Steph and I had already colluded ahead of time on how we were going to split up the talks. She would go narrow and dive into one specific subgenre, solarpunk. I would go broad and give a big picture overview of science fiction literature.
Obviously I couldn’t possibly squeeze the entire subject of sci-fi into one short talk, so all I could really do was give my own personal subjective account. Hence, the talk is called Sci-fi and Me. I’ve published the transcript, uploaded the slides and the audio, and Marc has published the video on YouTube and Vimeo. Kudos to Tina Pham for going above and beyond to deliver a supremely accurate transcript with a super-fast turnaround.
I divided the talk into three sections. The first is my own personal story of growing up in small-town Ireland and reading every sci-fi book I could get my hands on from the local library. The second part was a quick history of sci-fi publishing covering the last two hundred years. The third and final part was a run-down of ten topics that sci-fi deals with. For each topic, I gave a brief explanation, mentioned a few books and then chose one that best represents that particular topic. That was hard.
Planetary romance. I mentioned the John Carter books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Helliconia trilogy by Brian Aldiss, and the Riverworld saga by Philip José Farmer. I chose Dune by Frank Herbert.
Space opera. I mentioned the Skylark and Lensman books by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds, and the Machineries of Empire books by Yoon Ha Lee. I chose Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.
Dystopia. I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I chose 1984 by George Orwell.
Post-apocalypse. I mentioned The Drought and The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I chose Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
Artificial intelligence. I mentioned Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan and Klara And The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I chose I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.
First contact. I mentioned The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, Childhood’s End and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, and Contact by Carl Sagan. I chose Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang.
Time travel. I mentioned The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, and The Peripheral by William Gibson. I chose Kindred by Octavia Butler.
Okay, that’s eleven, not ten, but that last one is a bit of a cheat—it’s a subgenre rather than a topic. But it allowed me to segue nicely into Steph’s talk.
Here’s a list of those eleven books. I can recommend each and every one of them. Still, the problem with going with this topic-based approach was that some of my favourite sci-fi books of all time fall outside of any kind of classification system. Where would I put The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, one of my all-time favourites? How could I classify Philip K. Dick books like Ubik, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, or A Scanner Darkly? And where would I even begin to describe the books of Christopher Priest?
But despite the inevitable gaps, I’m really pleased with how the overall talk turned out. I had a lot of fun preparing it and even more fun presenting it. It made a nice change from the usual topics I talk about. Incidentally, if you’ve got a conference or a podcast and you ever want me to talk about something other than the web, I’m always happy to blather on about sci-fi.
I’m going to talk about sci-fi, in general. Of course, there isn’t enough time to cover everything, so I’ve got to restrict myself.
First of all, I’m just going to talk about science fiction literature. I’m not going to go into film, television, games, or anything like that. But of course, in the discussion, I’m more than happy to talk about sci-fi films, television, and all that stuff. But for brevity’s sake, I thought I’ll just stick to books here.
Also, I can’t possibly give an authoritative account of all of science fiction literature, so it’s going to be very subjective. I thought what I can talk about is myself. In fact, it’s one of my favourite subjects.
So, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to talk about sci-fi and me.
So, let me tell you about my childhood. I grew up in a small town on the south coast of Ireland called Cobh. Here it is. It’s very picturesque when you’re looking at it from a distance. But I have to say, growing up there (in the 1970s and 1980s), there really wasn’t a whole lot to do.
There was no World Wide Web at this point. It was, frankly, a bit boring.
But there was one building in town that saved me, and that was this building here in the town square. This is the library. It was inside the library (amongst the shelves of books) that I was able to pass the time and find an escape.
It was here that I started reading the work, for example, of Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer. He’s also a science writer. He wrote a lot of books. I think it might have even been a science book that got me into Isaac Asimov.
I was a nerdy kid into science, and I remember there was a book in the library that was essays and short stories. There’d be an essay about science followed by a short story that was science fiction, and it would keep going like that. It was by Isaac Asimov. I enjoyed those science fiction stories as much as the science, so I started reading more of his books, books about galactic empires, books about intelligent robots, detective stories but set on other planets.
There was a real underpinning of science to these books, hard science, in Isaac Asimov’s work. I enjoyed it, so I started reading other science fiction books in the library. I found these books by Arthur C. Clarke, which were very similar in some ways to Isaac Asimov in the sense that they’re very grounded in science, in the hard science.
In fact, the two authors used to get mistaken for one another in terms of their work. They formed an agreement. Isaac Asimov would graciously accept a compliment about 2001: A Space Odyssey and Arthur C. Clarke would graciously accept a compliment about the Foundation series.
Anyway, so these books, hard science fiction books, I loved them. I was really getting into them. There were plenty of them in the local library.
The other author that seemed to have plenty of books in the local library was Ray Bradbury. This tended to be more short stories than full-length novels and also, it was different to the Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke in the sense that it wasn’t so much grounded in the science. You got the impression he didn’t really care that much about how the science worked. It was more about atmosphere, stories, and characters.
These were kind of three big names in my formative years of reading sci-fi. I kind of went through the library reading all of the books by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.
Once I had done that, I started to investigate other books that were science fiction (in the library). I distinctly remember these books being in the library by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed. I read them and I really enjoyed them. They are terrific books.
These, again, are different to the hard science fiction of something like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. There were questions of politics and gender starting to enter into the stories.
Also, I remember there were two books by Alfred Bester, these two books, The Demolished Man and Tiger! Tiger! (also called The Stars My Destination). These were just wild. These were almost psychedelic.
I mean they were action-packed, but also, the writing style was action-packed. It was kind of like reading the Hunter S. Thompson of science fiction. It was fear and loathing in outer space.
These were opening my mind to other kinds of science fiction, and I also had my mind opened (and maybe warped) by reading the Philip K. Dick books that were in the library. Again, you got the impression he didn’t really care that much about the technology or the science. It was all about the stuff happening inside people’s heads, questioning what reality is.
At this point in my life, I hadn’t yet done any drugs. But reading Philip K. Dick kind of gave me a taste, I think, of what it would be like to do drugs.
These were also names that loomed large in my early science fiction readings: Ursula K. Le Guin, Alfred Bester, and Philip K. Dick.
Then there were the one-offs in the library. I remember coming across this book by Frank Herbert called Dune, reading it, and really enjoying it. It was spaceships and sandworms, but also kind of mysticism and environmentalism, even.
I remember having my tiny little mind blown by reading this book of short stories by Fredric Brown. They’re kind of like typical Twilight Zone short stories with a twist in the tale. I just love that.
I think a lot of science fiction short stories can almost be the natural home for it because there is one idea explored fairly quickly. Short stories are really good for that.
I remember reading stories about the future. What would the world be like in the year 1999? Like in Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! A tale of overpopulation that we all had to look forward to.
I remember this book by Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was kind of a book about the long now (civilisations rising and falling). Again, it blew my little mind as a youngster and maybe started an interest I have to this day in thinking long-term.
So, this is kind of the spread of the science fiction books I read as a youngster, and I kept reading books after this. Throughout my life, I’ve read science fiction.
I don’t think it’s that unusual to read science fiction. In fact, I think just about anybody who reads has probably read science fiction because everyone has probably read one of these books. Maybe they’ve read Brave New World or 1984, some Kurt Vonnegut like Slaughterhouse 5 or The Sirens of Titan, the Margaret Atwood books like The Handmaid’s Tale, or Kazuo Ishiguro books.
Now, a lot of the time the authors of these books who are mainstream authors maybe wouldn’t be happy about having their works classified as sci-fi or science fiction. The term maybe was a little downmarket, so sometimes people will try to argue that these books are not science fiction even though clearly the premise of every one of these books is science fictional. But it’s almost like these books are too good to be science fiction. There’s a little bit of snobbishness.
Brian Aldiss has a wonderful little poem, a little couplet to describe this attitude. He said:
“SF is no good,” they cry until we’re deaf.
“But this is good.”
“Well, then it’s not SF!”
Recently, I found out that there’s a term for these books by mainstream authors that cross over into science fiction, and these are called slipstream books. I think everyone at some point has read a slipstream science fiction book that maybe has got them interested in diving further into science fiction.
What is sci-fi?
Now, the question I’m really skirting around here is, what is sci-fi? I’m not sure I can answer that question.
Isaac Asimov had a definition. He said it’s that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology. I think that’s a pretty good description of his books and the hard science fiction books of Arthur C. Clarke. But I don’t think that that necessarily describes some of the other authors I’ve mentioned, so it feels a little narrow to me.
Pamela Sargent famously said that science fiction is the literature of ideas. There is something to that, like when I was talking about how short stories feel like a natural home for sci-fi because you’ve got one idea, you explore it in a short story, and you’re done.
But I also feel like that way of phrasing science fiction as the literature of ideas almost leaves something unsaid, like, it’s the literature of ideas as opposed to plot, characterisation, and all this other kind of stuff that happens in literature. I always think, why not both? You know. Why can’t we have ideas, plot, characters, and all the other good stuff?
Also, ideas aren’t unique to sci-fi. Every form of literature has to have some idea or there’s no point writing the book. Every crime novel has to have an idea behind it. So, I’m not sure if that’s a great definition either.
