so) onto the internet.
I wonder what an opposite approach might look like—one where, instead of making the physical digital, we instead attempt to bring the online world into our physical spaces (and no, I don’t remotely mean AR or VR).
The first thing that comes to mind for me is Berg’s now-defunct Little Printer project from back in 2012 or so. Little Printer was a web-connected thermal printer that lived in your home and allowed you to receive print-outs of digital publications, your daily agenda, messages from friends, etc.
Little Printer was an attempt at bridging the physical and digital, essentially creating a social network manifested as a physical object in the home and consumed via paper and ink.
Personal websites are the digital homesteads for many. Those sites live somewhere on a web server, quietly humming away in a warehouse meant to keep them online and secure. For each of us those servers represent empty rooms waiting to be decorated with our thoughts, feelings, interests, and personalities. We then invite strangers from all over the world to step inside and have a look.
Like the Little Printer, I wish that my web server could exist in my home as a physical object that could be touched, observed, and interacted with.
Hosting a web server yourself is surprisingly difficult today given the advances we’ve made in consumer technology over the last few decades. Hosting content on someone else’s server has become as simple as dragging and dropping a folder onto your web browser. There are countless business that will happily rent out online space to for very cheap (or even free, with the hopes that eventually you’ll upgrade and give them money).
We’re all tenants of a digital shopping mall, sharing space controlled by corporate entities who may not share our values or interests.
When someone visits my website, I wish it could feel more like inviting them into my home. What if my website lived in my home with me?
Imagine if having a web server in the home was as common as any other appliance such as a refridgerator. You might look over and see your friend (or a welcome stranger!) browsing your website. You could see what they’re browsing—look at photos with them, listen to a song together, whatever—and start a conversation about any of it.
I’m certainly not the only one who has imagined this. A while ago I stumbled upon a project by a student named Jeeyoon Hyun called “Personal Pet Pages” which is a small, personal web server with a fiendly screen displaying what’s going on inside the server.
Ever since we’ve decided that servers are something heavy, enigmatic, gigantic black boxes belonging to corporations - not individuals - we have slowly lost agency towards our own small space on the Internet. But actually, servers are just computers. Just as your favorite cassette player or portable game console, they are something that you can possess and understand and enjoy.
Jeeyoon’s idea combines turns a web server into a sort of virtual pet, one that you can move around and interact with.
Matt Webb has also considered the idea:
It is boundary-violating, to have a website in the corner of your bedroom. Websites are meant to be in the cloud. Eternal, somehow, transcendent, like the voice of code floating down from the sky. But no, there it is. It is real! I can kick it! Argumentum ad lapidem.
Those fixated with the idea of the metaverse might are interested in bringing real-world objects into the cloud. I wonder instead how we might try to bring objects from the cloud into the real world and into our homes. How would we design webpages differently if our materials included the servers that they’re hosted on?