Old technology seldom just goes away. Whiteboards and LED screens join chalk blackboards, but don’t eliminate them. Landline phones get scarce, but not phones. Film cameras become rarities, but not cameras. Typewriters disappear, but not typing. And the technologies that seem to be the most outclassed may come back as a the cult objects of aficionados—the vinyl record, for example. All this is to say that no one can tell us what will be obsolete in fifty years, but probably a lot less will be obsolete than we think.
Charlie’s thoughts on dev perception:
People speak about “the old guard” and “stupid backwards techniques”, forgetting that it’s real humans, with real constraints who are working on these solutions. Most of us are working in a “stupid backwards way” because that “backwardsness” WORKS. It is something that is proven and is clearly documented. We can implement it confident that it will not disappear from fashion within a couple of years.
Tough, but fair.
My main concern about this new generation of tools is that they require a specific toolchain in order to function. “If you just use this version of React and just use this styling library and configure things in exactly this way, your designers can play around with coded components.” It worries me that teams would end up choosing (and subsequently holding onto) specific tools not because they’re the best choices for our users but because the designers’ and developers’ workflow depends on a specific toolchain to work properly.
This is a great piece! It starts with a look back at some of the great minds of the nineteenth century: Herschel, Darwin, Babbage and Lovelace. Then it brings us, via JCR Licklider, to the present state of the web before looking ahead to what the future might bring.
So what will the life of an interface designer be like in the year 2120? or 2121 even? A nice round 300 years after Babbage first had the idea of calculations being executed by steam.
I think there are some missteps along the way (I certainly don’t think that inline styles—AKA CSS in JS—are necessarily a move forwards) but I love the idea of applying chaos engineering to web design:
Think of every characteristic of an interface you depend on to not ‘fail’ for your design to ‘work.’ Now imagine if these services were randomly ‘failing’ constantly during your design process. How might we design differently? How would our workflows and priorities change?
My hypothesis: these algorithms — driven by the all-consuming need for engagement in order to sell ads — are part of what’s destroying western liberal democracy, and my app will not contribute to that.
Over the last fifty years, we have come to recognize that the fuel of our civilizational expansion has become the main driver of our extinction, and that of many of the species we share the planet with. We are now coming to realize that is as true of our cognitive infrastructure. Something is out of sync, felt everywhere: something amiss in the temporal order, and it is as related to political and technological shifts, shifts in our own cognition and attention, as it is to climatic ones. To think clearly in such times requires an intersectional understanding of time itself, a way of thinking that escapes the cognitive traps, ancient and modern, into which we too easily fall. Because our technologies, the infrastructures we have built to escape our past, have turned instead to cancelling our future.
James writes beautifully about rates of change.
The greatest trick our utility-directed technologies have performed is to constantly pull us out of time: to distract us from the here and now, to treat time as a kind of fossil fuel which can be endlessly extracted in the service of a utopian future which never quite arrives. If information is the new oil, we are already, in the hyper-accelerated way of present things, well into the fracking age, with tremors shuddering through the landscape and the tap water on fire. But this is not enough; it will never be enough. We must be displaced utterly in time, caught up in endless imaginings of the future while endlessly neglecting the lessons and potential actions of the present moment.
An excellent piece by Maciej on the crucial difference between individual privacy and ambient privacy (and what that means for regulation):
Ambient privacy is not a property of people, or of their data, but of the world around us. Just like you can’t drop out of the oil economy by refusing to drive a car, you can’t opt out of the surveillance economy by forswearing technology (and for many people, that choice is not an option). While there may be worthy reasons to take your life off the grid, the infrastructure will go up around you whether you use it or not.
Because our laws frame privacy as an individual right, we don’t have a mechanism for deciding whether we want to live in a surveillance society. Congress has remained silent on the matter, with both parties content to watch Silicon Valley make up its own rules. The large tech companies point to our willing use of their services as proof that people don’t really care about their privacy. But this is like arguing that inmates are happy to be in jail because they use the prison library. Confronted with the reality of a monitored world, people make the rational decision to make the best of it.
That is not consent.
For more detail, I highly recommend reading his testimony to the senate hearing on Privacy Rights and Data Collection in a Digital Economy.
Ooh! A documentary on Claude Shannon—exciting!
I just finished reading A Mind At Play, the (very good) biography of Claude Shannon, so this film feels very timely.
Mixing contemporary interviews, archival film, animation and dialogue drawn from interviews conducted with Shannon himself, The Bit Player tells the story of an overlooked genius who revolutionized the world, but never lost his childlike curiosity.
Coming to your inbox soon:
The Training Commission is a speculative fiction email newsletter about the compromises and consequences of using technology to reckon with collective trauma. Several years after a period of civil unrest and digital blackouts in the United States, a truth and reconciliation process has led to a major restructuring of the federal government, major tech companies, and the criminal justice system.
What would Wiener think of the current human use of human beings? He would be amazed by the power of computers and the internet. He would be happy that the early neural nets in which he played a role have spawned powerful deep-learning systems that exhibit the perceptual ability he demanded of them—although he might not be impressed that one of the most prominent examples of such computerized Gestalt is the ability to recognize photos of kittens on the World Wide Web.
A terrific six-part series of short articles looking at the people behind the history of Artificial Intelligence, from Babbage to Turing to JCR Licklider.
- When Charles Babbage Played Chess With the Original Mechanical Turk
- Invisible Women Programmed America’s First Electronic Computer
- Why Alan Turing Wanted AI Agents to Make Mistakes
- The DARPA Dreamer Who Aimed for Cyborg Intelligence
- Algorithmic Bias Was Born in the 1980s
- How Amazon’s Mechanical Turkers Got Squeezed Inside the Machine
The history of AI is often told as the story of machines getting smarter over time. What’s lost is the human element in the narrative, how intelligent machines are designed, trained, and powered by human minds and bodies.
I missed this when it was first posted three years ago, but now I think I’ll be revisiting this 12 minute interview every few months.
Everything that Kyle says here is spot on, nuanced, and thoughtful. He talks about abstraction, maintainability, learning, and complexity.
I want a transcript of the whole thing.
New Ways of Seeing considers the impact of digital technologies on the way we see, understand, and interact with the world. Building on John Berger’s seminal Ways of Seeing from 1972, the show explores network infrastructures, digital images, systemic bias, education and the environment, in conversation with a number of contemporary art practitioners.
I would urge front-end developers to take a step back, breathe, and reassess. Let’s stop over engineering for the sake of it. Let’s think what we can do with the basic tools, progressive enhancement and a simpler approach to building websites. There are absolutely valid usecases for SPAs, React, et al. and I’ll continue to use these tools reguarly and when it’s necessary, I’m just not sure that’s 100% of the time.
In some cases, it’s entirely valid to explore new products and technologies, but in others, our striving for novelty becomes the driving factor for abandoning perfectly suitable solutions under the umbrella of technical debt.
Just because a technology is a few years old and possibly frustrating in some cases doesn’t mean you’re in technical debt. We need to stop projecting our annoyances as pitfalls of technological or design choices.