Maybe the best definition came from Damon Knight who said sci-fi is what we point to when we say it. It’s kind of, “I know it when I see it,” kind of thing. I think there’s something to that.
Any time you come up with a definition of sci-fi, it’s always hard to drive hard lines between sci-fi and other adjacent genres like fantasy. They’re often spoke about together, sci-fi and fantasy. I think I can tell the difference between sci-fi and fantasy, but I can’t describe the difference. I don’t think there is a hard line.
Science fiction feels like it’s looking towards the future, even when it isn’t. Maybe the sci-fi story isn’t actually set in the future. But it feels like it’s looking to the future and asking, “What if?” whereas fantasy feels like it’s looking to the past and asking, “What if?” But again, fantasy isn’t necessarily set in the past, and science fiction isn’t necessarily set in the future.
You could say, “Oh, well, science fiction is based on science, and fantasy is based on magic,” but any sci-fi book that features faster than light travel is effectively talking about magic, not science. So, again, I don’t think you can draw those hard lines.
There are other genres that are very adjacent and cross over with sci-fi and fantasy, like horror. You get sci-fi horror, fantasy horror. What about any mainstream book that has magical realism to it? You could say that’s a form of fantasy or science fiction.
Ultimately, I think this question, “What is sci-fi?” is a really interesting question if you’re a publisher. It’s probably important for you to answer this question if you are a publisher. But if you are a reader, honestly, I don’t think it’s that important a question.
What is sci-fi for?
There’s another question that comes on from this, which is, “What is sci-fi for? What’s its purpose?” Is it propaganda for science, almost like the way Isaac Asimov is describing it?
Sometimes, it has been used that way. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was almost like a way of getting people into science. Reading science fiction certainly influenced future careers in science, but that feels like a very limiting way to describe a whole field of literature.
Is sci-fi for predicting the future? Most sci-fi authors would say, “No, no, no.” Ray Bradbury said, “I write science fiction not to predict the future, but to prevent it.” But there is always this element of trying to ask what if and play out the variables into the future.
Frederik Pohl said, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam,” which is kind of a nice way of looking at how it’s not just prediction.
Maybe thinking about sci-fi as literature of the future would obscure the fact that actually, most science fiction tends to really be about today or the time it’s published. It might be set in the future but, often, it’s dealing with issues of the day.
Ultimately, it’s about the human condition. Really, so is every form of literature. So, I don’t think there’s a good answer for this either. I don’t think there’s an answer for the question, “What is sci-fi for?” that you could put all science fiction into.
Okay, so we’re going to avoid the philosophical questions. Let’s get down to something a bit more straightforward. Let’s have a history of science fiction and science fiction literature.
Caveats again: this is going to be very subjective, just as, like, my history. It’s also going to be a very Western view because I grew up in Ireland, a Western country.
Where would I begin the history of science fiction? I could start with the myths and legends and religions of most cultures, which have some kind of science fiction or fantasy element to them. You know, the Bible, a work of fantasy.
But if I wanted to start with what I would think is the modern birth of the sci-fi novel, I think Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus could be said to be the first sci-fi novel and invents a whole bunch of tropes that we still use to this day: the mad scientist meddling with powers beyond their control.
It’s dealing with electricity, and I talked about how sci-fi is often about topics of the day, and this is when electricity is just coming on the scenes. There are all sorts of questions about the impact of electricity and science fiction is a way of exploring this.
Talking about reanimating the dead, also kind of talking about artificial intelligence. It set the scene for a lot of what was to come.
Later, in the 19th Century, in the 1860s, and then the 1890s, we have these two giants of early science fiction. In France, we have Jules Verne, and he’s writing books like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, From Earth to the Moon, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, these adventure stories with technology often at the Centre of them.
Then in England, we have H.G. Wells, and he’s creating entire genres from scratch. He writes The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau.
Over in America, you’ve got Edgar Allan Poe mostly doing horror, but there’s definitely sci-fi or fantasy aspects to what he’s doing.
Now, as we get into the 20th Century, where sci-fi really starts to boom – even though the term doesn’t exist yet – is with the pulp fiction in the 1920s, 1930s. This is literally pulp paper that cheap books are written on. They were cheap to print. They were cheap for the authors, too. As in, the authors did not get paid much. People were just churning out these stories. There were pulp paperbacks and also magazines.
Hugo Gernsback, here in the 1920s, he was the editor of Amazing Stories, and he talked about scientification stories. That was kind of his agenda.
Then later, in the 1930s, John W. Campbell became the editor of Astounding Stories. In 1937, he changed the name of it from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science Fiction. This is when the term really comes to prominence.
He does have an agenda. He wants stories grounded in plausible science. He wants that hard kind of science.
What you have here, effectively, is yes the genre is getting this huge boost, but also you’ve got gatekeepers. You’ve got two old, white dude gatekeepers kind of deciding what gets published and what doesn’t. It’s setting the direction.
What happens next, though, is that a lot of science fiction does get published. A lot of good science fiction gets published in what’s known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the 1940s and 1950s. This, it turns out, is when authors like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Heinlein are publishing those early books I was reading in the library. I didn’t realise it at the time, but they were books from the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
This tended to be the hard science fiction. It’s grounded in technology. It’s grounded in science. There tend to be scientific explanations for everything in the books.
It’s all good stuff. It’s all enjoyable. But there’s an interesting swing of the pendulum in the 1960s and ’70s. This swing kind of comes from Europe, from the UK. This is known as the New Wave. That term was coined by Michael Moorcock in New Worlds magazine that he was the editor of.
It’s led by these authors like Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard where they’re less concerned with outer space and they’re more concerned with inner space: the mind, language, drugs, the inner world. It’s some exciting stuff, quite different to the hard science that’s come before.
Like I say, it started in Europe, but then there was also this wave of it in America, broadening the scope of what sci-fi could be. You got less gatekeeping and you got more new voices. You got Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delaney expanding what sci-fi could be.
That trend continued into the 1980s when you began to see the rise of authors like Octavia Butler who, to this day, has a huge influence on Afrofuturism. You’re getting more and more voices. You’re getting a wider scope of what science fiction could be.
I think the last big widening of sci-fi happened in the 1980s with William Gibson. He practically invented (from scratch) the genre of cyberpunk. If Mary Shelley was concerned with electricity then, by the 1980s, we were all concerned with computers, digital networks, and technology.
The difference with cyberpunk is where the Asimov story or Clarke story might be talking about someone in a position of power (a captain or an astronaut) and how technology impacts them, cyberpunk is kind of looking at technology at the street level when the street finds its own uses for things. That was expanded into other things as well.
After the 1980s, we start to get the new weird. We get people like Jeff Noon, China Mieville, and Jeff VanderMeer writing stuff. Is it sci-fi? Is it fantasy? Who knows?
Which brings us up to today. Today, we have, I think, a fantastic range of writers writing a fantastic range of science fiction, like Ann Leckie with her Imperial Radch stories, N.K. Jemisin with the fantastic Broken Earth trilogy, Yoon Ha Lee writing Machineries of Empire, and Ted Chiang with terrific short stories and his collections like Exhalation. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, we look back on now as a true Golden Age of Science Fiction where it is wider, there are more voices and, frankly, more interesting stories.
Okay, so on the home stretch, I want to talk about the subjects of science fiction, the topics that sci-fi tends to cover. I’m going to go through ten topics of science fiction, list off what the topic is, name a few books, and then choose one book to represent that topic. It’s going to be a little tricky, but here we go.
Okay, so planetary romance is a sci-fi story that’s basically set on a single planet where the planet is almost like a character: the environment of the planet, the ecosystem of the planet. This goes back a long way. The Edgar Rice Burroughs stories of John Carter of Mars were kind of early planetary romance and even spawned a little sub-genre of Sword and Planet*.
Brian Aldiss did a terrific trilogy called Helliconia, a series where the orbits of a star system are kind of the driving force behind the stories that take place over generations.
Philip Jose Farmer did this fantastic series (the Riverworld series). Everyone in history is reincarnated on this one planet with a giant river spanning it.
If I had to pick one planetary romance to represent the genre, I am going to go with a classic. I’m going to go with Dune by Frank Herbert. It really is a terrific piece of work.
Space opera, the term was intended to denigrate it but, actually, it’s quite fitting. Space opera is what you think of when you think of sci-fi. It’s intergalactic empires, space battles, and good rip-roaring yarns. You can trace it back to these early works by E.E. ’Doc’ Smith. It’s the good ol’ stuff.
Space opera has kind of fell out of favour for a while there, but it started coming back in the last few decades. It got some really great, hard sci-fi space opera by Alastair Reynolds and, more recently, Yoon Ha Lee with Ninefox Gambit – all good stuff.
But if I had to pick one space opera book to represent the genre, I’m going to go with Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. It is terrific. It’s like taking Asimov, Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, and the best of all of them, and putting them all into one series – great stuff.
Now, in space opera, generally, they come up with some way of being able to travel around the galaxy in a faster than light, warp speed, or something like that, which makes it kind of a fantasy, really.
If you accept that you can’t travel faster than light, then maybe you’re going to write about generation starships. This is where you accept that you can’t zip around the galaxy, so you have to take your time getting from star system to star system, which means it’s multiple generations.
