Tags: ap



Tuesday, October 20th, 2020

Standards processing

I’ve been like a dog with a bone the way I’ve been pushing for a declarative option for the Web Share API in the shape of button type=“share”. It’s been an interesting window into the world of web standards.

The story so far…

That’s the situation currently. The general consensus seems to be that it’s probably too soon to be talking about implementation at this stage—the Web Share API itself is still pretty new—but gathering data to inform future work is good.

In planning for the next TPAC meeting (the big web standards gathering), Marcos summarised the situation like this:

Not blocking: but a proposal was made by @adactio to come up with a declarative solution, but at least two implementers have said that now is not the appropriate time to add such a thing to the spec (we need more implementation experience + and also to see how devs use the API) - but it would be great to see a proposal incubated at the WICG.

Now this where things can get a little confusing because it used to be that if you wanted to incubate a proposal, you’d have to do on Discourse, which is a steaming pile of crap that requires JavaScript in order to put text on a screen. But Šime pointed out that proposals can now be submitted on Github.

So that’s where I’ve submitted my proposal, linking through to the explainer document.

Like I said, I’m not expecting anything to happen anytime soon, but it would be really good to gather as much data as possible around existing usage of the Web Share API. If you’re using it, or you know anyone who’s using it, please, please, please take a moment to provide a quick description. And if you could help spread the word to get that issue in front of as many devs as possible, I’d be very grateful.

(Many thanks to everyone who’s already contributed to that issue—much appreciated!)

Sunday, October 18th, 2020

Checked in at Baker Street Coffee. Flat whites outdoors — with Jessica map

Checked in at Baker Street Coffee. Flat whites outdoors — with Jessica

Friday, October 16th, 2020

How To Protect Your Privacy Online In 8 Tips : Life Kit : NPR

Take a look at your smartphone and delete all the apps you don’t really need. For many tasks, you can use a browser on your phone instead of an app.

Privacy-wise, browsers are preferable, because they can’t access as much of your information as an app can.

Thursday, October 15th, 2020

Progressier | Make your website a PWA in 42 seconds

This in an intriguing promise (there’s no code yet):

A PWA typically requires writing a service worker, an app manifest and a ton of custom code. Progressier flattens the learning curve. Just add it to your html template — you’re done.

I worry that this one line of code will pull in many, many, many, many lines of JavaScript.

Google font to SVG path

Cassie pointed me to this very nifty tool (that she plans to use in your SVG animation workshop): choose font from Google Fonts, type some text, and get the glyphs immediately translated into an SVG!

Tuesday, October 13th, 2020

BBC Radio 4 - Under the Cloud

James made a radio programme about “the cloud”:

It’s the central metaphor of the internet - ethereal and benign, a fluffy icon on screens and smartphones, the digital cloud has become so naturalised in our everyday life we look right through it. But clouds can also obscure and conceal – what is it hiding? Author and technologist James Bridle navigates the history and politics of the cloud, explores the power of its metaphor and guides us back down to earth.

Tuesday, October 6th, 2020

Same Energy Snap

Match up images that have been posted in pairs to Twitter with the caption “same energy”. This is more fun and addictive than it has any right to be.

Monday, October 5th, 2020

The reason for a share button type

If you’re at all interested in what I wrote about a declarative Web Share API—and its sequel, a polyfill for button type=”share”—then you might be interested in an explainer document I’ve put together.

It’s a useful exercise for me to enumerate the reasoning for button type=“share” in one place. If you have any feedback, feel free to fork it or create an issue.

The document is based on my initial blog posts and the discussion that followed in this issue on the repo for the Web Share API. In that thread I got some pushback from Marcos. There are three points he makes. I think that two of them lack merit, but the third one is actually spot on.

Here’s the first bit of pushback:

Apart from placing a button in the content, I’m not sure what the proposal offers over what (at least one) browser already provides? For instance, Safari UI already provides a share button by default on every page

But that is addressed in the explainer document for the Web Share API itself:

The browser UI may not always be available, e.g., when a web app has been installed as a standalone/fullscreen app.

That’s exactly what I wanted to address. Browser UI is not always available and as progressive web apps become more popular, authors will need to provide a way for users to share the current URL—something that previously was handled by browsers.

