Landscape, Now

Galen Wolfe-Pauly

January 2021

When I sit down to catch up on what has been going on, I open up Landscape—the interface for my Urbit node.

Landscape Home Interface

Landscape is a calm, simple interface for bringing together groups of people to chat, share links, and write notes.

Landscape does exactly what it appears to do and nothing else. There are no ads or tracking, there are no gimmicks to try to keep you engaged or addicted, and there’s no quiet uncertainty that Landscape might disappear or change drastically.

Conventional apps and services are always frantically trying to keep you around, pestering you to keep using them, hoarding your data, and reselling it to who-knows-who. Landscape is a tool, plain and simple.

Landscape is a purpose-built piece of software because it runs on my Urbit: a personal server I own and control completely. I own my Urbit with a private key, expect it to last forever, and its source is completely open for me to tinker with. Urbit isn’t an app or a service: it’s a new decentralized network and computing system designed from scratch to be owned, controlled and improved by the people who use it.

We helped to build Urbit over the past few years because we wanted a new foundation for how we communicate and collaborate that reflects the people that depend on it. This vision can’t be fully realized without both new technology and an approachable, easy to use interface for it.

The combination of Landscape and hosting from Tlon makes it possible for anyone to start using Urbit to build communities, communicate, and stay connected on a foundation they actually own. We’re really excited to let people take control over their computing again.

If you want to join this new world smoothly, get on our waitlist. If you just want to understand the technology, head to urbit.org. Or read on, and I’ll tell you a bit more about this system we’ve built. We’ll start by looking at what it means for hosting to exist, then we’ll walk through what Landscape is and how we use it.

Landscape Group Interface

As Urbit itself started to mature and stabilize, our first challenge was to use it ourselves. This is why we built Landscape. We wanted a simple tool for keeping our community connected and getting things done.

We built that tool and have been using Landscape from day to day for the past year. It’s really nice.

Until now, to use Landscape meant running an Urbit node by hand from the command-line. This isn’t too difficult for anyone familiar with the command-line, but it’s far too complicated for most people. To fix this, we built a hosting service that will spin up an Urbit node for you in a few minutes. This means we can get anyone up and running in Landscape with their very own Urbit in a few minutes without leaving the browser.

Over the past few months, we’ve been testing this hosting service with friends. They’ve been starting their own communities, building new connections, and helping us improve the system. It’s exciting to see what people can do with this new breed of social software and we’re really looking forward to offering hosting to the public.

So what do you get when we spin up an Urbit for you and drop you into Landscape? Landscape is sort of like a second-cousin of group chat. It’s similar but, ultimately, pretty different and has a much different road ahead. Let’s walk through it.

Landscape Collections Interface

Everything in Landscape starts with a group, which is exactly what it sounds like: a group of people. Each group shares a set of channels, and each channel can be a chat, a stream of links, or a notebook of posts.

By customizing your channels it’s easy to create a shared digital space that’s yours.

As a small company, we keep notebooks for ongoing projects and updates, chats for our different streams of work, and link collections of references for discussion.

Landscape Notebooks Editing Interface

We use a group sort of like an informal magazine to host The Index, a notebook that collects all the most recent activity on Urbit.

A few friends use Landscape to play board games together in a notebook and chat in a group. A research collective tracking COVID keeps a few active links collections and a chat. A group of Urbit developers keep notebooks about their ongoing projects, use chats to answer questions, and link collections to track source code.

As you can see, there are a lot of permutations just with a small set of features.

We’ve got a few more modules to add to Landscape, better profiles and a mobile app in the near future. We’re constantly making Landscape better, faster, and more fully featured. But even in this early form, Landscape feels great. There’s nothing else that can give you a calm sense of control. Landscape is yours to shape.

Landscape Chat Interface

A computer should be a bicycle for the mind; an open-ended tool to explore what’s possible. The mainstream services we use are more like a stationary bike in the gym than two wheels to go anywhere.

In building Urbit we’ve gone to extreme, almost unreasonable lengths to build a system that can give people real freedom and flexibility. There are plenty of systems that you can use to chat or share notes, but Urbit is designed for the individual over the long-term. You can always feel the difference between something carefully engineered and something that kind-of-works. We think everyone deserves a computer that’s exceptionally well crafted, not just a bunch of preexisting parts reconfigured by someone else.

There’s a big difference between driving a rented go kart on an indoor track and driving a Range Rover through the countryside.

Networked computers have become an inescapable extension of our collective nervous system. They’re part of how society works together, thinks together and decides what’s next. It’s only natural that our systems for computing end up owned by everyone instead of only a select few.

This is a transformation we’ve seen before. In the early 70s, a computer was the size of a room and cost over $100K. By the 80s, a computer could fit on your desk and cost less than $1000. Today, we all share access to the same mainstream apps, but soon we’ll all run our own personal cloud servers. This is just the way things go.

With Landscape and hosting, this future can start to become more evenly distributed. We built Urbit because we want people to use it, rely on it and live inside of it. An Urbit world is a world without ads, surveillance or terminally addictive interfaces. An Urbit world is calmer.

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