Brian Aldiss’s first book was a generation starship book called Non-Stop. But there’s one book that I think has the last word on generation starships, and it’s by Kim Stanley Robinson. It is Aurora. I love this book, a really great book. Definitely the best generation starship book there is.
All right. What about writing about utopias? Funnily enough, not as many utopias as there are the counterpart. Maybe the most famous utopias in recent sci-fi is from Ian M. Banks with his Culture series. The Culture is a socialist utopia in space post-scarcity. They’re great space opera galaxy-spanning stuff.
What’s interesting, though, is most of the stories are not about living in a utopia because living in a post-scarcity utopia is, frankly, super boring. All the stories are about the edge cases. All the stories are literally called special circumstances.
All good fun, but the last word on utopian science fiction must go to Ursula Le Guin with The Dispossessed. It’s an anarcho-syndicalist utopia – or is it? It depends on how you read it.
I definitely have some friends who read this like it was a manual and other friends who read it like it was a warning. I think, inside every utopia, there’s a touch of dystopia, and dystopias are definitely the more common topic for science fiction. Maybe it’s easier to ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” than to ask, “What’s the best that can happen?”
A lot of the slipstream books would be based on dystopias like Margaret Atwood’s terrific The Handmaid’s Tale. I remember being young and reading (in that library) Fahrenheit 541 by Ray Bradbury, a book about burning books – terrific stuff.
But I’m going to choose one. If I’m going to choose one dystopia, I think I have to go with a classic. It’s never been beat. George Orwell’s 1984, the last word on dystopias. It’s a fantastic work, fantastic piece of literature.
I think George Orwell’s 1984 is what got a lot of people into reading sci-fi. With me, it almost went the opposite. I was already reading sci-fi. But after reading 1984, I ended up going to read everything ever written by George Orwell, which I can highly recommend. There’s no sci-fi, but a terrific writer.
All right. Here’s another topic: a post-apocalypse story. You also get pre-apocalypse stories like, you know, there’s a big asteroid coming or there’s a black hole in the Centre of the Earth or something, and how we live out our last days. But, generally, authors tend to prefer post-apocalyptic settings, whether that’s post-nuclear war, post environmental catastrophe, post-plague. Choose your disaster and then have a story set afterward.
J. G. Ballard, he writes stories about not enough water, too much water, and I think it’s basically he wants to find a reason to put his characters in large, empty spaces because that’s what he enjoys writing about.
Very different, you’d have the post-apocalyptic stories of someone like John Wyndham, somewhat derided by Brian Aldiss’s cozy catastrophes. Yes, the world is ending, but we’ll make it back home in time for tea.
At the complete other extreme from that, you would have something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is relentlessly grim tale of post-apocalypse.
I almost picked Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy for the ultimate post-apocalyptic story, and it’s really great stuff post-plague, genetically engineered plague – very timely.
But actually, even more timely – and a book that’s really stayed with me – is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandell. Not just because the writing is terrific and it is a plague book, so, yes, timely, but it also tackles questions like: What is art for? What is the human condition all about?
All right. Another topic that’s very popular amongst the techies, artificial intelligence, actual artificial intelligence, not what we in the tech world called artificial intelligence, which is a bunch of if/else statements.
Stories of artificial intelligence are also very popular in slipstream books from mainstream authors like recently we had a book from Ian McEwan. We had a new book from Kazuo Ishiguro tackling this topic.
But again, I’m going to go back to the classic, right back to my childhood, and I’ll pick I, Robot, a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, where he first raises this idea of three laws of robotics – a word he coined, by the way, robotics from the Czech word for robot.
These three laws are almost like design principles for artificial intelligence. All the subsequent works in this genre kind of push at those design principles. It’s good stuff. Not to be confused with the movie with the same name.
Here’s another topic: first contact with an alien species. Well, sometimes the first contact doesn’t go well and the original book on this is H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. Every other alien invasion book since then has kind of just been a reworking of The War of the Worlds. It’s terrific stuff.
For more positive views on first contact stories, Arthur C. Clarke dives into books like Childhood’s End. In Rendezvous with Rama, what’s interesting is we don’t actually contact the alien civilisation but we have an artifact that we must decode and get information from. It’s good stuff.
More realistically, though, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem is frustrating because it’s realistic in the sense that we couldn’t possibly understand an alien intelligence. In the book – spoiler alert – we don’t.
For realism set in the world of today, Carl Sagan’s book Contact is terrific. Well worth a read. It really tries to answer what would a first contact situation look like today.
But I’ve got to pick one first contact story, and I’m actually going to go with a short story, and it’s Stories of Your Life by Ted Chaing. I recommend getting the whole book and reading every short story in it because it’s terrific.
This is the short story that the film Arrival was based on, which is an amazing piece of work because I remember reading this fantastic short story and distinctly thinking, “This is unfilmable. This could only exist in literature.” Yet, they did a great job with the movie, which bodes well for the movie of Dune, which is also being directed by Denis Villeneuve.
All right. Time travel as a topic. I have to say I think that time travel is sometimes better handled in media like TV and movies than it is in literature. That said, you’ve got the original time travel story. Again, H.G. Wells just made this stuff from scratch, and it really holds up. It’s a good book. I mean it’s really more about class warfare than it is about time travel, but it’s solid.
Actually, I highly recommend reading a nonfiction book called Time Travel by James Gleick where he looks at the history of time travel as a concept in both fiction and in physics.
You’ve got some interesting concepts like Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls, which, as is the premise, time-traveling serial killer, which is a really interesting mashup of genres. You’ve got evidence showing up out of chronological sequence.
By the way, this is being turned into a TV show as we speak, as is The Peripheral by William Gibson, a recent book by him. It’s terrific.
What I love about this, it’s a time travel story where the only thing that travels in time is information. But that’s enough with today’s technology, so it’s like a time travel for remote workers. Again, very timely, as all of William Gibson’s stuff tends to be.
But if I’ve got to choose one, I’m going to choose Kindred by Octavia Butler because it’s just such as a terrific book. To be honest, the time travel aspect isn’t the Centre of the story but it’s absolutely worth reading as just a terrific, terrific piece of literature.
Now, in time travel, you’ve generally got two kinds of time travel. You’ve got the closed-loop time travel, which is kind of like a Greek tragedy. You try and change the past but, in trying to change it, you probably bring about the very thing you were trying to change. The Shining Girls were something like that.
Or you have the multiverse version of time travel where going back in time forks the universe, and that’s what The Peripheral is about. That multiverse idea is explored in another subgenre, which is alternative history, which kind of asks, “What if something different had happened in history?” and then plays out the what-if from there. Counterfactuals, they’re also known as.
I remember growing up and going through the shelves of that library in Cobh, coming across this book, A Transatlantic Tunnel. Hurrah! by Harry Harrison. It’s set in a world where the American War of Independence failed and now it’s the modern-day. The disgraced descendant of George Washington is in charge of building a transatlantic tunnel for the British Empire.
That tends to be the kind of premise that gets explored in alternative history is what if another side had won the war. There’s a whole series of books set in a world where the South won the Civil War in the United States.
For my recommendation, though, I’m going to go with The Man in the High Castle, which is asking what if the other side won the war. In this case, it’s WWII. It’s by Philip K. Dick. I mean it’s not my favourite Philip K. Dick book, but my favourite Philip K. Dick books are so unclassifiable, I wouldn’t be able to put them under any one topic, and I have to get at least one Philip K. Dick book in here.
A final topic and, ooh, this is a bit of a cheat because it’s not really a topic – it’s a subgenre – cyberpunk. But as I said, cyberpunk deals with the topic of computers or networked computers more specifically, and there’s some good stuff like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Really ahead of its time. It definitely influenced a lot of people in tech.
Everyone I know that used to work in Linden Lab, the people who were making Second Life, when you joined, you’re basically handled Snow Crash on your first day and told, “This is what we’re trying to build here.”
But if I’ve got to pick one cyberpunk book, you can’t beat the original Neuromancer by William Gibson. Just terrific stuff.
What’s interesting about cyberpunk is, yes, it’s dealing with the technology of computers and networks, but it’s also got this atmosphere, a kind of noir atmosphere that William Gibson basically created from scratch. Then a whole bunch of other genres spun off from that asking, “Well, what if we could have a different atmosphere?” and explore stories like steampunk. It’s kind of like, “Well, what if the Victorians had computers and technology? What would that be like?”
Basically, if there’s a time in history that you like the aesthetic of, there’s probably a subgenre ending in the word “punk” that describes that aesthetic. You can go to conventions, and you can have your anime and your manga and your books and your games set in these kind of subgenres. They are generally, like I say, about aesthetics with the possible exception of solarpunk, which is what Steph is going to talk about.
Living in the future
I am going to finish with these books as my recommendations for a broad range of topics of science fiction from 50 years of reading science fiction. I think about if I could go back and talk to my younger self in that town in the south coast of Ireland about the world of today. I’m sure it would sound like a science fictional world.
By the way, I wouldn’t go back in time to talk to my younger self because I’ve read enough time travel stories to know that that never ends well. But still, here we are living in the future. I mean this past year with a global pandemic, that is literally straight out of a bunch of science fiction books.