That use-case of sharing the current page leads nicely into the second bit of pushback:

The API is specialized… using it to share the same page is kinda pointless.

But again, the explainer document for the Web Share API directly contradicts this:

Sharing the page’s own URL (a very common case)…

Rather than being a difference of opinion, this is something that could be resolved with data. I’d really like to find out how people are currently using the Web Share API. How much of the current usage falls into the category of “share the current page”? I don’t know the best way to gather this data though. If you have any ideas, let me know. I’ve started an issue where you can share how you’re using the Web Share API. Or if you’re not using the Web Share API, but you know someone who is, please let them know.

Okay, so those first two bits of pushback directly contradict what’s in the explainer document for the Web Share API. The third bit of pushback is more philosophical and, I think, more interesting.

The Web Share API explainer document does a good job of explaining why a declarative solution is desirable:

The link can be placed declaratively on the page, with no need for a JavaScript click event handler.

That’s also my justification for having a declarative alternative: it would be easier for more people to use. I said:

At a fundamental level, declarative technologies have a lower barrier to entry than imperative technologies.

But Marcos wrote:

That’s demonstrably false and a common misconception: See OWL, XForms, SVG, or any XML+namespace spec. Even HTML is poorly understood, but it just happens to have extremely robust error recovery (giving the illusion of it being easy). However, that’s not a function of it being “declarative”.

He’s absolutely right.

It’s not so much that I want a declarative option—I want an option that has robust error recovery. After all, XML is a declarative language but its error handling is as strict as an imperative language like JavaScript: make one syntactical error and nothing works. XML has a brittle error-handling model by design. HTML and CSS have extremely robust error recovery by design. It’s that error-handling model that gives HTML and CSS their robustness.

I’ve been using the word “declarative” when I actually meant “robust in handling errors”.

I guess that when I’ve been talking about “a declarative solution”, I’ve been thinking in terms of the three languages parsed by browsers: HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. Two of those languages are declarative, and those two also happen to have much more forgiving error-handling than the third language. That’s the important part—the error handling—not the fact that they’re declarative.

I’ve been using “declarative” as a shorthand for “either HTML or CSS”, but really I should try to be more precise in my language. The word “declarative” covers a wide range of possible languages, and not all of them lower the barrier to entry. A declarative language with a brittle error-handling model is as daunting as an imperative language.

I should try to use a more descriptive word than “declarative” when I’m describing HTML or CSS. Resilient? Robust?

With that in mind, button type=“share” is worth pursuing. Yes, it’s a declarative option for using the Web Share API, but more important, it’s a robust option for using the Web Share API.

I invite you to read the explainer document for a share button type and I welcome your feedback …especially if you’re currently using the Web Share API!

Saturday, October 3rd, 2020

Thursday, October 1st, 2020

Downloading from Google Fonts

If you’re using web fonts, there are good performance (and privacy) reasons for hosting your own font files. And fortunately, Google Fonts gives you that option. There’s a “Download family” button on every specimen page.

But if you go ahead and download a font family from Google Fonts, you’ll notice something a bit odd. The .zip file only contains .ttf files. You can serve those on the web, but it’s far from the best choice. Woff2 is far leaner in file size.

This means you need to manually convert the downloaded .ttf files into .woff or .woff2 files using something like Font Squirrel’s generator. That’s fine, but I’m curious as to why this step is necessary. Why doesn’t Google Fonts provide .woff or .woff2 files in the downloaded folder? After all, if you choose to use Google Fonts as a third-party hosting service for your fonts, it most definitely serves up the appropriate file formats.

I thought maybe it was something to do with the licensing. Maybe some licenses only allow for unmodified truetype files to be distributed? But I’ve looked at fonts with different licenses—some have Apache 2 licensing, some have Open Font licensing—and they’re all quite permissive and definitely allow for modification.

Maybe the thinking is that, if you’re hosting your own font files, then you know what you’re doing and you should be able to do your own file conversion and subsetting. But I’ve come across more than one website in the wild serving up .ttf files. And who can blame them? They want to host their own font files. They downloaded those files from Google Fonts. Why shouldn’t they assume that they’re good to go?

