Withered Technology

Or: Cockroach tech stacks • March 14 2023

Famously, Nintendo never competes on technological horsepower, instead relying on cheap, time-tested (or outdated, depending on your viewpoint) technology to build a solid enough foundation for the games they’d like to create. We’ve seen this time and time again with the Game Boy, the Wii, the Switch.

Gamers (mostly) don’t give a shit about number of polygons on screen or frames per second if the gameplay is compelling. Gunpei Yokoi, the designer of the Game Boy, described this philosophy as “Lateral Thinking with Withered Technology”.

As product people, I strongly believe that we should instill this mental model into our own ways of working. For instance: I think it’s delightful that we have a robust ecosystem of CMS-adjacent apps (Jekyll, Gatsby, Ghost, Statamic, Eleventy, ad infinitum) but in almost every case where you might want to use one of these, you could also use WordPress. WordPress falls into directly into the ‘withered technology’ bucket for me – or as a practical expression of the same idea, the cockroach tech stack.

Cockroaches can survive under water for half an hour. They can have a force of 900 times their body weight applied with no ill effect. They can live up to a week without a head. In short, they are the PHP of the insect world. Any kind of server anywhere can run PHP. MySQL is similarly kind of just there, an omnipresent eldritch hum in the tech background radiation. WordPress will run performantly on a computer you found in the ditch, yet has also been receiving consistent updates for nigh on 20 years. These technologies are unkillable.

I am not a good programmer. I stopped keeping up with the dev track more than 10 years ago, and what was then ‘front-end dev’ would get me laughed out of the room these days. But: knowing only the rudiments of web dev circa 2008 (y’all ever heard of FTP?) means I can still design & build this site by myself. I can build generative image bots. There is no highly specialized knowledge needed, and as a barely-coding designer, using this withered tech allows me to punch way above my weight.

The cockroach stack is everywhere, extraordinarily well understood, and cheap as hell. PHP – as long as I’ve worked in tech – has been a running joke, but there are many modern approaches that get you just as far as using the next bleeding edge JS framework.

Am I saying WordPress is the solution for every need? Very much no. I am saying we should, say, fire JS into the sun and switch to PHP? Lol, but also no. Am I saying that there’s a reason why WordPress powers more than 40% of the entire web? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

If we flip this approach on its head, where do we land? Figma, a tool I use every day, is built in C++ and transpiled into browser-friendly code. It fundamentally can’t be built with a cockroach stack – the core capabilities of Figma are too low-level. Complex layout and type manipulation within the browser, realtime drop-in multiplayer, et cetera. These certainly aren’t plugins for WordPress! But: the underlying philosophy is still at work: it is lateral thinking that allows one to ask: “what we rebuilt the designer’s toolchain, but entirely within the browser?”.

This clearly doesn’t have to be an across-the-board strategy. The browser itself is withered technology, but/and is also a distribution channel that’s cheap and well understood. Figma could have boxed their software up (à la Sketch, Photoshop, et al) but made a lateral move; reducing complexity in one part of their stack in exchange for speed/velocity/delight elsewhere.

Your customers absolutely don’t care about what underpins your product. Most apps running on PHP are indistinguishable from ones running on React. Withered technology is an opportunity to step away from tech complexity and instead spend time on the “compelling gameplay” – on the differentiators that matter.