Seams

“The function of science fiction,” said Ray Bradbury, “is not only to predict the future, but to prevent it.”

Dystopias are the default setting for science fiction. It’s rare to find utopian sci-fi, and when you do—as in the post-singularity Culture novels of Iain M.Banks—there’s always more than a germ of dystopia; the dystutopias that Margaret Atwood speaks of.

You’ve got your political dystopias—1984 and all its imitators. Then there’s alien invasion dystopias, machine-intelligence dystopias, and a whole slew of post-apocalyptic dystopias: nuclear war, pandemic disease, environmental collapse, genetic engineering …take your pick. From the cosy catastrophes of John Wyndham to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this is the stock and trade of speculative fiction.

Of all these undesirable futures, one that troubles more than any other is the Wall·E dystopia. I’m not talking about the environmental wasteland depicted on Earth. I mean the dystutopia depicted aboard the generation starship The Axiom. Here, humanity’s every need is catered to without requiring any thought. And so humanity atrophies, becoming physically obese and intellectually lazy.

It’s not a new idea. H. G. Wells had already shown us a distant future like this in his classic novel The Time Machine. In the far future of that book’s timeline, humanity splits into two. The savagery of the canabalistic Morlocks is contrasted with the docile passive stupidity of the Eloi, but as Jaron Lanier points out, both endpoints are equally horrific.

In Wall·E, the Eloi have advanced technology. Their technology has been designed according to a design principle enshrined in the title of a Dead Kennedys album: Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death.

That’s the reason why the Wall·E dystopia disturbs me so much. It’s all-too believable. For many years now, the rallying cry of digital designers has been epitomised by the title of Steve Krug’s terrific book, Don’t Make Me Think. But what happens when that rallying cry is taken too far? What happens when it stops being “don’t make think while I’m trying to complete a task” to simply “don’t make me think” full stop?

Convenience. Ease of use. Seamlessness.

On the face of it, these all seem like desirable traits in digital and physical products alike. But they come at a price. When we design, we try to do the work so that the user doesn’t have to. We do the thinking so the user doesn’t have to. Don’t make the user think. But taken too far, that mindset becomes dangerous.

Marshall McLuhan said that every extension is also an amputution. As we augment the abilities of people to accomplish their tasks, we should be careful not to needlessly curtail what they can do:

Here we are, a society hell bent on extending our reach through phones, through computers, through “seamless integration” and yet all along the way we’re unwittingly losing perhaps as much as we gain. The mediums we create are built to carry out specific tasks efficiently, but by doing so they have a tendency to restrict our options for accomplishing that task by other means. We begin to learn the “One” way to do it, when in fact there are infinite ways. The medium begins to restrict our thinking, our imagination, our potential.

The idea of “seamlessness” as a desirable trait in what we design is one that bothers me. Technology has seams. By hiding those seams, we may think we are helping the end user, but we are also making a conscience choice to deceive them (or at least restrict what they can do).

I see this a lot in the world of web devlopment. We’re constantly faced with challenges like dealing with users on slow networks or small screens. So we try to come up with solutions (bandwidth media queries, responsive images) that have at their heart an assumption that we know better than the end user what they should get.

I’m not saying that everything should be an option in a menu for the user to figure out—picking smart defaults is very much part of our job. But I do think there’s real value in giving the user the final choice.

I remember Jake giving a good example of this. If he’s travelling and he’s on a 3G network on his phone, or using shitty hotel WiFi on his laptop, and someone sends him a link to a video of some cats, he doesn’t mind if he gets the low-quality version as long as he gets to see the feline shenanigans in short order. But if he’s in the same situation and someone sends him a link to the just-released trailer for the new Star Trek movie, he’s willing to wait for hours so that he can watch in high-definition.

That’s a choice. All too often, these kind of choices are pre-made by designers and developers instead of being offered to the end user. We probably mean well, but there’s a real danger in assuming that just because someone is using a particular device that we can infer what their context is:

Mind reading is no way to base fundamental content decisions.

My point is that while we don’t want to overwhelm the user with choice overload, we also need to be careful not to unintentionally remove valuable choices that can empower people. In our quest to make experiences seamless, we run the risk of also making those experiences rigid and inflexible.

The drive for a “seamless experience” has been used to justify some harsh amputations. When Twitter declared war on the very developers it used to champion, and changed its API and terms of service so that tweets had to be displayed the same way everywhere, it was done in the name of “a consistent user experience.” Twitter knows best.

