Queer Servers and Feral Webs

In the winter of 2021 I received an email from a colleague, introducing me to a friend who was looking to collaborate. After reading and reflecting on the contents of the email, I replied, stating I agreed to the project and that I was looking forward to getting started. At the end of my reply I signed off using my initials AWS, a moniker I often use rather than my given name Austin. A few days later I received a confused reply from my collaborator to be. Whether in sincerity or jest they addressed me as Amazon Web Service, and requested clarity on who they were speaking to. I appreciated the interaction, because being mistaken for the largest provider of cloud computing and storage is a confusion I’m well prepared to explore.

I often go by AWS as I have the choice about how I am addressed. It’s a reflection of how I identify, or put another way, what my orientation is. I identify as non-binary. The pronouns most often used to refer to people with this orientation is they/them, and I myself prefer the pronouns they/them. I identify as a they not only because it creates a space where once there was only a spectrum, identifying as neither masc nor fem, but also because I identify as a multitude. As someone who from an early age actively cultivated diverse and intimate relationships with “nature” ,or what I refer to as the living world, I feel proficient in being entangled, inseparable, and a part of the world. I find it comforting that I am an ecosystem, a fleeting, highly differentiated community of cells, minerals, organisms, and energy. “They” fits my orientation, and it's a pleasant quark of the language that the term which blurs a dualism invites in a multitude.

The practice of creating spaces from lines, of expressing one-self as many-selves, is a kind of dimensional expansion of life. For me it is an essential form of being queer, or more aptly… queering. It's better suited as a verb, than a static descriptor. For me, queering is the act of being unaddressable to apparatuses which are defined by the dimensional reduction of life.

Being a multitude feels great. It thickens the care and attention I bring to the diverse subjects which constitute my day, my room, my life. It invites thinking in relation, not only to living things, but how the food, furniture, hardware and software through which I live my life are an active part of me. I'm curious where I am supposed to end and the technology I “use” begins. It isn’t a matter of extension, because that presupposes there is a discrete, essential version of myself which moves outwards into the world. We’ve always been environments.

Being confused with Amazon Web Service invited me to reflect on my orientation to technology. In particular, how I have actively tried to remove Amazon from my life. I do this primarily by building and running my own internet infrastructure rather than relying on the cloud infrastructure Amazon Web Services provides. I do this in an effort to cultivate a more embodied relationship with the content I create and serve online. It’s a way of feeling my presence on the internet as an active part of my ecology.

As a practice of queering, I’m curious how my laptop, my websites, my servers are a part of me, and I like to play with the ways they render me to other people on the internet. The infrastructure which serves me to the world should be an active participant in my multitude. It’s not the “me” solely wrapped in skin, but numerous versions of self the internet seems to grow. Is that me, or something that points at me? One of the great things the internet has done is that it has made everyone a multitude or sorts. Avatars, Alt accounts, usernames… a different self in each platform’s feudal colony.

To build a server is to create your own endpoint on the web. It's an invitation to let the world in. By building my own tech stack I can create the terms of engagement. How might the technology morph under new pressures and constraints. Do I, and by extension my website, need to be available everywhere at all times? How do I identify as a service?

For me, being queer means incorporating the systems which make me addressable online as an active part of my personhood. Understood not as solely inert infrastructure, but as actors in an ecology of self… when, how, and where I serve are conditions in the medium of being online, and of being a person at all. In doing so, I unplug myself from the placeless, scaleless “cloud” of Amazon Web Service, and into AWS; the me composed of moist clouds, capricious breeze, eclipses and seasons. To visit a website could be an opportunity to ebb and flow with the tides. I call this approach of re-entangling technology into the diverse networks of the living world feral computing, and servers which are freed from the farm, feral servers.

The project of feral computing began in the early pandemic. Like many others, it was an opportunity to reflect on my habits of living with a new kind of focus and curiosity. I owned a solar panel and at that time, I ran a small computer off of it. I decided to extrapolate that idea to all my technical devices and only charge my laptop and phone off my solar battery. When the battery ran off, it was time to log off. The consequence of this simple change in mechanic was significant for me. I began counting tabs, adjusting screen brightness, only keeping conversations active if they felt significant. Running technology off of conditional energy created a dialogue between me and the sun where there was once a unidirectional model of consumption. I felt like I actually held my phone for the first time, and considered its power a matter of respect.