But also, just the discoveries and advancements we’ve made are science fictional. Like when I was growing up and reading science books in that library, we didn’t know if there were any planets outside our own solar system. We didn’t know if exoplanets even existed.
Now, we know that most solar systems have their own planets. We’re discovering them every day. It’s become commonplace.
We have sequenced the human genome, which is a remarkable achievement for a species.
And we have the World Wide Web, this world-spanning network of information that you can access with computers in your pockets. Amazing stuff.
But of all of these advancements by our species, if I had to pick the one that I think is in some ways the most science-fictional, the most far-fetched idea, I would pick the library. If libraries didn’t exist and you tried to make them today, I don’t think you could succeed. You’d be laughed out of the venture capital room, like, “How is that supposed to work?” It sounds absolutely ridiculous, a place where people can go and read books and take those books home with them without paying for them. It sounds almost too altruistic to exist.
But Ray Bradbury, for example, I know he grew up in the library. He said, “I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library.” He was a big fan of libraries. He said, “Reading is at the Centre of our lives. The library is our brain. Without the library, you have no civilisation.” He said, “Without libraries, what have we? Have no past and no future.”
So, to end this, I’m not going to end with a call to read lots of sci-fi. I’m just going to end with a call to read – full stop. Read fiction, not just non-fiction. Read fiction. It’s a way of expanding your empathy.
And defend your local library. Use your local library. Don’t let your local library get closed down.
We are living in the future by having libraries. Libraries are science fictional.
The topic for the evening is science fiction. There’ll be a talk from me, a talk from Steph, and then a discussion, which I’m really looking forward to.
I got together with Steph last week, which was really fun—we could’ve talked for hours! We compared notes and figured out a way to divvy up the speaking slots. Steph is going to do a deep dive into one specific subgenre of sci-fi. So to set the scene, I’m going to give a broad but shallow overview of the history of sci-fi. To keep things managable, I’m only going to be talking about sci-fi literature (although we can get into films, TV, and anything else in the discussion afterwards).
But I don’t want to just regurgitate facts like a Wikipedia article. I’ve decided that the only honest thing to do is give my own personal history with sci-fi. Instead of trying to give an objective history, I’m going to tell a personal story …even if that means being more open and vulnerable.
I think I’ve got the arc of the story I want to tell. I’ve been putting slides together and I’m quite excited now. I’ve realised I’ve got quite a lot to say. But I don’t want the presentation to get too long. I want to keep it short and snappy so that there’s plenty of time for the discussion afterwards. That’s going to be the best part!
That’s where you come in. The discussion will be driven by the questions and chat from the attendees. Tickets are available on a pay-what-you-want basis, with a minimum price of just €10. It’ll be an evening event, starting at 6:30pm UK time, 7:30pm in central Europe. So if you’re in the States, that’ll be your morning or afternoon.
Come along if you have any interest in sci-fi. If you have no interest in sci-fi, then please come along—we can have a good discusison about it.
Guten Morgen. All right. I’m just going to get started because I’ve got a lot to talk about and I’m very, very excited to be here.
I’m excited to talk about the web. I’ve been thinking a lot about the web. You know, I think a lot about the web all the time, but this year, in particular, thinking about where the web came from; asking myself where the web came from, which is kind of a dumb question because it’s pretty obvious where the web came from.
It came from this guy. This is Tim Berners-Lee and he is the creator of the World Wide Web. It was 30 years ago, March 1989, that he wrote a proposal while he was at CERN, a very dull-looking proposal called “Information Management: A Proposal” that had incomprehensible diagrams trying to explain what he had in mind. But a supervisor, Mike Sendall, saw the potential and scrawled across the top, “Vague but exciting.”
Tim Berners-Lee starts working on this idea he has for a global hypertext system and he starts creating the world’s first web browser and the world’s first web server, which is this NeXT machine which is in the Science Museum in London, a lovely machine, the NeXT box.
I have a great affection for it because, earlier this year, I was very honored to be invited to CERN, along with this bunch of hackers, to take part in a project related to the 30th anniversary of that proposal. I will show you a video that explains the project.
So, we came to CERN this week in order to create some sort of modern-day interpretation of the very first web browser.
Well, the project is to restore the first browser which was developed by the inventor of the Web, and the idea is to create an experience for the people who could not use the web in its early days to have an idea how it felt to use the web at that time.
—Martin Akolo Chiteri
I think the biggest difficulty was to make the browser work in the NeXT machine that we had.
We really needed to work with an original NeXT box in order to really understand what that experience was like in order to be able to write some code and replicate that experience.
We got together a few years back to do a similar sort of hack project here at CERN which was creating the world’s second-ever web browser, which was the Line Mode browser. We had a lot of fun with it and it’s a great bunch of people from all over the world. It’s been really great to get back together and it’s always amazing to be here at CERN, to be at not just the birthplace of the Web, but the most important place on the planet for science.
Yeah, it’s been a lot of fun. I kind of don’t want it to be over because we are in our element, hacking away, having fun, and just soaking up the atmosphere, and we are getting to chat with people who were there 30 years ago, Jean-Francois Groff and Robert Cailliau, these people who were involved in the creation of the World Wide web. To me, that’s amazing to be surrounded by so much World Wide Web history.
The plan is that this will go online and anyone will be able to access it because it’s on the web, and that’s the beautiful thing about the web is that anyone can visit a website, and so everyone will have the opportunity to try using the world’s first web browser and see what modern webpages would look like if they were passed through this first web browser.
Well, spoiler alert. The project was a success and you can, indeed, look at your websites in a recreation of the first-ever web browser. This is the URL. It’s worldwideweb.cern.ch.
As you gathered, again, I was really fascinated by the history of the Web, like, where did it come from, and the people who were there at the time and getting to pick their brains. I spent most of my time working on the accompanying website to go with this project. I was creating this timeline.
Because this was to mark the 30th anniversary of this proposal, I thought, well, we could easily look at what has happened in the last 30 years: websites, web servers, formats, standards - all that stuff. But I thought it would be fascinating to look at the previous 30 years as well and try and figure out the things that were happening that influenced Tim Berners-Lee in terms of hypertext, networks, computing, and all this stuff.
But I’d kind of had given myself this arbitrary cut-off point of 30 years to make this nice symmetry of it being the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web. I could go further back. I could start asking, well, what happened before 30 years ago? What were the biggest influences on Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web?
Now, if you were to ask Tim Berners-Lee himself who his biggest influencers were, he would give you a straight-up answer. He will say his biggest influencers were Conway Berners-Lee and Mary Lee Woods, his father and mother, which is fair enough. Normally, when you ask people who their influences are, they say, “Oh, my parents. They gave me a loving environment. They kindled my curiosity,” and all that stuff.
I’m sure that’s true but, in this case, it was also a big influence in a practical sense in that both Mary and Conway worked on the Ferranti Mark 1. That’s where they met. They were programmers. Tim Berners-Lee’s parents were programmers on the Ferranti Mark 1, a very early computer. This is in the 1950s in Britain.
Okay, this feels like a good origin story for the web, right? They were working on this early computer.
But it’s an early computer; it’s not the first computer. Maybe I need to go back further. How far back do I go to find the first computer?
Is this the first computer, the Antikythera mechanism? You can see this in a museum in Athens. This was recovered from a shipwreck. It was recovered at the start of the 20th Century, but it dates back thousands of years, a mechanism for predicting the position of stars and planets. It does calculations. It is a calculating device. Not a programmable computer as such, though.
If you’re thinking about the origins of the idea of a programmable computer, I think we could start to look at this gentleman, Charles Babbage. This is half of Charles Babbage’s brain, which is in the Science Museum in London along with that original NeXT box that the World Wide web was created on. The other half is in the Computing History Museum in California.
Charles Babbage lived in the 19th Century, and kind of got a lot of seed funding from the U.K. government to build a device, the Difference Engine, which would do calculations. Later on, he scrapped that and started working on the Analytical Engine which would be even better — a 2.0 version. It never got finished, by the way, but it was a really amazing idea because you could see the architecture of like a central processing unit, but it was still fundamentally a calculator, a calculating machine.
The breakthrough in terms of programming maybe came from Charles Babbage’s collaborator. This is Ada Lovelace. She was translating documents by an Italian mathematician about Difference Engines and calculations. She realized that—hang on—if we’re doing operations on numbers, what if those numbers could stand for other concepts, non-numerical like words or thoughts? Then we could do operations on things other than numbers, which is exactly what we do today in modern computing.
If you use a word processor, you’re not processing words; you’re operating on ones and zeros. If you use a graphics program, you’re not actually moving pixels around; you’re operating on ones and zeroes. This idea of how anything could stand in for ones and zeros for numbers kind of started with Ada Lovelace.
But, as I said, the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine, they never got finished, and this was kind of a dead-end. It turns out, they weren’t an influence.
Later on, for example, this genius who was definitely responsible for the first working computers, Alan Turing, he wasn’t aware of the work of Babbage and Lovelace, which is a shame. He was kind of working in isolation.
He came up with the idea of the universal machine, the Turing Machine. Give it an infinitely long tape and enough state, enough time, you could calculate literally anything, which is pretty much what computers are.
