Thursday, November 5, 2020

A Gopher view of Gemini

With the possible exception of Google, and I fully acknowledge the irony that this blog post is hosted on a Google property, everyone thinks the Web has gotten too big for its britches. And, hey, maybe Google agrees but it's making them money and they don't care. In this environment of unchecked splay, the browser has since metastasized to an operating system running on an operating system (you could even argue that simplified document presentations like Reader View are browsers themselves running on this browser-as-operating system), web services drive browser technology to facilitate greater monetization of users rather than greater ability to access information, and the entire client stack has reached the level of baseline bloat such that many operating systems and older systems are cut off completely.

As a consequence I think one of the biggest reasons for the Gopher protocol's return is as a reactionary backlash against the excesses of the Web. But this motivation is by no means universally central. When I started gopher.ptloma.edu in 1999 (which is now gopher.floodgap.com) I did it to preserve a historic technology that I always wanted to be part of (I even maintained news and weather through my .plan for awhile in university since I didn't have server hardware of my own back then), and many of us early Gopher revivers probably approached it from the same perspective. This affects our view of the protocol's niche as well, as I'll explain a little later.

Really, Gopher isn't a direct ancestor of the Web either; at most it can be argued to be an influencer. Gopher actually originated as an attempt to put a friendlier frontend onto FTP (the venerable File Transfer Protocol that Google is doing its level best to kill too), meaning Gopher menus aren't hypertext any more than a file directory listing is, and today's conceptualization of them as primitive hypertext is merely an artifact introduced by the early (surprise!) web browsers which subsumed it into their core metaphor. While it's become the dominant paradigm for modern Gopher holes and much effort is spent shoehorning menus into HTML-like documents, it's really not how Gopher menus are designed to function, despite such abuse even by yours truly who should know better (see, you really can get away with hypocrisy if you admit it).

All that wind-up was to offer a backdrop to contrast against Project Gemini. Gemini has caught a lot of people's fancy. Gemini finds Gopher too limiting and the Web too big, so it tries the Goldilocks approach. Rather than Gopher's strong menu-document hierarchy, Gemini lets you have documents with (horrors) inline links and formatted text, but the way in which you specify that document is intentionally bowdlerized compared to HTML so people can't keep adding features. Gopher has a trivial open wire protocol where the selector and a handful of item type characters do all the work, while heavy HTTP has a header and method for every kink and everything is encrypted, so Gemini splits the difference by requiring TLS 1.2 with SNI and MIME types but doesn't cache, compress or cookie. It's a vision of the web where if you want to view an image, you click on a link, scripting is for playwrights, and if you want to track a user across visits, it's hard and imprecise.

And that's the core difference, philosophically, between Gopher and Gemini: Gemini truly is a descendent of the Web, it's just one with an eye on the Gopher renaissance that happened inbetween. From the view of us inhabiting Gopherspace, it doesn't really occupy the same present-day niche: it isn't historical, because it's a new protocol, and it isn't retrocomputing, because the document format is non-trivial and its TLS requirement excludes even some relatively recent systems. It does this arguably intentionally, in fact. You can run a Gopher client on a Commodore 64 and I just wrote one for a 68030-based system; I don't see that happening for Gemini. Just like it won't displace the Web, Gemini isn't going to displace Gopher — though in fairness nor does it try — because it just simply doesn't scratch the same itches.

What Gemini will do, however, is essentially freeze Gopher in place by peeling off those who find it too constraining. Gopher+ was stillborne and merely a few consensus expansions have occurred like hURLs and CAPS, which are really just conventions anyway since they don't actually change the core protocol or how menus are parsed and handled. A few Gopher sites offer Gopher over TLS which only some specialized clients and proofs-of-concept can connect to. But since Gemini mandates TLS and every Gemini client already speaks it and some speak Gopher besides, plus the minimal work necessary to transcode Gopher menus into text/gemini, Gemini seems a more likely transport for a "secure Gopher" than bolting TLS onto a protocol that was never designed for it in the first place. These are the folks least likely to stick with Gopher because of its limitations anyway, so I don't see the phenomenon as anything that would harm the Gopher community. And freezing Gopher more or less as it was only enhances its historicity.

I've observed before that the Web and Gopher can coexist, and I don't see why Gemini and Gopher can't either. Despite their superficial similarities and some overlap in motivations, they don't really serve the same purposes and that's absolutely a-okay. From my view on port 70, anything that gets us to a point where people start thinking about alternatives to an increasingly out-of-control Web is a positive, and I'm glad both Gemini and Gopher are doing that.

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