It’s all a bit strange. If anyone knows why Google Fonts only provides .ttf files for download, please let me know. In a pinch, I will also accept rampant speculation.

Trys also pointed out some weird default behaviour if you do let Google Fonts do the hosting for you. Specifically if it’s a variable font. Let’s say it’s a font with weight as a variable axis. You specify in advance which weights you’ll be using, and then it generates separate font files to serve for each different weight.

Doesn’t that defeat the whole point of using a variable font? I mean, I can see how it could result in smaller file sizes if you’re just using one or two weights, but isn’t half the fun of having a weight axis that you can go crazy with as many weights as you want and it’s all still one font file?

Like I said, it’s all very strange.


If you’ve been following my recent blog posts about a declarative option for the Web Share API, you might be interested in this explainer document I’ve put together. It outlines the use case for button type="share".

Clamp | Utopia

Trys has been investigating how to incorporate CSS clamp() into the brilliant Utopia project. I won’t pretend to understand all the maths here—this is a very deep dive!

He’s also created a CSS generator Mark 2 if you want to use clamp() in your fluid type.

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020

Meta Tags — Preview, Edit and Generate

This is a handy tool if you’re messing around with Twitter cards and other metacrap.

Tuesday, September 22nd, 2020

Web browsers on iOS

Safari is the only browser on iOS devices.

I don’t mean it’s the only browser that ships with iOS devices. I mean it’s the only browser that can be installed on iOS devices.

You can install something called Chrome. You can install something called Firefox. Those aren’t different web browsers. Under the hood they’re using Safari’s rendering engine. They have to. The app store doesn’t allow other browsers to be listed. The apps called Chrome and Firefox are little more than skinned versions of Safari.

If you’re a web developer, there are two possible reactions to hearing this. One is “Duh! Everyone knows that!”. The other is “What‽ I never knew that!”

If you fall into the first category, I’m guessing you’ve been a web developer for a while. The fact that Safari is the only browser on iOS devices is something you’ve known for years, and something you assume everyone else knows. It’s common knowledge, right?

But if you’re relatively new to web development—heck, if you’ve been doing web development for half a decade—you might fall into the second category. After all, why would anyone tell you that Safari is the only browser on iOS? It’s common knowledge, right?

So that’s the situation. Safari is the only browser that can run on iOS. The obvious follow-on question is: why?

Apple at this point will respond with something about safety and security, which are certainly important priorities. So let me rephrase the question: why on iOS?

Why can I install Chrome or Firefox or Edge on my Macbook running macOS? If there are safety or security reasons for preventing me from installing those browsers on my iOS device, why don’t those same concerns apply to my macOS device?

At one time, the mobile operating system—iOS—was quite different to the desktop operating system—OS X. Over time the gap has narrowed. At this point, the operating systems are converging. That makes sense. An iPhone, an iPad, and a Macbook aren’t all that different apart from the form factor. It makes sense that computing devices from the same company would share an underlying operating system.

As this convergence continues, the browser question is going to have to be decided in one direction or the other. As it is, Apple’s laptops and desktops strongly encourage you to install software from their app store, though it is still possible to install software by other means. Perhaps they’ll decide that their laptops and desktops should only be able to install software from their app store—a decision they could justify with safety and security concerns.

Imagine that situation. You buy a computer. It comes with one web browser pre-installed. You can’t install a different web browser on your computer.

You wouldn’t stand for it! I mean, Microsoft got fined for anti-competitive behaviour when they pre-bundled their web browser with Windows back in the 90s. You could still install other browsers, but just the act of pre-bundling was seen as an abuse of power. Imagine if Windows never allowed you to install Netscape Navigator?

And yet that’s exactly the situation in 2020.

You buy a computing device from Apple. It might be a Macbook. It might be an iPad. It might be an iPhone. But you can only install your choice of web browser on one of those devices. For now.

It is contradictory. It is hypocritical. It is indefensible.

Monday, September 21st, 2020


Cennydd asked for recommendations on Twitter a little while back:

Can anyone recommend an outlining app for macOS? I’m falling out with OmniOutliner. Not Notion, please.

