What To Read: Steve Lord is exploring weird internet worlds

This week, we interviewed Steve Lord, who writes The Dork Web about hidden internet subcultures, bringing to mind the cyberpunk and hacker cultures of earlier decades.

What's your Substack about in one sentence?

Tales From The Dork Web is a newsletter about subcultures and the weird things I find and make.

Why are you so into weird internet subcultures?

All my life I’ve been a hacker, which in itself is a weird Internet subculture. I’ve always sought out the weird because I’m pretty odd myself. I hunt for and jump down Internet rabbit holes I find. Whether it’s Cyberpunk, the demo scene, or cyberdecks, I throw myself into things for weeks and months. When I write about them, I try to write from personal experience.

What made you want to start writing about them?

I’ve noticed family, friends and I using recommendation engines for content discovery. These engines are great, but they give you more of the same. If you play a song on Spotify, it recommends 5 similar songs it thinks you’ll like. Chances are you will like them, but you’ll end up listening to more of the same. I write about subcultures because it busts my audience out of their filter bubble.

I also write Tales From The Dork Web in a certain way. Each issue is full of links and videos. No matter the subject, I keep things upbeat and accessible. When I write about games, there's usually a link to play them in a browser. If I post about getting pictures from space, there'll be a YouTube video on how to do it yourself.

The best way to read the newsletter is to skim through, try a few links and put it down. The next time you're doom-scrolling, go into your email and pick it back up. Try some of the links you didn't try the first time, even if you're not sure you'll like them.

Do cyberpunk and hacker culture have a place in the modern zeitgeist, or is it more of an underground thing these days?

Both have evolved. Hacker culture now has money and an industry making it more cyberpunk than ever. I look at Hong Kong today and see a straight-up Cyberpunk dystopia. I saw pictures of San Francisco that looked like something from Blade Runner 2049. The Cyberpunk aesthetic is the backdrop to the modern world, minus the flying cars. Cyberpunk is now.

What surprised me in Cyberpunk was the emergence of Solarpunk. I covered it in my Cyberpunk issue, but it took me completely by surprise. Solarpunk is the Cyberpunk future of today in the way Cyberpunk was the future of the 80s.

Will the weirdness of 2020 lead to the formation of new subcultures in the coming years? What will those look like?

Hunter S. Thompson once said, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." The 2010s was the decade technology stopped being optimistic. Somewhere, something broke and it broke us along the way. We have never been so connected, so liked, and never so alone.

COVID and climate change impacts will drive the creation of new subcultures. Two areas I know of are radio and self-sufficiency. COVID taught us how brittle our supply chains are. Climate change and de-globalization will exacerbate that. Global demand for online amateur radio exams far outstrips supply. I imagine many readers will have at least tried to bake this year. Some will try to go back to their lives as they were before. Some will keep baking, growing food, staying on the air. These people will build the subcultures of the 2020s.

What motivates you to keep writing?

I've been writing on the Internet since the early 2000s. Sometimes I'm documenting my projects. Sometimes I'm just writing for fun, like the wild things on Shortwave radio. I write to a two-week deadline schedule which keeps me focused. I make sure only one of the two pieces a month is a deep dive which stops me [from] burning out. Writing on Substack keeps me reading. It keeps me learning. It keeps me endlessly curious.

Subscribe to Steve’s newsletter, The Dork Web.

Solarpunk image: The Conversation