Runnel is my answer to an increasingly broken Internet. It’s a program I did not want to write, that I tried not to write, but finally had to. The result is a hacked together, light-weight web app that reads the directory in which you keep your MP3s, extracts ID3 tags from each mp3 file, and presents a sorted list to the user, who may add songs to ONE, GLOBAL PLAYLIST for listening.

No persistent databases. No user accounts. No connection to outside services that may close up shop in the future. Runnel never modifies your mp3 collection at all. It never writes files outside of its own directory. It never “phones home” to tell me what people using my app are doing with it. It is just a single-threaded Mojolicious server that uses Bootstrap for styling, a small table sorting library (which I might replace), and small bits of playlist list code that manages a single MediaStream object. It works on desktop and modern mobile devices (sorry, Apple Newton users).

Like all new programs, Runnel has bugs. When they bother me enough, I fix them. I use Runnel every day to play music from my iPad or iPhone to bluetooth speakers around my house. Could the interface be better? Yup. Could it have a lot more features? Uh huh! Am I going to waste time adding those? Heck to the No.

While the tech that went into Runnel might be interesting to some (it’s mostly vanilla JavaScript with modules), what this post is about is why I had to write what should have already exist in better forms somewhere on the Internet. Actually, due to discoverability problems in general (thanks to search engine dependence on sponsored ads), there may well be dozens of projects like this. But let this rant start with the large scale issues before raking any particular actor over the coals.

I started using the Internet fairly late among my peers. The first computer I bought with a modem was in 1993 or 1994 and with it, I taught myself to program in C. Back then, I also discovered Bulletin Board Systems, on which I played online DOOR games like Legend of the Red Dragon and found mountains of UFO conspiracy text files. I was living the 2020 pandemic lifestyle 30 years before y’all.

It may not be believed by younger readers of this blog (who themselves are only conjectured to exist), but simple mp3 files were A Big Deal. Until this time, high quality stereo music files only existed (for the most part) as uncompressed audio files (WAV, AIFF, etc.). A five minute song might produce a file 20 Megabytes (MB) in size. To translate that into an equivalent modern file size, that’s something like 20 Gigabytes (GB) for each song. Audio CDs hold about 640 MB and contained around twelve songs without much room to spare. So exciting a technological breakthrough were mp3 files that people started “ripping” their audio CDs and sharing the resulting mp3 files. This idea literately became the core business idea for one of the early Dotcom companies called Napster.

I can imagine that if you had not heard this story before, it may strike you a pretty thin concept for a company, but please be assured that Napster was so big a deal that the entire recording industry lined up against them.

My point is that sharing mp3 was a very popular use of the Internet in the late nineties and early 2000s. Because of this there were many proprietary and open source programs designed for streaming large collections of mp3 files. I recall running a few of them back in the day.

Due to massive improvement in web technology and internet connectivity, tech companies started moving away from producing downloadable software and instead created web-based applications. Why give your grubby customers your precious code when you could just sell access to it? These companies were collectively called the “Web 2.0” and it is where things on the Internet took a bad turn.

In 2021, we find ourselves largely dependent on cloud based services (which is largely rebranded Web 2.0, but metastasized) that publish our microblogs, our spreadsheets, our photos, our music collections, and even our health as measured (questionably) by consumer electronics.

I am no luddite, but our relationship to tech has in my lifetime gone from being one where people were owners of software to one where the selling of people’s personal data as obtained from nearly all uses of softwares drives a huge swath of the world economy. The richest American, Jeff Bezos, is not worth $200 billion because he sells books. Google is not one of the largest tech companies because they help you find recipes for chicken tikka masala. Facebook makes no money from keeping you in touch with your family. In each instance, these companies use your data for profit (either to drive their own advertising or to sell to third party advertisers).

OK. We are not likely to fix this trend with a blog post. But what can we do?

As consumers, we can roll the clocks back a few decades to were we run at least some of our own software. Learn to code or find code on github that meets your personal needs. Rent a virtual machine on linode or host your web site off a raspberry pi at home from your always connected internet access point. None of these solutions are as convenient as those cloud based solutions, but when enough people have the same problem, someone starts working on a solution. That’s the Internet I remember and it was a far healthier place for it.