This was my response:

The only outlining tool that makes sense for my brain is https://kinopio.club/

It’s more like a virtual crazy wall than a virtual Dewey decimal system.

I’ve written before about how I prepare a conference talk. The first step involves a sheet of A3 paper:

I used to do this mind-mapping step by opening a text file and dumping my thoughts into it. I told myself that they were in no particular order, but because a text file reads left to right and top to bottom, they are in an order, whether I intended it or not. By using a big sheet of paper, I can genuinely get things down in a disconnected way (and later, I can literally start drawing connections).

Kinopio is like a digital version of that A3 sheet of paper. It doesn’t force any kind of hierarchy on your raw ingredients. You can clump things together, join them up, break them apart, or just dump everything down in one go. That very much suits my approach to preparing something like a talk (or a book). The act of organising all the parts into a single narrative timeline is an important challenge, but it’s one that I like to defer to later. The first task is braindumping.

When I was preparing my talk for An Event Apart Online, I used Kinopio.club to get stuff out of my head. Here’s the initial brain dump. Here are the final slides. You can kind of see the general gist of the slidedeck in the initial brain dump, but I really like that I didn’t have to put anything into a sequential outline.

In some ways, Kinopio is like an anti-outlining tool. It’s scrappy and messy—which is exactly why it works so well for the early part of the process. If I use a tool that feels too high-fidelity too early on, I get a kind of impedence mismatch between the state of the project and the polish of the artifact.

I like that Kinopio feels quite personal. Unlike Google Docs or other more polished tools, the documents you make with this aren’t really for sharing. Still, I thought I’d share my scribblings anyway.

Wednesday, September 16th, 2020

A polyfill for button type=”share”

After writing about a declarative Web Share API here yesterday I thought I’d better share the idea (see what I did there?).

I opened an issue on the Github repo for the spec.

(I hope that’s the right place for this proposal. I know that in the past ideas were kicked around on the Discourse site for Web platform Incubator Community Group but I can’t stand Discourse. It literally requires JavaScript to render anything to the screen even though the entire content is text. If it turns out that that is the place I should’ve posted, I guess I’ll hold my nose and do it using the most over-engineered reinvention of the browser I’ve ever seen. But I believe that the plan is for WICG to migrate proposals to Github anyway.)

I also realised that, as the JavaScript Web Share API already exists, I can use it to polyfill my suggestion for:

<button type="share">

The polyfill also demonstrates how feature detection could work. Here’s the code.

This polyfill takes an Inception approach to feature detection. There are three nested levels:

  1. This browser supports button type="share". Great! Don’t do anything. Otherwise proceed to level two.
  2. This browser supports the JavaScript Web Share API. Use that API to share the current page URL and title. Otherwise proceed to level three.
  3. Use a mailto: link to prefill an email with the page title as the subject and the URL in the body. Ya basic!

The idea is that, as long as you include the 20 lines of polyfill code, you could start using button type="share" in your pages today.

I’ve made a test page on Codepen. I’m just using plain text in the button but you could use a nice image or SVG or combination. You can use the Codepen test page to observe two of the three possible behaviours browsers could exhibit:

  1. A browser supports button type="share". Currently that’s none because I literally made this shit up yesterday.
  2. A browser supports the JavaScript Web Share API. This is Safari on Mac, Edge on Windows, Safari on iOS, and Chrome, Samsung Internet, and Firefox on Android.
  3. A browser supports neither button type="share" nor the existing JavaScript Web Share API. This is Firefox and Chrome on desktop (and Edge if you’re on a Mac).

See the Pen Polyfill for button type=”share" by Jeremy Keith (@adactio) on CodePen.

The polyfill doesn’t support Internet Explorer 11 or lower because it uses the DOM closest() method. Feel free to fork and rewrite if you need to support old IE.

Tuesday, September 15th, 2020

Checked in at St George's Inn. Beer in the sun 🍺 ☀️ map

Checked in at St George’s Inn. Beer in the sun 🍺 ☀️

A declarative Web Share API

I’ve written about the Web Share API before. It’s a handy little bit of JavaScript that—if supported—brings up a system-level way of sharing a page. Seeing as it probably won’t be long before we won’t be able to see full URLs in browsers anymore, it’s going to fall on us as site owners to provide this kind of fundamental access.