He was working at Bletchley Park breaking the code for the Enigma machines, and that leads to the creation of what I think would be the first programmable computer. This is Colossus at Bletchley Park. This was created by a colleague of Turing, Tommy Flowers.
It is programmable. It’s using valves, but it’s absolutely programmable. It was top secret, so even for years after the war, this was not known about. In the history books, even to this day, you’ll often see ENIAC listed as the first programmable computer, but I think that honor goes to Tommy Flowers and Colossus.
By the way, Alan Turing, after the war, after 1945, he did go on to work and keep on working in the field of computing. In fact, he worked as a consultant at Ferranti. He was working on the Ferranti Mark 1, the same computer where Tim Berners-Lee’s parents met when they were programmers.
As I say, that was after the war ended in 1945. Now, we can’t say that the work at Bletchley Park was responsible for winning the war, but we could probably say that it’s certainly responsible for shortening the war. If it weren’t for the work done by the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, the war might not have finished in 1945.
1945 is the year that this gentleman wrote a piece that was certainly influential on Tim Berners-Lee. This is Vannevar Bush, a scientist, a thinker. In 1945, he published a piece in the Atlantic Monthly under the heading, “A Scientist Looks at Tomorrow,” he publishes, “As We May Think.”
In this piece, he describes an imaginary device. It’s a mechanical device inside a desk, and the operator is allowed to work on reams and reams of microfilm and to connect ideas together, make these associative trails. This is kind of like hypertext before the word hypertext has been coined. Vannevar Bush calls this device the Memex. That’s published in 1945.
Also, in 1945, this young man has been drafted into the U.S. Navy and he’s shipping out to the Pacific. His name is Douglas Engelbart. Literally as the ship is leaving the harbor to head to the Pacific, word comes through that the war is over.
Now, he still gets shipped out to the Pacific. He’s in the Philippines. But now, instead of fighting against the Japanese, he’s lounging around in a hut on stilts reading magazines and that’s where he reads “As We May Think,” by Vannevar Bush.
Fast-forward years later; he’s trying to decide what to do with his life other than settle down, get married, have a job, you know, that kind of thing. He thinks, “No, no, I want to make the world a better place.” He realizes that computers could be the way to do this if they could implement something very much like the Memex. Instead of a mechanical device, what if computers could create the Memex, this hypertext system? He devotes his life to this and effectively invents the field of Human Computer Interaction.
On December 9th, 1968, he demonstrates what he’s been working at. This is in San Francisco, and he demonstrates bitmap screens. He demonstrates real-time collaboration on documents, working hypertext …and also he invents the mouse for the demo.
We have a pointing device called a mouse, a standard keyboard, and a special key set we have here. And we are going to go for a picture down on our laboratory in Menlo Park and pipe it up. It’ll show you, from another point of view, more about how that mouse works.
Come in, Menlo Park. Okay, there’s Don Anders’ hand in Menlo Park. In a second, we’ll see the screen that he’s working and the way the tracking spot moves in conjunction with movements of that mouse. I don’t know why we call it a mouse sometimes. I apologize; it started that way and we never did change it.
This was ground-breaking. The mother of all demos, it came to be known as. This was a big influence on Tim Berners-Lee.
At this point, we’ve entered the time cone of those 30 years before the proposal that Tim Berners-Lee made, which is good because this is the moment where I like to branch off from this timeline and sort of turn it around.
The question I’m sure nobody is asking—because you saw there was a video link-up there; Douglas Engelbart is in San Francisco, and he has a video link-up with Menlo Park to demonstrate real-time collaboration with computers—the question nobody is asking is, who is operating the video camera in Menlo Park?
Well, I’ll tell you the answer to that question that nobody is asking. The man operating the video camera in Menlo Park is this man. His name is Stuart Brand. Now, Stuart Brand has spent most of the ‘60s doing what you would do in the ‘60s; he was dropping acid. This was all kosher. This was before it was illegal.
He was on the Merry Pranksters bus with Ken Kesey and, on one particular acid trip, he literally saw the Earth curving away and realizing that, yeah, we’re all on one planet, man! And he started a campaign with badges called, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” I like the “yet” part in there like it’s a conspiracy that we haven’t seen a photograph of the whole Earth.
He was kind of onto something here, realizing that seeing our planet as a whole planet from space could be a consciousness-changing thing much like LSD is a consciousness-changing thing. Sure enough, people did talk about the effect it had when we got photographs like Earthrise from Apollo 8, and he used those pictures when he published the Whole Earth Catalog, which was a series of books.
The Whole Earth Catalog was basically like Wikipedia before the internet. It was this big manual of how to do everything. The idea was, if you were running a commune, living in a commune, you needed to know about technology, and agriculture, and weather, and all the stuff, and you could find that in the Whole Earth Catalog.
He was quite an influential guy, Stuart Brand. You probably heard the Steve Jobs commencement speech where he quotes Stuart Brand, “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” all that stuff.
Stuart Brand also did a lot of writing. After Douglas Engelbart’s demo, he started to see that this computer thing was something else. He literally said computers are the new LSD, so he starts really investigating computing and computers.
He writes this great article in “Rolling Stone” magazine in 1972 about space war, one of the first games you could play on the screen. But he has a wide range of interests. He kind of kicked off the environmental movement in some ways.
At one point, he writes a book about architecture. He writes a book called “How Buildings Learn.” There’s a television series that goes with it as well. This is a classic book (the definition of a classic book being a book that everyone has heard of and nobody has read).
In this book, he starts looking at the work of a British architect called Frank Duffy. Frank Duffy has this idea about architecture he calls shearing layers. The way that Frank Duffy puts it is that a building, properly conceived, consists of several layers of longevity, so kind of different rates of change.
He diagrams this out in terms of a building, and you see that you’ve got the site that the building is on that’s moving at a geological timescale, right? That should be around for thousands of years, we would hope.
Then you’ve got the actual structure that could stand for centuries.
Then you get into the infrastructure inside. You know, the plumbing and all that, you probably want to swap out every few decades.
Basically, until you get down to the stuff inside a room, the furniture that you can move around on a daily basis. You’ve got all these timescales moving from fast to slow as you move inwards into the house.
What I find fascinating about this idea of these different layers as well is the way that each layer depends on the layer below. Like, you can’t have the structure of a building without first having a site to put it on. You can’t move furniture around inside a room until you’ve made the room using the walls and the doors, right? This idea of shearing layers is kind of fascinating, and we’re going to get back to it.
Something else that Stuart Brand went on to do; he was one of the co-founders of the Long Now Foundation. Anybody here part of the Long Now Foundation? Any members of the Long Now Foundation?
Ah… It’s a great organization. It’s literally dedicated to long-term thinking. It was founded by Stuart Brand and Danny Hillis, the computer scientist, and Brian Eno, the musician and producer. Like I said, dedicated to long-term thinking. This is my membership card made out of a durable metal because it’s got to last for thousands of years.
If you go on the website of the Long Now Foundation, you’ll notice that the years are made up of five digits, so instead of 2019, it will be 02019. Well, you know, you’ve got to solve the Y10K problem. They’re dedicated to long-term thinking, to trying to think in the longer now.
One of the most famous projects is the clock of the Long Now. This is a clock that will tell time for 10,000 years. Brian Eno has done the chimes. They’re generative. It’ll never chime the same way twice. It chimes once a century. This is a scale model that’s in the Science Museum in London along with half of Charles Babbage’s brain and the original NeXT machine that Tim Berners-Lee created World Wide Web on.
This is just a scale model. The full-sized clock is going to be inside a mountain in west Texas. You’ll be able to visit it. It’ll be like a pilgrimage. Construction is underway. I hope to visit the clock one day.
Stuart Brand collected his thoughts. It’s a really fascinating project when you think about, how do you design something to last 10,000 years? How do you communicate over 10,000 years? One of those tricky design problems almost like the Voyager Golden Record or the Yucca Mountain waste disposal. How do you communicate to future generations? You can’t rely on language. You can’t rely on semiotics.
Anyway, he collected a lot of his thoughts into this book called “The Clock of the Long Now,” subtitled “Time and Responsibility: The Ideas Behind the World’s Slowest Computer.” He’s thinking about time. That’s when he comes back to shearing layers and these different layers of rates of change; different layers of time.
Stuart Brand abstracts the idea of shearing layers into something called “pace layers.” What if it’s not just architecture? What if any kind of system has these different rates of change, these layers?
He diagrams this out in terms of the human species, so think of humans. We have these different layers that we operate at.
At the lowest, slowest level, there is our nature, literally, like what makes us human in terms of our DNA. That doesn’t change for tens of thousands of years. Physiologically, there’s no difference between a caveman and an astronaut, right?
Then you’ve got culture, which cumulates of centuries, and the tribal identities we have around things like nations, language, and things like that.
Governance, models of governance, so not governments but governance, as in the way we choose to run things, whether that’s a feudal society, or a monarchy, or representative democracy, right? Those things do change, but not too fast, hopefully.
Infrastructure: you’ve got to keep up with the times, you know? This needs to move at a faster pace, again.
Commerce: much more fast-moving. Commerce needs to — you’re getting into the faster timescales there.
