Plan9 for people who can't be bothered


My pathetic attempts to master the famously gnarly operating system.


01: Full Disclosure


I am not a computer programmer.


Sure, I'm fairly comfortable with the command-line interface and know my way around UNIX, kind of. I can hop between directories, move and copy stuff, edit files with nano. I can fork and clone, push and pull on GitHub and Sourcehut with the best of them - but not much else. After finally figuring out how public/private keys work, I've learned how to ssh into remote servers and in recent months have added a bunch of accounts on the internet not usually seen by most people who use the web on a daily basis: Gemini, tilde communities, sdf.org. I can set up - just about - Linux distros on clapped-out Thinkpads, and have recently started dabbling around with Raspberry Pis. Yes, I'm a dabbler.


But I'm not a coder. Although a linguist by training, I've never learned any computer languages and don't know how to build apps. While I know many of their names - C, Lisp, Processing, Python, Rust - they sound like exotic foreign countries to me that I'd love to visit one day but can never find the time to do so. I was lucky enough to find myself teaching at MIT in the very earliest days of the web, and inspired by the people around me, began hanging out on virtual communities and learning HTML so I could build interactive versions of my academic papers and websites for my courses (some of which are to this day still online). But I gave up HTML when the arrival of Javascript and CSS began to transform web authoring from a hobby open to anyone into a specialized profession.


All of which, as you've probably already figured out by now, was why something like Plan9 was always going to be an uphill struggle for someone like me. Hell, even programmers consider it to be difficult to use and quite esoteric by usual standards. So why did I decide to do it?


Partly, no doubt, because I'm compulsively drawn to esoterica. From the runic symbols on the cover of Led Zeppelin IV to Roswell saucer cults, for as long as I can remember I've been unable to resist what Erik Davis calls High Weirdness.


Partly also, I guess, just to see whether I could do it. I enjoy challenges, even though I also get easily frustrated in the early stages and am prone to pre-emptive rage-quitting. But I generally come back once I've calmed down.


Partly because one of my research interests is what's today known as retrocomputing: a large, proliferating field of subcultural scenes organized around exploring technological devices and platforms long since discarded as obsolete by today's hi-res media culture: Atari, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, and Amiga consoles, Sony's Gameboy. Retrocomputing scenes are not so much a rabbit hole as an entire warren that includes demoscene music videos, chipmusic, 8bit art, right on up to algorave and the teeming ecosystem of music genres collectively known as vaporwave. At various times I've plunged down each of these rabbit holes, and have often ended up spending more time in them than I'd have ever imagined. Plan9 looked like another such rabbit hole.


Most of all, though, I was drawn to Plan9 by Merveilles. For people not familiar with it, Merveilles is a community of digital artists, designers, musicians, writers, coders, and mycologists hosted on an instance of the Mastodon fediverse. I came across it, like many of my most interesting discoveries of recent years, through the work of its founder, the Québécois artist, musician, game developer, and sailboat adventurer known under the pseudonym of Devine Lu Linvega. I'd first encountered Devine under his musical pseudonym, Aliceffekt, at his wonderful set [1] for the BlipFest chipmusic festival in Tokyo in 2012, and have been sporadically checking in on the dizzying array of projects meticulously documented on his sprawling wiki ever since. I'd just begun to discover the fediverse when he launched Merveilles [2] with some collaborators, and I somehow managed to blag myself an account on it, even though I constantly feel like an impostor as I scroll through updates posted by people working on amazing projects on a daily basis. But for me, at least, it's been the most interesting place on the web for a while now.


As an artist, Devine is a beguiling figure and over the years has accumulated something like cult status, although in his self-effacing way this is not something he's sought to cultivate (unlike so many other online attention seekers). As many readers of this post will know, a few years back, after spending some years living in Japan, Devine and his partner, Rekka Bellum, bought a sailboat and began sailing around the world while developing videoames and writing hypertext novels to (as Rekka put it) literally keep themselves afloat through their Patreon followers [3]. After barely surviving an arduous 60-day crossing of the Pacific from Japan to Vancouver in which at one point their boat was knocked over by a giant wave, Devine and Rekka were safely back on land settling in to some well-deserved R&R in Victoria on Vancouver Island. They were also back on Merveilles, and Devine was posting crazily about this thing I'd never heard of called Plan9.


I decided to investigate, and discovered that Plan9 was the codename of an arcane operating system developed long ago by Bell Labs, that had somehow survived to the present thanks to the efforts of the proverbial community of quasi-fanatical devotees. While the community around it has been active for over a decade, in recent years it also appeared to have been undergoing something of a revival, as virtualization has made it possible for people to play with it regardless of their preferred platform.


Plan9 ticked a lot of boxes for me. Retrocomputing: check. Esoterica: check. Subculture: check. Merveilles: check. But there were also other intriguing aspects: why would an entire subcultural community be organized around a supposedly obsolete computer operating system, rather than, say, a music genre or a retro device like the Commodore Amiga? It was also not at all clear what you could do with this operating system that you couldn't already do much more easily with contemporary OSs - I saw little or no artwork, music, or other forms of digital creativity other than pictures of empty terminal windows, text editors, and drawing apps that people had somehow managed to get working. Gradually, it began to dawn on me that this was, in fact, where the creativity was located: that exploring and tinkering with the operating system itself was the purpose of the entire exercise: Plan9 is an experimental computer platform for digital bricoleurs, people who like building and tinkering with interesting stuff using the basic components of a computer operating system as their playground - or to use the preferred term, sandbox. But in the social media age, exploring this sandbox was no longer (if it ever had been) a solitary activity, but could be conducted publicly and in real time, with continuous updates and swapping tips with other people in the community. People like the Merveilles community. It made sense: one of the most popular recent events in the community has been the Hyperjam [4], in which people used an emulation of Apple's much-loved but obsolete Hypercard app as a retro-futurist platform for developing new interactive games and motion graphics.


My Ph. D. was in part about bricolage, the improvisational mode of thinking identified over half a century ago by the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss in his landmark work _La Pensée Sauvage_ (1962). Since then, I've always identified with Lévi-Strauss's figure of the bricoleur, and have defined my own theoretical approach to everything as bricolage. Needless to say, Lévi-Strauss's opposition between the bricoleur and the engineer was quickly deconstructed by Jacques Derrida years ago; we are all, and have always already been, bricoleurs - including the engineer. But the point also applies in the domain of digital media, in the false opposition between the digital bricoleur and the computer engineer. We are all digital bricoleurs now. What better place to try out digital bricolage than Plan9?


A few months back I found out that over the past decade a Plan9 Bootcamp had been taking place every year or two for people interested in trying out the operating system. So when I saw an announcement that an upcoming Bootcamp was scheduled to be held over a period of a few months beginning on 2 October 2020, I jumped right in. After getting an account on sdf.org, I submitted an email request to join the next Plan9 Bootcamp and on October 2 received the reply that I'd been allocated my VPS (virtual private server) slice, with instructions on how to install the Plan9 disk image. As I posted on Merveilles, it was both exciting and terrifying at the same time. The next day, after attending the first live orientation session hosted on Twitch, I decided to document my discovery of this arcane digital sandbox by keeping a journal of my progress. You, dear reader, have just finished reading the first installment.


Links


[1]

Aliceffekt @Blipfest 2012


[2]

Merveilles


[3]

Hundred Rabbits Patreon


[4]

Merveilles Hyperjam


Credits


Written in Left, by Devine Lu Linvega


Thanks to Solderpunk for hosting on gemini.circumlunar.space


HTML version


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02: Long Distance Runaround

00: Overture

s2n



/plan9/