Right now the Web Share API exists entirely in JavaScript. There are quite a few browser APIs like that, and it always feels like a bit of a shame to me. Ideally there should be a JavaScript API and a declarative option, even if the declarative option isn’t as powerful.

Take form validation. To cover the most common use cases, you probably only need to use declarative markup like input type="email" or the required attribute. But if your use case gets a bit more complicated, you can reach for the Constraint Validation API in JavaScript.

I like that pattern. I wish it were an option for JavaScript-only APIs. Take the Geolocation API, for example. Right now it’s only available through JavaScript. But what if there were an input type="geolocation" ? It wouldn’t cover all use cases, but it wouldn’t have to. For the simple case of getting someone’s location (like getting someone’s email or telephone number), it would do. For anything more complex than that, that’s what the JavaScript API is for.

I was reminded of this recently when Ada Rose Cannon tweeted:

It really feels like there should be a semantic version of the share API, like a mailto: link

I think she’s absolutely right. The Web Share API has one primary use case: let the user share the current page. If that use case could be met in a declarative way, then it would have a lower barrier to entry. And for anyone who needs to do something more complicated, that’s what the JavaScript API is for.

But Pete LePage asked:

How would you feature detect for it?

Good question. With the JavaScript API you can do feature detection—if the API isn’t supported you can either bail or provide your own implementation.

There a few different ways of extending HTML that allow you to provide a fallback for non-supporting browsers.

You could mint a new element with a content model that says “Browsers, if you do support this element, ignore everything inside the opening and closing tags.” That’s the way that the canvas element works. It’s the same for audio and video—they ignore everything inside them that isn’t a source element. So developers can provide a fallback within the opening and closing tags.

But forging a new element would be overkill for something like the Web Share API (or Geolocation). There are more subtle ways of extending HTML that I’ve already alluded to.

Making a new element is a lot of work. Making a new attribute could also be a lot of work. But making a new attribute value might hit the sweet spot. That’s why I suggested something like input type="geolocation" for the declarative version of the Geolocation API. There’s prior art here; this is how we got input types for email, url, tel, color, date, etc. The key piece of behaviour is that non-supporting browsers will treat any value they don’t understand as “text”.

I don’t think there should be input type="share". The action of sharing isn’t an input. But I do think we could find an existing HTML element with an attribute that currently accepts a list of possible values. Adding one more value to that list feels like an inexpensive move.

Here’s what I suggested:

<button type=”share” value=”title,text”>

For non-supporting browsers, it’s a regular button and needs polyfilling, no different to the situation with the JavaScript API. But if supported, no JS needed?

The type attribute of the button element currently accepts three possible values: “submit”, “reset”, or “button”. If you give it any other value, it will behave as though you gave it a type of “submit” or “button” (depending on whether it’s in a form or not) …just like an unknown type value on an input element will behave like “text”.

If a browser supports button type="share”, then when the user clicks on it, the browser can go “Right, I’m handing over to the operating system now.”

There’s still the question of how to pass data to the operating system on what gets shared. Currently the JavaScript API allows you to share any combination of URL, text, and description.

Initially I was thinking that the value attribute could be used to store this data in some kind of key/value pairing, but the more I think about it, the more I think that this aspect should remain the exclusive domain of the JavaScript API. The declarative version could grab the current URL and the value of the page’s title element and pass those along to the operating system. If you need anything more complex than that, use the JavaScript API.

So what I’m proposing is:

<button type="share">

That’s it.

But how would you test for browser support? The same way as you can currently test for supported input types. Make use of the fact that an element’s attribute value and an element’s property value (which 99% of the time are the same), will be different if the attribute value isn’t supported:

var testButton = document.createElement("button");
if (testButton.type != "share") {
// polyfill

So that’s my modest proposal. Extend the list of possible values for the type attribute on the button element to include “share” (or something like that). In supporting browsers, it triggers a very bare-bones handover to the OS (the current URL and the current page title). In non-supporting browsers, it behaves like a button currently behaves.