Then he puts fashion at the top. By fashion, he means anything that is supposed to be new and exciting, so that includes pop music, for example. The whole idea with fashion is that it’s there to try stuff out and discard it very quickly.
“What about this?” “No.” “What about that?” “Try this.” “No, try that.”
The good stuff, the stuff that kind of sticks to the wall, will maybe find its way down to the longer-lasting layers. Maybe a really good pop song from fashion ends up becoming part of culture, over time.
Here’s the way that Stuart Brand describes pace layers. He says:
Fast learns; slow remembers. Fast proposals, and slow disposes. Fast is discontinuous; slow is continuous. Fast and small instructs slow and big by a crude innovation and by occasional revolution, but slow and big controls small and fast by constraint and constancy.
Fast gets all of our attention but slow has all the power.
Pace layers is one of those ideas that, once you see it, you can’t unsee it. You know when you want to make someone’s life a misery, you just teach them about typography. Now they can’t unsee all the terrible kerning in the world. I can’t unsee pace layers. I see them wherever I look.
Does anyone remember this book, UX designers in the room, “The Elements of User Experience,” by Jesse James Garrett? It’s old now. We’re going back in the way but, in it, he’s got this diagram about the different layers to a user experience. You’ve got the strategy below that finally ends up with an interface at the top.
I look at this, and I go, “Oh, right. It’s pace layers. It’s literally pace layers.” Each layer depending on the layer below, the slower layers at the bottom, the faster-moving things at the top.
With this mindset that pace layers are everywhere, I thought, “Can I map out the web in terms of pace layers, the technology stack of the web?” I’m going to give it a go.
At the lowest stack, the slowest moving, I would say there’s the internet itself, as in TCP/IP, the transmission control protocol, Internet protocol created by Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf in the ‘70s and pretty much unchanged since then, deliberately dumb, deliberately simple. All it does is move packets around. Pretty much unchanged.
On top of that, you get the other protocols that use TCP/IP, like in the case of the web, the hypertext transfer protocol. Now, this has changed over time. We now have HTTP/2. But it hasn’t been rapid change. It’s been gradual. Again, that kind of feels right. It feels good that HTTP isn’t constantly changing underneath us too much.
Then we serve up over HTTP are URLs. I wish that URLs were down here. I wish that URLs were everlasting, never changing. But, unfortunately, I must acknowledge that that’s not true. Links die. We have to really work hard to keep them alive. I think we should work hard to keep them alive.
What do you put at those URLs? At the simplest level, it’s supposed to be plain text. But this is the web, so let’s say structured text. This is going to be HTML, the hypertext markup language, which Tim Berners-Lee came up with when he created the World Wide Web. I say, “Came up with.” He basically stole it from SGML that scientists at CERN were already using and sprinkled in one or two new tags, as they were calling it back then.
There were maybe like 20-something tags in HTML when Tim Berners-Lee created the web. Now we’ve got over 100 elements, as we call them. But I feel like I’ve been able to keep up with the pace of change. I mean, the vast big kind of growth spurt with HTML was probably HTML5. That’s been a while back now. It’s definitely change that I can keep on top of.
Then we have CSS, the presentation layer. That feels like it’s been moving at a nice clip lately. I feel like we’ve been getting a lot of cool stuff in CSS, like Flexbox and Grid, and all this new stuff that browsers are shipping. Still, I feel like, yeah, yeah, this is good. It’s right that we get lots of CSS pretty rapidly. It’s not completely overwhelming.
I find this very overwhelming. Can I get a show of hands of anybody else who feels overwhelmed by this rate of change? All right. Keep your hands up. Keep your hands up and just look around. I want you to see you are not alone. You are not alone.
The other thing I realized when I diagrammed this out was that, “Huh, this kind of maps to how I approach building on the web.” I pretty much take this for granted that it’s going to be on the Internet. There’s not much I can do about that. Then I start thinking about URLs like URL-first design, the information architecture of a site. I think it’s underrated. I think people should create a URL-first design. URL design, in general, I think it’s a really good place to start if you’re building a product or a service.
Then, about your content in terms of structure. What is the most important thing on this page? That should be an H1. Is this a paragraph? Is it a list? Thinking about the structure first and then going on to think about the appearance which is definitely the way you want to go if you’re making something responsive. Think about the structure first and then the appearance and all these different form factors.
This maps really nicely to how I personally approach building things on the web. But, it is a testament to the flexibility of the World Wide Web that, if you don’t want to build in this way, you don’t have to.
Now I’ll point out that, in another medium, this would make complete sense. Like if you’re building a native app. If you build an iOS app and I’ve got an iOS device, I get 100% of what you’ve designed and built. But if you’re building an iOS app and I have an Android device, I get zero percent of what you’ve designed and built because you can’t install an iOS app on an Android device. Either it works great or it doesn’t work at all; 100% or zero percent.
The web doesn’t have to be like that. If you build in that layered way on the web, then maybe I don’t get 100% of what you’ve designed and built but I don’t get zero percent, either. I’ll get something somewhere along the way, hopefully, closer to working great. It goes from not working at all to just about working. It works fine and works well; it works great.
You’re building up these layers of experience, the idea being that nobody gets left behind. Everybody gets something regardless of their device, their network, their browser. Everyone is not going to get the same experience, but everybody gets something. That feels very true to the original sort of founding ideas of the web and it maps so nicely to our technical stack on the web, the fact that you can start to think about things like URLs-first and think about the structure, then the presentation, and then the behavior.
I’m not the only one who likes thinking in this layered kind of way when it comes to the web. I’m going to quote my friend Ethan Marcotte. He says:
That’s a really good point that when you build in the layered way, you’re building in the resilience that something can fall back to a layer a little further down.
This brings up something I’ve mentioned here before at Beyond Tellerrand, which is that, when we’re evaluating technologies, the question we tend to ask is, how well does it work? That’s an absolutely valid question. You’re about to try a new tool, a new framework, a new standard. You ask yourself; how well does it work?
I think the more important question to ask is:
How well does it fail?
Now, this brings up an idea, a principle that definitely influenced Tim Berners-Lee. It was at the heart of his design principles for the World Wide Web. It’s called the Principle of Least Power that states, “Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose,” which sounds really counterintuitive. Why would I choose the least powerful language to do something?
It’s kind of down to the fact that there’s a trade-off. With power, you get a fragility, right? Maybe something that is really powerful isn’t as universal as something simpler. It makes sense to figure out the simplest technology you can use to achieve a task.
I’ll give an example from my friend Derek Featherstone. He says:
Again, he’s talking about the resilience you get by building in a layered way and choosing the least powerful technology.
It’s like a classic example being ARIA. The first rule of ARIA is, don’t use ARIA if you don’t have to. Rather than using a div and then adding the event handlers and the ARIA roles to make it look like a button, just use a button. Use the simpler technology lower in the stack.
Now, I get pushback on this because people will tell me, “Well, that’s fine if you’re building something simple, but I’m not building something simple. I’m building something complex.” Everyone likes to think they’re building something complex, right? Everyone is convinced they’re working on really hard things, which makes sense. That’s human nature.
If you’re at a cocktail party and someone says, “What do you do?” and you describe your work and they say, “Oh, okay. That sounds really easy,” you’d be offended, right?
If you’re at a party and someone says, “What do you do?” you describe your work and they go, “Wow, God, that sounds hard,” you’d be like, “Yeah! Yeah, it is hard. What I do is hard.”
I think we gravitate to this, especially when someone markets it as, “This is a serious tool for serious, complex sites.” I’m like, “That’s me. I’m working on a serious, complex site.”
I don’t think the reality is quite like that. Reality is just messier. There’s nothing quite that simple. Very few things are really that complex.
Everything kind of exists on this continuum somewhere along the way. Even the simplest website has some form of interaction, something appy about it.
Those are those other two terms people use when talking about simple and complex is website and web app, as if you can divide the entirety of the whole World Wide Web into two categories: websites and web apps.
Again, that just doesn’t make sense to me. I think the truth is, things are messier and schmooshier between this continuum of websites and web apps. I don’t get why we even need the separate word. It’s all web stuff.
Though, there is this newer term, “Progressive Web App,” that I kind of like.
Who has heard of Progressive Web Apps? All right.
Who thinks they have a good handle on what a Progressive Web App is?
Okay. See, that’s a lot fewer hands, which is totally understandable because, if you start googling, “What is a Progressive Web App?” you get these Zen-like articles. “It’s a state of mind.” “It’s about rich, native-like interactions, man.”
No. No, it’s not. Worse still, you read, “Oh, a Progressive Web App is a Single PageApp.” I was like, no, you’ve lost me there. No, it’s not. Or least it can be, but any website can be a Progressive Web App. You can elevate a website to be a Progressive Web App.
I don’t mean in some sort of Zen-like fashion. I mean using technologies, three particular technologies.
You make sure that website is running HTTPS,
you have a web app manifest that’s a JSON file with metadata, and
you have a service worker that gets installed on the user’s device.
That’s it. These three technologies turn a website into a Progressive Web App — no mystery about it.
I’m not going to go into how it works because I’ve written plenty about that in this book “Going Offline,” so if you want to know the code, you can go read the book.
