Tags: belief

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Hope

Cennydd points to an article by Ev Williams about the pendulum swing between open and closed technology stacks, and how that pendulum doesn’t always swing back towards openness. Cennydd writes:

We often hear the idea that “open platforms always win in the end”. I’d like that: the implicit values of the web speak to my own. But I don’t see clear evidence of this inevitable supremacy, only beliefs and proclamations.

It’s true. I catch myself saying things like “I believe the open web will win out.” Statements like that worry my inner empiricist. Faith-based outlooks scare me, and rightly so. I like being able to back up my claims with data.

Only time will tell what data emerges about the eventual fate of the web, open or closed. But we can look to previous technologies and draw comparisons. That’s exactly what Tim Wu did in his book The Master Switch and Jonathan Zittrain did in The Future Of The Internet—And How To Stop It. Both make for uncomfortable reading because they challenge my belief. Wu points to radio and television as examples of systems that began as egalitarian decentralised tools that became locked down over time in ever-constricting cycles. Cennydd adds:

I’d argue this becomes something of a one-way valve: once systems become closed, profit potential tends to grow, and profit is a heavy entropy to reverse.

Of course there is always the possibility that this time is different. It may well be that fundamental architectural decisions in the design of the internet and the workings of the web mean that this particular technology has an inherent bias towards openness. There is some data to support this (and it’s an appealing thought), but again; only time will tell. For now it’s just one more supposition.

The real question—when confronted with uncomfortable ideas that challenge what you’d like to believe is true—is what do you do about it? Do you look for evidence to support your beliefs or do you discard your beliefs entirely? That second option looks like the most logical course of action, and it’s certainly one that I would endorse if there were proven facts to be acknowledged (like gravity, evolution, or vaccination). But I worry about mistaking an argument that is still being discussed for an argument that has already been decided.

When I wrote about the dangers of apparently self-evident truisms, I said:

These statements aren’t true. But they are repeated so often, as if they were truisms, that we run the risk of believing them and thus, fulfilling their promise.

That’s my fear. Only time will tell whether the closed or open forces will win the battle for the soul of the internet. But if we believe that centralised, proprietary, capitalistic forces are inherently unstoppable, then our belief will help make them so.

I hope that openness will prevail. Hope sounds like such a wishy-washy word, like “faith” or “belief”, but it carries with it a seed of resistance. Hope, faith, and belief all carry connotations of optimism, but where faith and belief sound passive, even downright complacent, hope carries the promise of action.

Margaret Atwood was asked about the futility of having hope in the face of climate change. She responded:

If we abandon hope, we’re cooked. If we rely on nothing but hope, we’re cooked. So I would say judicious hope is necessary.

Judicious hope. I like that. It feels like a good phrase to balance empiricism with optimism; data with faith.

The alternative is to give up. And if we give up too soon, we bring into being the very endgame we feared.

Cennydd finishes:

Ultimately, I vote for whichever technology most enriches humanity. If that’s the web, great. A closed OS? Sure, so long as it’s a fair value exchange, genuinely beneficial to company and user alike.

This is where we differ. Today’s fair value exchange is tomorrow’s monopoly, just as today’s revolutionary is tomorrow’s tyrant. I will fight against that future.

To side with whatever’s best for the end user sounds like an eminently sensible metric to judge a technology. But I’ve written before about where that mindset can lead us. I can easily imagine Asimov’s three laws of robotics rewritten to reflect the ethos of user-centred design, especially that first and most important principle:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

…rephrased as:

A product or interface may not injure a user or, through inaction, allow a user to come to harm.

Whether the technology driving the system behind that interface is open or closed doesn’t come into it. What matters is the interaction.

But in his later years Asimov revealed the zeroeth law, overriding even the first:

A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

It may sound grandiose to apply this thinking to the trivial interfaces we’re building with today’s technologies, but I think it’s important to keep drilling down and asking uncomfortable questions (even if they challenge our beliefs).

That’s why I think openness matters. It isn’t enough to use whatever technology works right now to deliver the best user experience. If that short-time gain comes with a long-term price tag for our society, it’s not worth it.

I would much rather an imperfect open system to a perfect proprietary one.

I have hope in an open web …judicious hope.

Delusion

I had the unusual experience today of reading two pieces of writing that inspired diametrically opposed reactions from me.

Browsing through archives of David Emery’s excellent website, I found myself nodding vigourously in agreement with his thoughts on fluid layouts. Needless to day, he, like me, is a proponent of flexible adaptive layouts but he really nails the reason why we don’t see more of them:

The reason for the debate then? Laziness. Plain and simple. I’m guilty of it (you can find a fair few fixed width sites in my portfolio), make no mistake. It’s that simple – if making a fluid width site was as easy as making a fixed width site, I’m sure 99% would be fluid width.