Saturday, September 12th, 2020

Checked in at Blakers Park. Tunes 🎶 — with Jessica map

Checked in at Blakers Park. Tunes 🎶 — with Jessica

Tuesday, September 8th, 2020


Jessica and I went to cinema yesterday.

Normally this wouldn’t be a big deal, but in our current circumstances, it was something of a momentous decision that involved a lot of risk assessment and weighing of the odds. We’ve been out and about a few times, but always to outdoor locations: the beach, a park, or a pub’s beer garden. For the first time, we were evaluating whether or not to enter an indoor environment, which given what we now know about the transmission of COVID-19, is certainly riskier than being outdoors.

But this was a cinema, so in theory, nobody should be talking (or singing or shouting), and everyone would be wearing masks and keeping their distance. Time was also on our side. We were considering a Monday afternoon showing—definitely not primetime. Looking at the website for the (wonderful) Duke of York’s cinema, we could see which seats were already taken. Less than an hour before the start time for the film, there were just a handful of seats occupied. A cinema that can seat a triple-digit number of people was going to be seating a single digit number of viewers.

We got tickets for the front row. Personally, I love sitting in the front row, especially in the Duke of York’s where there’s still plenty of room between the front row and the screen. But I know that it’s generally considered an undesirable spot by most people. Sure enough, the closest people to us were many rows back. Everyone was wearing masks and we kept them on for the duration of the film.

The film was Tenet). We weren’t about to enter an enclosed space for just any ol’ film. It would have to be pretty special—a new Star Wars film, or Denis Villeneuve’s Dune …or a new Christopher Nolan film. We knew it would look good on the big screen. We also knew it was likely to be spoiled for us if we didn’t see it soon enough.

At this point I am sounding the spoiler horn. If you have not seen Tenet yet, abandon ship at this point.

I really enjoyed this film. I understand the criticism that has been levelled at it—too cold, too clinical, too confusing—but I still enjoyed it immensely. I do think you need to be able to enjoy feeling confused if this is going to be a pleasurable experience. The payoff is that there’s an equally enjoyable feeling when things start slotting into place.

The closest film in Christopher Nolan’s back catalogue to Tenet is Inception in terms of twistiness and what it asks of the audience. But in some ways, Tenet is like an inverted version of Inception. In Inception, the ideas and the plot are genuinely complex, but Nolan does a great job in making them understandable—quite a feat! In Tenet, the central conceit and even the overall plot is, in hindsight, relatively straightforward. But Nolan has made it seem more twisty and convuluted than it really is. The ten minute battle at the end, for example, is filled with hard-to-follow twists and turns, but in actuality, it literally doesn’t matter.

The pitch for the mood of this film is that it’s in the spy genre, in the same way that Inception is in the heist genre. Though there’s an argument to be made that Tenet is more of a heist movie than Inception. But in terms of tone, yeah, it’s going for James Bond.

Even at the very end of the credits, when the title of the film rolled into view, it reminded me of the Bond films that would tease “The end of (this film). But James Bond will return in (next film).” Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if the very end of Tenet’s credits finished with “The end of Tenet. But the protagonist will return in …Tenet.”

The pleasure I got from Tenet was not the same kind of pleasure I get from watching a Bond film, which is a simpler, more basic kind of enjoyment. The pleasure I got from Tenet was more like the kind of enjoyment I get from reading smart sci-fi, the kind that posits a “what if?” scenario and isn’t afraid to push your mind in all kinds of uncomfortable directions to contemplate the ramifications.

Like I said, the central conceit—objects or people travelling backwards through time (from our perspective)—isn’t actually all that complex, but the fun comes from all the compounding knock-on effects that build on that one premise.

In the film, and in interviews about the film, everyone is at pains to point out that this isn’t time travel. But that’s not true. In fact, I would argue that Tenet is one of the few examples of genuine time travel. What I mean is that most so-called time-travel stories are actually more like time teleportation. People jump from one place in time to another instaneously. There are only a few examples I can think of where people genuinely travel.

The grandaddy of all time travel stories, The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, is one example. There are vivid descriptions of the world outside the machine playing out in fast-forward. But even here, there’s an implication that from outside the machine, the world cannot perceive the time machine (which would, from that perspective, look slowed down to the point of seeming completely still).