I will say that when I first came across service workers, it totally did my head in because this is my mental model of the web. We’ve got the stack of technologies that we’re building on top of, each layer depending on the layer below. Then service workers come along and say, “Well, actually, you could have a website like this,” where the lowest layer, the network, the Internet goes away and the website still works. Mind is blown!
It took me a while to get my head around that. The service worker file is on the user’s device and, if they’ve got no Internet connect, it can still make decisions and serve up something like a custom offline page.
Here’s a website I run called huffduffer.com. It’s for making your own podcast out of found sounds. If you’re offline or the website is down, which happens, and you visit Huffduffer, you get this offline page saying, “Sorry, you’re offline.” Not very useful, but it’s branded like the site, okay? It’s almost like the way you have a custom 404 page. Now you can have a custom offline page that matches your site. It’s a small thing, but it can be handy.
We ran this conference in Brighton for two years, Ampersand. It’s a web typography conference. That also has a very simple offline page that just says, “Sorry. You’re offline,” but then it has the bare minimum information you need about the conference like where is this conference happening; what time does it start?
You can imagine a restaurant website having this, an offline page that tells you, “Here is the address. Here are the opening hours.” I would like it if restaurant websites had that information when you’re online as well, but…
You can also have fun with this, like Trivago. Their site relies on search, so there’s not much you can do when you’re offline, so they give you a game to play, the offline maze to keep you entertained.
That’s kind of at the simplest level of what you could do, a custom offline page.
Then at the other level, I’ve written this book called “Resilient web Design.” A lot of the ideas I’m talking about here are in this book. The book is a website. You go to the website and you read the book. That’s it. It’s free. You just go to resilientwebdesign.com. I mean free. I don’t ask for your email address and I’m not tracking any information at all.
This is how it looks when you’re online, and then this is how it looks when you’re offline. It is exactly the same. In fact, the moment you visit the website, it basically downloads the whole book.
Now, that’s the extreme example. Most websites, you wouldn’t want to do that because you kind of want the HTML to be fresh. This is never going to get updated. I’m done with this so I’m totally fine with, you go straight to the cache; never even go to the network. It’s absolutely offline first. You’re probably going to want something in between those two extremes.
On my own website, adactio.com, if you’re browsing around the website and you’re reading things, that’s all fine. Then what if you lose your internet connection? You get the custom offline page that says, “Sorry, you’re offline,” but then it also shows you the things you’ve previously visited.
You can revisit any of these pages. These have all been cached, so you can cache things as people are browsing around the site. That’s a nice little pattern that a lot of websites could benefit from. It only suffers from the fact that all I can show you is stuff you’ve already seen. You have to have already visited these pages for them to show up in this list.
Another pattern that I think is maybe better from a user experience point is when you put the control in the hands of the user.
We ran a conference called dConstruct for 10 years from 2005 to 2015. Breaking news; we’re bringing it back for a one-off event next year, September 2020.
Anyway, all the talks from ten years are online here as audio files. You can browse around and listen to these talks.
You’ll also see that there’s this option to save for offline, exposed on the interface. What that does it is doesn’t just save the page offline; it also saves the audio offline. Then, when you’re an airplane or at the bottom of the ocean or whatever, you can then listen to the things you explicitly asked to be saved offline. It’s effectively a podcast player in the browser.
You see there’s a lot of things you can do. There are kind of a lot of layers you can build upon once you have a service worker.
Then think about, well, maybe I should have a custom offline page, even if it’s just for the branding reasons of having that nice page, just like we have a custom 404 page.
Then you start thinking, well, I want the adding to home screen experience to be good, so you’ve got the web app manifest.
You implement one of those patterns there allowing the users to save things offline, maybe.
Also, push notifications are now possible thanks to service workers. It used to be, if you wanted to make someone’s life a misery, you had to build a native app to give them push notifications all day long. Now you can make someone’s life a misery on the web too.
There’s even more advanced APIs like background sync where the website can talk to the web server even when that website isn’t open in the browser and sync up information — super powerful stuff.
Now, the support for something like service worker and the cache API is almost universal at this point. The support for stuff like background sync notifications is spottier, not universal, and that’s okay because, as long as you’re adding these things in layers. Then it’s fine if something doesn’t have universal support, right? It’s making something work great but, if someone doesn’t get that, it still works good. It’s all about building in that layered way.
In the case of service workers, you literally cannot make a website that relies on a service worker. You have to make a website that works first without a service worker and then add the service worker on top, because, think about it; the first time anybody visits the website, even if their browser supports service workers, the service worker is not installed. So you have to build in layers.
I think this is why it appeals to me so much. The design of service workers is a layered design. You have to have something that works first, and then you elevate it. You improve the user experience using these technologies but you don’t rely on it. It’s not a single point of failure. It’s an enhancement.
That means you can take any website. Somebody’s homepage; a book that’s online; this archived stuff ; something that is more appy, sure, and make it work pretty much like a native app. It can appear full screen, add to the home screen, be indistinguishable from native apps so that the latest and greatest browsers and devices get the best experience. They’re making full use of the newest technologies.
But, as well as these things working in the latest and greatest browsers, they still work in the first web browser ever created. You can still look at these things in that very first web browser that Tim Berners-Lee created at worldwideweb.cern.ch.
It’s like it is an unbroken line over 30 years on the web. We’re not talking about the Long Now when we’re talking about 30 years but, in terms of technology, that does feel special.
You can also look at the world’s first webpage in the first-ever web browser but, almost more amazingly, you can look at the world’s first web page at its original URL in a modern web browser and it still works.
We managed to make the web so much better with new APIs, new technologies, without breaking it, without breaking that backward compatibility. There’s something special about that. There’s something special about the web if you build in layers.
I’m encouraging you to think in terms of layers and use the layers of the web.
I’ve made a few trips to Germany recently. I was in Berlin last week for the always-excellent Beyond Tellerrand. Marc did a terrific job of curating an entertaining and thought-provoking line-up of speakers. He also made sure that those speakers—myself included—were very well taken care of.
I was also in Frankfurt last month. It was for an event, but for once, it wasn’t an event that involved me in any way. Jessica was there for the Frankfurt Book Fair. I was tagging along for the ride.
While Jessica was out at the sprawling exhibition hall on the edge of town, I was exploring downtown Frankfurt. One lunch time, I found myself wandering around the town’s charming indoor market hall.
While I was perusing the sausages on display, I noticed an older gentleman also inspecting the meat wares. He looked familiar. That’s when the part of my brain responsible for facial recognition said “That’s Dieter Rams.” A more rational part of my brain said “It can’t be!”, but it seemed that my pattern matching was indeed correct.
As he began to walk away, the more impulsive part of my brain shouted “Say something!”, and before my calmer nature could intervene, I was opening my mouth to speak.
I think I would’ve been tongue-tied enough introducing myself to someone of Dieter Rams’s legendary stature, but it was compounded by having to do it in a second language.
“Entschulding Sie!”, I said (“Excuse me”). “Sind Sie Dieter Rams?” (“Are you Dieter Rams?”)
“Ja, bin ich”, he said (“Yes, I am”).
At this point, my brain realised that it had nothing further planned and it left me to my own devices. I stumbled through a sentence saying something about what a pleasure it was to see him. I might have even said something stupid along the lines of “I’m a web designer!”
Anyway, he smiled politely as I made an idiot of myself, and then I said goodbye, reiterating that it was a real treat for me to meet him.
After I walked outside, I began questioning reality. Did that really just happen? It felt utterly surreal.
Of course afterwards I thought of all the things I could’ve said. L’esprit de l’escalier. Or as the Germans put it, Treppenwitz.
I could’ve told him about the time that Clearleft went on a field trip to the Design Museum in London to see an exhibition of his work, and how annoyed I was by the signs saying “Do Not Touch” …in front of household objects that were literally designed to be touched!
But I didn’t say any of those things. I just spouted some inanity, like the starstruck fanboy I am.
There’ll be a lunchtime showing of the Rams documentary at An Event Apart in San Francisco, where I’ll be speaking in a few weeks. Now I wonder if rewatching it is just going to make me cringe as I’m reminded of my encounter in Frankfurt.
Thanks to the quick work of Marc and his team, the talk I gave at Beyond Tellerrand on Thursday was online within hours!
I’m really pleased with how this turned out. I wasn’t sure if anybody was going to be interested in the deep dive into history that I took for the first 15 or 20 minutes, but lots of people told me that they really enjoyed that part, so that makes me happy.
Mike gave a talk called The Power of Metaphor and it’s absolutely brilliant. It covers the monomyth (the hero’s journey) and Jungian archetypes, illustrated with the examples Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and Jurassic Park.
Ellen and I have been enjoying some great philosophical discussions about exactly what a story is, and how does it differ from a narrative structure, or a plot. I really love Ellen’s working definition: Narrative. In Space. Over Time.
This led me to think that there’s a lot that we can borrow from the world of storytelling—films, novels, fairy tales—not necessarily about the stories themselves, but the kind of narrative structures we could use to tell those stories. After all, the story itself is often the same one that’s been told time and time again—The Hero’s Journey, or some variation thereof.
I realised that Mike’s monomyth talk aligns nicely with my workshop. So I decided to prep my fellow Clearlefties for the workshop with a movie night.