I think that respect emerged because for the first time my technology was not solely defined by being in service to me. There was more at play now as the hardware, my work habits, and the sun became linked together in a kind of correspondence. In order to make the limited amperage last longer, I increasingly worked on the small computer connected to the PV panel. It allowed me to work into the night and gave me more room to explore in my now highly constrained tech stack. This ultra-light computer, which eventually became my server, felt special… sacred even because it sustained itself from the sun. I increasingly felt it to be a member of the family, and part of my ecology, like the butterflies that nest in the pollinator garden next to the solar panel. The relationship which formed asked me to consider what I would enter into the computer, what would I ask it to compute. My server began as a diary, as a log of reflections, a practice of exploring my many orientations. This writing is the substrate of my online self, the soil through which my websites and online work bloomed.

I found the constraints grounding, and they didn't stop at the power source. I installed a weather station, also powered by the panel, and began controlling simple functions of the computer based on environmental data measured right at the server sight, aka my home. What if I could only access certain images at high tide, shut off file access on the solstice, or queue applications when the wind blew north. In parsing the ecology of my own identity, I built an API of myself, which coordinates my lives online. It’s the basis of feral.earth.

The term server is a contraction of what we think all technology should do... serve us. It’s a crystallization of a long legacy of subjugation and domination hard-coded into much of the technical infrastructure which coordinates modern life. I think the expressive and transformative potential of computing has been met with a poverty of imagination to see it as anything more than the latest installment in a long legacy of domestication. Whether it be through animal or machine, domestication has been one of the primary forms through which patriarchal capitalism touches the earth. At the risk of being cynical, I think this polemic is helpful. The compression of all things to their essential utility creates an intriguing continuity between machine and organism. Being domesticated or feral applies not only to living beings, but our inventions as well. It’s worth noting that the space between the two, that of pets, also implicates organisms and technology. Pet technology, like Tamagotchis, are actually a radical departure from our dominant conception of tech, and helped paved the way for the wilder feral variants I am espousing today.

Domesticated Tech → Pet Tech → Feral Tech

History makes clear that domestication is ultimately a two way street. It becomes increasingly difficult to identify what is in service to what. The paradox of technology being defined as service provision, is that it becomes increasingly impossible to determine who is in charge. Parodied in films like Modern Times, this paradigm fully matures in the era of platform capitalism where it turns out that what we once considered to be “users” are in fact the products of surveillance capitalism. My identity, my orientation, my preferences serve advertisers. The luddites were not rejecting looms, rather the labor systems which justified turning people into machines in conformance with the logic of capital accumulation.

It’s a contradiction in terms perhaps, being both feral and something which serves. In this tension we can begin to more meaningfully discuss how we interlace the diverse networks we make and are composed of. In fact, the relationship I am after may be better described as “hosting”. Hosting is a process of incorporating. Describing the manner in which my feral server and I reciprocally host one another invites a relationship with technology based on intimacy and mutual-constitution, traversing scale and temporalities. Between the individual and the masses there are body area networks, local area networks, bioregional area networks… milliseconds, hours, and eons. How do we compute at the scale of a body, the scale of a bioregion?

I'm not advocating for all tech to go feral. I recognize the benefit, and fully appreciate there are times when we just need to know the fastest route to get to the hospital. This polemic is really an invitation to see our relationship with technology in any other way, than that which makes the world “easier” to us. How can we create technology which doesn’t only make the world easier, but bigger, more awesome, more expressive. The alternative is to be lulled into somnambulance through a false sense of security that the world is no longer wild.

Part of being a human is the need to build something we believe is new, and through that process we fathom the latent complexity and grace of what was already there. Feral computing asks how technology can be a vector towards animism; of learning how to locate ourselves within a big world, and in the process getting more entangled in it. I liken it to a process of wayfinding, of building the means to synthesize the many constellations and currents of life in order to understand one’s many orientations. The world always already was an internet. See you online.

(This essay is a garden with two gates. The first is the direct access via the URL above. The second is an aleatoric switch through feral.earth. In choosing a more durable or capricious path of entry, I hope that you may choose your own adventure in engaging with the work.)

Subscribe to Austin Wade Smith
Receive the latest updates directly to your inbox.
Mint this entry as an NFT to add it to your collection.
This entry has been permanently stored onchain and signed by its creator.