Then, not five minutes later, I was reading through the transcript of the newest episode of Andy Rutledge’s Design View Show. After an amusingly OTT description of meeting Andy and Derek, he drops this ecclesiastical bombshell:

I suggest that if you cannot recognize and acknowledge that purpose in life can only be derived from God, by whatever name you call him, then I’m afraid you do not grasp what “purpose” is. And to you I’d offer my deepest sympathies.

Now my head was shaking as emphatically as it had been nodding earlier. That surely ranks as one of the more condescending passages yet to be published on a web design site.

I suggest that if you recognize and acknowledge that purpose in life can only be derived from an imaginary friend, by whatever name you call him, then I’m afraid you do not grasp what “reality” is. And to you I’d offer my deepest sympathies… but that would be quite patronising of me.

I sometimes wonder if it would be worth forming a humanist webring as a healthy counterbalance to all the god botherers*. But then I usually dismiss the idea because personal belief strikes me as being very shaky ground on which to form any professional organisation.

Instead, I’ll just continue to find purpose in making usable websites for my fellow human beings.


* Just to clarify: I’m using the term god botherer in its generally accepted sense here in the UK as a mild, almost affectionate term. Why, some of my best friends are god botherers.

Dichotomy

I usually confine my JavaScript-related ramblings to the DOM Scripting blog but a recent bit of DOM blogging got me thinking about larger issues.

I posted on the WaSP Buzz blog and the DOM Scripting Task Force blog about a great little script by Dan Webb. In the course of posting, I inadvertently stepped on a land mine of scripting controversy.

I described two possible ways of generating markup with JavaScript:

The innerHTML property is quick and easy to use. But it’s also proprietary and heavy-handed. DOM methods like createElement and createTextNode, on the other hand, are precise and part of a standard but they can be finicky and repetitive to use.

I thought I was being pretty even-handed. But both Jonathan and Dustin felt that I was dissing innerHTML and praising DOM methods.

In a way, it’s kind of reassuring to think that the word “proprietary” can be interpreted as meaning “bad”. It bodes well for standards when the word “proprietary” has such negative connotations.

On the other hand, it obscures clarity when the meaning of one word is conflated with the meaning of another. It’s also worrying when a hands-off, fence-sitting description is misconstrued as strongly favouring one side of a dichotomy.

There seems to be a human need to divide issues into polar opposites. In reality, very few people hold opinions that are so clear cut. Yet, just look at how so many topics are polarised into binary arguments:

  • innerHTML versus DOM
  • RSS versus Atom
  • REST versus SOAP
  • XML versus JSON
  • HTML versus Flash
  • fixed versus liquid
  • Macs versus Windows
  • Google versus Yahoo!
  • The Beatles versus The Stones
  • Republicans versus Democrats
  • Tory versus Labour
  • cats versus dogs

Most well-adjusted people will find that their subjective opinion falls somewhere between these poles. If you find yourself 100% in favour of one of the above positions and 100% against the opposing viewpoint, I’m afraid you may be borderline psychotic.

There seems to be an inherent need for human beings to form tribes that draw strength from opposition. At a fundamental level, we favour an “us versus them” mentality.

It’s especially sad when this is manifested on a national level. Nationalism became a dirty word in the twentieth century when it was associated with notions of superiority and inferiority. Even today there are people for whom it is not enough to be happy in — and proud of — their own country; they must also declare it to be “better” than all the other countries. Such a subjective viewpoint seems like a crazy way to form a mental model of the world.

And yet, that’s exactly the kind of mental model that our brains seem hardwired to prefer. A balanced outlook doesn’t sit comfortably with our base instincts. Our natural tendency is to take a subjective opinion and declare it to be objective truth. In order to do that, there can be no room for doubt.

A subjective opinion that lacks certainty and conviction doesn’t seem convincing (even though its very lack of certainty hints at its truthfulness). Instead, strength of conviction is seen as a positive trait. But, as history has shown us, the strength of a particular belief has no bearing on its accuracy.

Still, come election time, our media will be filled with politicians fiercely defending one view or another. They will be judged less on the veracity of their positions and more on how sincere they are in their convictions. Nobody likes a flip-flopper.

I have a theory about correlating strength of conviction with age. When you’re young and full of righteousness, the world seems clearly divided into black and white. Then, as you mature, you begin to see things in shades of grey. But as you get older still, the world returns to being black and white except what was black is now white and was white is now black.

Before I’m labelled a complete relativist, let me clarify something.

I’m talking about subjective opinions and the danger that comes with treating them as if they were objective facts. It is equally dangerous to treat an objective fact as if it were a subjective opinion. That way lies madness. Specifically, the madness of the flat-earth society, the geocentric model and neo-creationism. Well, not so much madness, but definitely ignorance and self-delusion.

Of that I am certain.