The web is made up of parts and there are seams between those parts: HTML, HTTP, and URLs. The software that can expose or hide those seams is the web browser. Web browsers are made by human beings and it’s the mindset and assumptions of those human beings that determines whether web browsers are enabling or disabling users to make use of those seams.

“View source” is a seam that exposes the HTML lying beneath every web page. That kind of X-ray vision can be quite powerful. Clearly it’s not an important feature for most users, but it is directly responsible for showing people how web pages are made …and intimating that anyone can do it. In the introduction to my first book I thanked “view source” along with my other teachers like Jeff Veen, Steve Champeon, and Jeffrey Zeldman.

These days, browsers don’t like to expose “view source” as easily as they once did. It’s hidden amongst the developer tools. There’s an assumption there that it’s not intended for regular users. The browser makers know best.

There are seams between the technologies that make up a web page: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The ability to enable or disable those layers can be empowering. It has become harder and harder to disable JavaScript in the browser. Another little amputation. The browser makers know best.

The CSS that styles web pages can be over-ridden by the end user. This is not a bug. It is a very powerful feature. That feature is being removed:

I understand that vendors can do whatever they want to control how you experience the web, because it is their software, their product, but removing user stylesheets feels sooo un-web to me, which is irony. A browser’s largest responsibility is to give people access to the web. It’s like the web is this open hand, but software is this closed fist.

Then there’s the URL. The ultimate seam.

Historically, browsers have exposed this seam, but now—just as with “view source” and user stylesheets—the visibility of the URL is being relegated to being a power-user tool.

The ultimate amputation.

The irony here is that the justification for this change is not the usual mantra of providing “a more seamless user experience.” Instead, the justification is supposedly security.

This strike me as really strange. Security is the one area where seamlessness is definitely not a desirable characteristic. A secure system requires people to be mindful and aware of their situation. This is certainly true on the web, as Tom points out:

Hiding information away makes me less able to make decisions: it makes me a less informed user.

The whole reason that phishing is a problem is because users don’t pay any bloody attention to what they see in their location bar. Putting less information in the location bar makes the location bar less useful and thus there’s less point paying any attention to it.

Tom has hit on the fundamental mismatch here. Chrome is a piece of software that wants to provide a good user experience—“don’t make me think!”—while at the same trying to make users mindful of their surroundings:

Security requires educated, pro-active, informed thinking users.

Usability is about making the whole process of using the web seamless and thoughtless: a child should be able to do it.

So from the security standpoint, obfuscating the URL is exactly the wrong thing to do.

In order to actually stay safe online, you need to see the “seams” of the web, you need to pay attention, use your brain.

Chrome knows best.

Making it harder to “view source” might seem like an inconsequentail decision. Removing the ability to apply user stylesheets might seem like an inconsequential decision. Heck, even hiding the URL might seem like an inconsequential decision. But each one of those decisions has repercussions. And each one of those decisions reflects an underlying viewpoint.

Make no mistake, all software is political. We talk about opinionated software but really, all software is opinionated, whether we like it or not. Seemingly inconsequential interface decisions are actually reflections of assumptions, biases and beliefs.

As Nat points out, like all political decisions, this is about power:

There’s been much debate about whether the URLs are ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’ and whether people really understand them. This debate misses the point.

The URLs are the cornerstone of the interconnected, decentralised web. Removing the URLs from the browser is an attempt to expand and consolidate centralised power.

If that’s the case, then it really doesn’t matter what we think about Chrome removing visible URLs. What appears to be a design decision about the user interface is in fact a manifestation of a much deeper vision. It’s a vision of a future where people can have everything their heart desires without having to expend needless thought. It’s a bright future filled with seamless experiences.

Welcome aboard The Axiom.

Buy n Large knows best.

Have you published a response to this? :

Responses

Shane Hudson

And not only is it so well written, but details one of my biggest fears. “Buy n Large knows best.” Terrifying. @adactio

Mariusz Ciesla

@adactio yes, I’ve read your article. Agree with some of the points. Still think it’s not as bad as you put it for average users.

Michael Horn

@adactio Chrome, Safari and FF have been greying out URLs past the domain for a few versions, and no one batted an eyelid.

Michael Horn

@adactio what of URL shorteners, the URL equivalent of mystery meat? I would rather see the full URL, but I don’t think it’s disastrous.

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