old memes

Sometimes I see a thing which hits me in a very specific way but it’s not a way that makes sense in a tiny social media post, depending how much you know about me. This image is one of those things.

screenshot from the website for Jan which shows the name of their newsletter which is Soul of a New Machine

This is a screenshot from the web page of a robotics company which has created a standalone tool called Jan that enables you to run a large language model (LLM) on your personal computer. This allows you to mess around with chatbot-type stuff without your interactions with it becoming part of the “training” for those things. I don’t want to be training an AI. I don’t have much use for chatbot/AI-type stuff in my life and work currently, but I feel it’s important to know a bit more about it than I do. So I downloaded and installed this thing and have been messing around with it. As I was reading its (scant) documentation, I scrolled down on the company’s home page and saw that their newsletter is called The Soul of a New Machine. This is funny.

It’s funny because The Soul of a New Machine is also the name of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book published over forty years ago about a computer project my dad led, back in the mainframe days. It was a big deal at the time. It was a big deal in my family and my dad got well-known for it for a while. A lot of people I know who are about my age considered it formative. Tracy Kidder went on to write a bunch of other terrific books. After growing up in a household where computers were considered “normal” even back in the 1980s, I’ve brought that information forward with me to my library, technology, and community work and I think it’s helped me to be better at what I do.

I’m now what folks might consider later-career. I’m faffing about with this newfangled technological stuff knowing both that it’s a big deal and also that I only sort of care about it (at my peril? perhaps.) and to come across this blast from the past in an “everything old is new again, huh?” way made me laugh.

What do you think?


  1. I read and loved that book long before I met you. I’m glad you’re getting a kick out of this.

    Russ, hobgoblin

  2. I read it before I met you also :D I think I will send them a note about it.

  3. I understand how computers work at a quite low level, and this generative AI stuff is the first technology I’ve encountered in forty years that strikes me as pure magic. I mean, I even understand how it works in a general sense, and yet… magic. It’s like that cartoon with “then a miracle occurs” in the middle of a big equation, except that it’s not a gag. The miracle actually occurs.

    On the one hand, I am pretty sure generative AI will eventually lead to the widespread loss of our ability to tell propaganda from reality and from there directly and speedily to the collapse of civilization, but on the other hand, the technology itself is almost irresistibly cool and will inevitably be developed on that basis alone.

  4. Hi Jessamyn! Nicole here, one of the creators of Jan. I wanted to say hello and a thank you.

    I started building Jan last year during my maternity leave, with my husband. We’re completely bootstrapped and have since grown to a ragtag team of open-source & privacy-first software enthusiasts around the world. Our docs are indeed lacking given how under resourced we are haha – thank you for trying it out. ?

    Your dad’s work, and by extension, the book, really changed our lives. We’ve tried our best to make this project about **letting people do their life’s work**. The contributors own their own work-streams. Inevitably, we’re always just a little bit late to support the latest trends.

    I do think we’ve captured something special here, folks seem to really care about the vision: privately owned/ & local AI, thinking about AI as a tool (like fire, the pen, or gunpowder) and ultimately giving non-technical users control over this powerful tool.

    I’d love get your thoughts on this vision and learn more about what you are working on. Are you open to connecting?