The most internally-consistent time-travel story is Primer. I suspect that the Venn diagram of people who didn’t like Tenet and people who wouldn’t like Primer is a circle. Again, it’s a film where the enjoyment comes from feeling confused, but where your attention will be rewarded and your intelligence won’t be insulted.

In Primer, the protagonists literally travel in time. If you want to go five hours into the past, you have to spend five hours in the box (the time machine).

In Tenet, the time machine is a turnstile. If you want to travel five hours into the past, you need only enter the turnstile for a moment, but then you have to spend the next five hours travelling backwards (which, from your perspective, looks like being in a world where cause and effect are reversed). After five hours, you go in and out of a turnstile again, and voila!—you’ve time travelled five hours into the past.

Crucially, if you decide to travel five hours into the past, then you have always done so. And in the five hours prior to your decision, a version of you (apparently moving backwards) would be visible to the world. There is never a version of events where you aren’t travelling backwards in time. There is no “first loop”.

That brings us to the fundamental split in categories of time travel (or time jump) stories: many worlds vs. single timeline.

In a many-worlds story, the past can be changed. Well, technically, you spawn a different universe in which events unfold differently, but from your perspective, the effect would be as though you had altered the past.

The best example of the many-worlds category in recent years is William Gibson’s The Peripheral. It genuinely reinvents the genre of time travel. First of all, no thing travels through time. In The Peripheral only information can time travel. But given telepresence technology, that’s enough. The Peripheral is time travel for the remote worker (once again, William Gibson proves to be eerily prescient). But the moment that any information travels backwards in time, the timeline splits into a new “stub”. So the many-worlds nature of its reality is front and centre. But that doesn’t stop the characters engaging in classic time travel behaviour—using knowledge of the future to exert control over the past.

Time travel stories are always played with a stacked deck of information. The future has power over the past because of the asymmetric nature of information distribution—there’s more information in the future than in the past. Whether it’s through sports results, the stock market or technological expertise, the future can exploit the past.

Information is at the heart of the power games in Tenet too, but there’s a twist. The repeated mantra here is “ignorance is ammunition.” That flies in the face of most time travel stories where knowledge—information from the future—is vital to winning the game.

It turns out that information from the future is vital to winning the game in Tenet too, but the reason why ignorance is ammunition comes down to the fact that Tenet is not a many-worlds story. It is very much a single timeline.

Having a single timeline makes for time travel stories that are like Greek tragedies. You can try travelling into the past to change the present but in doing so you will instead cause the very thing you set out to prevent.

The meat’n’bones of a single timeline time travel story—and this is at the heart of Tenet—is the question of free will.

The most succint (and disturbing) single-timeline time-travel story that I’ve read is by Ted Chiang in his recent book Exhalation. It’s called What’s Expected Of Us. It was originally published as a single page in Nature magazine. In that single page is a distillation of the metaphysical crisis that even a limited amount of time travel would unleash in a single-timeline world…

There’s a box, the Predictor. It’s very basic, like Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine. It has a button and a light. The button activates the light. But this machine, like an inverted object in Tenet, is moving through time differently to us. In this case, it’s very specific and localised. The machine is just a few seconds in the future relative to us. Cause and effect seem to be reversed. With a normal machine, you press the button and then the light flashes. But with the predictor, the light flashes and then you press the button. You can try to fool it but you won’t succeed. If the light flashes, you will press the button no matter how much you tell yourself that you won’t (likewise if you try to press the button before the light flashes, you won’t succeed). That’s it. In one succinct experiment with time, it is demonstrated that free will doesn’t exist.

Tenet has a similarly simple object to explain inversion. It’s a bullet. In an exposition scene we’re shown how it travels backwards in time. The protagonist holds his hand above the bullet, expecting it to jump into his hand as has just been demonstrated to him. He is told “you have to drop it.” He makes the decision to “drop” the bullet …and the bullet flies up into his hand.

