Saturday, May 28, 2022

Farewell Adobe Flash and the messy and glorious web

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My first memory of Shine was that it got me in trouble. I had heard of a website hosting brutal games, including a particularly tricky shooter starring a daring yellow alien. I soon discovered that this site, Newgrounds.com, was brimming with a distorted view of American culture – within minutes, I had beaten Osama Bin Laden and chainsawed through a series of office mates. The next day, I visited the site at a friend’s house and we slaughtered a school. In the evening, his mother called mine to ask why her son had undressed Britney Spears.

The 31st of December Flash is dead. Adobe has stopped the updates and now recommends that you uninstall them. This end has been long in coming – since June 2017, officially; unofficially, since April 2010, when Apple’s Steve Jobs announced that Flash would not work on the iPhone. His legacy lives on in Adult Swim cartoons and wacky mobile games. Defenders of the environment continue to convert and archive old Flash content before it is lost forever.

Flash’s death is, in many ways, fortuitous – there may even be an impulse to welcome it. For those of a certain age, the command “Please install Flash Player” still causes a slight irritation, as they remember how it was between them and this badger video. But the end of the software is also the synecdoche of an aesthetic project for years to come. It’s a reminder of how the web has been cleaned up; how it was transformed from a messy, amateurish space into a shiny, corporate space.

Flash animations can be crude and childish; they could be profane and pornographic. They were politically incorrect, an ideology that has sometimes bled in real life – the creator of Stick Assault is now a racist YouTuber. A member of Newgrounds posted two cartoons:“Clown” and “Target Practice”– before shooting his school.

But these are isolated examples in a generally harmless chaos. If there was a little bit of depravity, it’s because Flash was so easy to use. What would have taken an animation studio months to draw could be produced in just a few days, because Flash algorithmically generated the frames between two keyframes. This led to his iconic singing movement.movement without cyclesIn technical jargon – accompanied by the thick black outlines necessary to withstand poor resolutions of computer screens.

The most memorable of these creations came from David Firth. Where Newgrounds was unmistakably American, Fat-Pie, Firth’s website, was inherently British. Salad Fingers, the creepy green humanoid with spinning numbers, is his most famous character, but I’ve watched every one of his night terror creations, from eloquent locusts and slaughtering milkmens to Burnt Face Man, the super- inept hero who claimed that “crime is shit that needs to be cleaned up.” His cartoons, often associated with the music of Aphex Twin, obliquely reflected British society – Chris Morris’ satire without politics. In the early 2000s, they looked like the way I was feeling.

The best animation, supports film critic Richard Brody, captures “the spontaneity, flowing imagination and sense of unhindered pleasure at the heart of the medium.” Flash spread these instincts across the web. The worst Flash websites were a thing to see – remember restaurant websites with pumping muzak and flying food? There didn’t seem to be a unique setting at the time.

In this sense, Flash was a bridge between generations. Its creator, Jonathan Gay, explained that the web could have settled on a cinematic experience, based on film and television, rather than the textual Twittersphere that we now accept. Flash has facilitated the customization associated with Web 1.0 relics like Geocities, with users being encouraged to manually “code, design and manage” their website, in the words of architecture critic Kate Wagner, a state of affairs replaced by the enterprise web, professionally designed that we “can’t customize but have to experience.” This new professional web is bright, uniform and minimalist, characterized by app stores, smartphones and Facebook. The participatory ‘portal’ culture that websites like Newgrounds have started is supercharged, but personalization is destroyed.

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