This is a brilliant bit of sleight of hand (if you’ll excuse the choice of words) on Nolan’s part. It seems to imply that free will really matters. Only by deciding to “drop” the bullet does the bullet then fly upward. But here’s the thing: the protagonist had no choice but to decide to drop the bullet. We know that he had no choice because the bullet flew up into his hand. The bullet was always going to fly up into his hand. There is no timeline where the bullet doesn’t fly up into his hand, which means there is no timeline where the protagonist doesn’t decide to “drop” the bullet. The decision is real, but it is inevitable.

The lesson in this scene is the exact opposite of what it appears. It appears to show that agency and decision-making matter. The opposite is true. Free will cannot, in any meaningful sense, exist in this world.

This means that there was never really any threat. People from the future cannot change the past (or wipe it out) because it would’ve happened already. At one point, the protagonist voices this conjecture. “Doesn’t the fact that we’re here now mean that they don’t succeed?” Neil deflects the question, not because of uncertainty (we realise later) but because of certainty. It’s absolutely true that the people in the future can’t succeed because they haven’t succeeded. But the protagonist—at this point in the story—isn’t ready to truly internalise this. He needs to still believe that he is acting with free will. As that Ted Chiang story puts it:

It’s essential that you behave as if your decisions matter, even though you know that they don’t.

That’s true for the audience watching the film. If we were to understand too early that everything will work out fine, then there would be no tension in the film.

As ever with Nolan’s films, they are themselves metaphors for films. The first time you watch Tenet, ignorance is your ammuntion. You believe there is a threat. By the end of the film you have more information. Now if you re-watch the film, you will experience it differently, armed with your prior knowledge. But the film itself hasn’t changed. It’s the same linear flow of sequential scenes being projected. Everything plays out exactly the same. It’s you who have been changed. The first time you watch the film, you are like the protagonist at the start of the movie. The second time you watch it, you are like the protagonist at the end of the movie. You see the bigger picture. You understand the inevitability.

The character of Neil has had more time to come to terms with a universe without free will. What the protagonist begins to understand at the end of the film is what Neil has known for a while. He has seen this film. He knows how it ends. It ends with his death. He knows that it must end that way. At the end of the film we see him go to meet his death. Does he make the decision to do this? Yes …but he was always going to make the decision to do this. Just as the protagonist was always going to decide to “drop” the bullet, Neil was always going to decide to go to his death. It looks like a choice. But Neil understands at this point that the choice is pre-ordained. He will go to his death because he has gone to his death.

At the end, the protagonist—and the audience—understands. Everything played out exactly as it had to. The people in the future were hoping that reality allowed for many worlds, where the past could be changed. Luckily for us, reality turns out to be a single timeline. But the price we pay is that we come to understand, truly understand, that we have no free will. This is the kind of knowledge we wish we didn’t have. Ignorance was our ammunition and by the end of the film, it is spent.

Nolan has one other piece of misdirection up his sleeve. He implies that the central question at the heart of this time-travel story is the grandfather paradox. Our descendents in the future are literally trying to kill their grandparents (us). But if they succeed, then they can never come into existence.

But that’s not the paradox that plays out in Tenet. The central paradox is the bootstrap paradox, named for the Heinlein short story, By His Bootstraps. Information in this film is transmitted forwards and backwards through time, without ever being created. Take the phrase “Tenet”. In subjective time, the protagonist first hears of this phrase—and this organisation—when he is at the start of his journey. But the people who tell him this received the information via a subjectively older version of the protagonist who has travelled to the past. The protagonist starts the Tenet organistion (and phrase) in the future because the organisation (and phrase) existed in the past. So where did the phrase come from?

This paradox—the bootstrap paradox—remains after the grandfather paradox has been dealt with. The grandfather paradox was a distraction. The bootstrap paradox can’t be resolved, no matter how many times you watch the same film.

So Tenet has three instances of misdirection in its narrative:

  • Inversion isn’t time travel (it absolutely is).
  • Decisions matter (they don’t; there is no free will).
  • The grandfather paradox is the central question (it’s not; the bootstrap paradox is the central question).

I’m looking forward to seeing Tenet again. Though it can never be the same as that first time. Ignorance can never again be my ammunition.

I’m very glad that Jessica and I decided to go to the cinema to see Tenet. But who am I kidding? Did we ever really have a choice?