Popcorn was popped, pizza was ordered, and comfy chairs were suitably arranged. Then we watched Mike’s talk. Everyone loved it. Then it was decision time. Which of three films covered in the talk would we watch? We put it to a vote.
It came out as an equal tie between Jurassic Park and The Dark Knight. How would we resolve this? A coin toss!
The toss went to The Dark Knight. In retrospect, a coin toss was a supremely fitting way to decide to watch that film.
It was fun to watch it again, particularly through the lens of Mike’s analyis of its Jungian archetypes.
After a fun and productive Indie Web Camp, I stuck around Düsseldorf for Beyond Tellerand. I love this event. I’ve spoken at it quite a few times, but this year it was nice to be there as an attendee. It’s simultaneously a chance to reconnect with old friends I haven’t seen in a while, and an opportunity to meet lovely new people. There was plenty of both this year.
I think this might have been the best Beyond Tellerrand yet, and that’s saying something. It’s not just that the talks were really good—there was also a wonderful atmosphere.
Marc somehow manages to curate a line-up that’s equal parts creativity and code; design and development. It shouldn’t work, but it does. I love the fact that he had a legend of the industry like David Carson on the same stage as first-time speaker like Dorobot …and the crowd loved ‘em equally!
During the event, I found out that I had a small part to play in the creation of the line-up…
A terrific analysis of industrial design in film and games …featuring a scene-setting opening that delineates the difference between pleasure and happiness.
It’s a talk about chairs in Jodie Foster films. Seriously. It’s fantastic!
Marc saw my link, watched the video, and decided he wanted to get Mike Hill to speak at Beyond Tellerrand. After failing to get a response by email, Marc managed to corner Mike at an event in Amsterdam and get him on this year’s line-up.
Mike gave a talk called The Power of Metaphor and it’s absolutely brilliant. It covers the monomyth (the hero’s journey) and Jungian archetypes, illustrated with the examples Star Wars, The Dark Knight, and Jurassic Park:
Under the surface of their most celebrated films lies a hidden architecture that operates on an unconscious level; This talk is designed to illuminate the techniques that great storytellers use to engage a global audience on a deep and meaningful level through psychological metaphor.
In this talk, we’ll discuss how the language we use affects our users and the first steps towards writing accessible, approachable and use case-driven documentation.
While the talk was ostensibly about documentation, I found that it was packed full of good advice for writing well in general.
I had a thought. What if you mashed up these two talks? What if you wrote documentation through the lens of the hero’s journey?
Think about it. When somone arrives at your documentation, they’ve crossed the threshold to the underworld. They are in the cave, facing a dragon. You are their guide, their mentor, their Obi-Wan Kenobi. You can help them conquer their demons and return to the familiar world, changed by their journey.
Yes, the message of this rather sombre closing talk of this year’s Beyond Tellerrand Conference Düsseldorf is important. Watch it. And then go out, take care of yourself and others, away from the screen. And then come back and publish your own stuff on your own site. Still not convinced? ok, then, please read Matthias Ott’s great article (published on his own site btw), and then start using your own site.
I just wrapped up my last speaking gig of the year. It came at the end of a streak of attending European conferences without speaking at any of them—quite a nice feeling!
I already mentioned that I was in Berlin for the (excellent) Indie Web Camp. That was immediately followed by a one-day Accessibility Club conference. It was really, really good.
I have to say, I was initially apprehensive when I saw the sheer amount of speakers on the schedule. I was worried that my attention couldn’t handle it all. But the talks were a mixture of shorter 20 minute presentations, and a few longer 40 minute presentations. That worked really well—the day fairly zipped by. And just in case you think it would hard to have an entire day devoted to accessibility, the breadth of talks was remarkably diverse. Hats off to a well-organised and well-executed event!
Alas, I had to miss the final afternoon of Beyond Tellerrand to head home to Brighton. I needed to get back for FF Conf. It was excellent, as always. Remy and Julie really give it their all. Remy even stepped in to give a (great) talk himself this year, when a speaker couldn’t make it.
A week later, I went to Iceland for Material. I really enjoyed last year’s inaugural event, and if anything, this year’s topped it. I just love how eclectic and different the talks are, and yet it all weirdly hangs together in a thoughtfully curated way. (Oh, and Remy, when you start to put together the line-up for next year’s FF Conf, be sure to check out Charlotte Dann—her talk at Material was the perfect mix of code and creativity.)
As well as sharing an organiser with Accessibility Club, Material had a similar format—keynote talks from invited presenters, interspersed with shorter talks by locals. The mix was great. I won’t even try to describe the range of topics. I’m not sure I could explain how a conference podium morphed into a bar at the end of one of the talks. I think the best description of Material would be to say it’s like the inside of Brian’s head. In a good way.
I was supposed to be back in Brighton for one night after Material, but the stormy weather kept myself and Jessica in Reykjavik for an extra night. Thanks to Brian’s hospitality, we had a bed for the night.
There followed a long travel day as we made our way from Reykjavik to Gatwick, and then straight on to Thessaloniki, where we spent five days even though we only had the clothes we packed for the brief trip to Iceland. (Yes, we went shopping.)
I was there to speak at Voxxed Days. These events happen in various locations around the world, and just a few weeks ago, I spoke at the one in Bristol. It was …different.
After experiencing so many lovingly crafted events—Accessibility Club, Beyond Tellerrand, FF Conf, and Material—I’m afraid that Voxxed Days Thessaloniki was quite a comedown. It’s not that it was corporate per se—I believe it’s organised by developers for developers—but it felt like it was for people who worked in corporate environments. There were multiple tracks (I’m really not a fan of that), and some great speakers on the line-up like Stephanie and Simona, but the atmosphere felt kind of grim in a David Brentian sort of way. It probably wasn’t helped by the cheeky chappie of an MC who referred to one of the speakers as “darling.”
Anyway, I spoke first thing on the first day and I didn’t end up sticking around long. Normally I don’t speak and run, but I didn’t fancy the vibe of the exhibitor hall with its booth-babesque sales teams. Voxxed Days doesn’t pay its speakers so I didn’t feel any great obligation to hang around. The magnificent food and rembetika music of Thessaloniki was calling.
I just got back from Greece, and that wraps up my conference attending (and speaking) for 2018. I’ve already got a couple of events lined up for 2019. I’m delighted to be speaking at the return of Colly’s New Adventures conference. I’m less delighted about preparing a brand new talk I promised—I’m really feeling the pressure to deliver the goods at such an auspicious event with an intimidatingly superb line-up of speakers.
Perhaps I will see you in Nottingham or in Seattle. If you’re planning on going to New Adventures, use the discount code ADACTIO10 to get 10% of the price of the conference or workshop ticket. If you’re planning on going to An Event Apart, use the discount code AEAKEITH for $100 off.
The terrific talk from Beyond Tellerrand by Claire L. Evans, author of Broad Band.
As we face issues of privacy, identity, and society in a networked world, we have much to learn from these women, who anticipated the Internet’s greatest problems, faced them, and discovered solutions we can still use today.
A presentation from the Beyond Tellerrand conference held in Düsseldorf in May 2017. I also presented a version of this talk at An Event Apart, Smashing Conference, Render, Frontend United, and From The Front.
I’m going to show you some code. Who wants to see some code?
All right, I’ll show you some code. This is code. This is a picture of code.
The code base in this case is the deoxyribonucleic acid. This is literally a photograph of code. It’s the famous Photograph 51, which was taken by Rosalind Franklin, the X-ray crystallographer. And it was thanks to her work that we were able to decode the very structure of DNA.
Base-4, unlike the binary base that we work with, with computers, it’s base-4 A-C-G-T: Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, Thymine. From those four simple ingredients we get DNA, and from DNA we get every single life form on our planet: mammals, birds, fish, plants. Everything is made of DNA. This huge variety from such simple building blocks.
What’s interesting, though, is if you look at this massive variety of life on our planet, you start to see some trends over time as life evolves through the process of natural selection. You see a trend towards specialisation, a species becoming really, really good at something as the environment selects for fitness. A trend towards ubiquity as life attempts to spread as far as possible. And, interestingly, a trend towards cooperation, that a group could be more powerful than an individual.
Now we’re no different to any other life form, and this is how we have evolved over time from simpler beginnings. I mean, we like to think of ourselves as being a more highly evolved species than other species, but the truth is that every species of life on this planet is the most highly evolved species of life on this planet because they’re still here. Every species is fit for its environment. Otherwise they wouldn’t be here.
This is the process, this long, slow process of natural selection. It’s messy. It takes a long time. It relies on errors in the code to get selected for. This is the process that we human beings have gone through, same as every other species on the planet.
But then we figured out a way to hack the process. We figured out a way to get a jumpstart on evolution, and that’s through technology. Through technology we can bypass the process of natural selection and augment ourselves, extend our capabilities like this.
This is a very early example of technology. It existed for millions of years in this form, ubiquitous, across the planet. This is the Acheulean hand ax. We didn’t need to evolve a sharp cutting tool at the end of our limb because, through technology, we were able to create a sharp cutting tool at the end of our limb. Then through that we were able to extend our capabilities and shape our environment.
We shape our tools and, thereafter, the tools shape us.
And we have other tools. This is a modern tool, the pencil. I’m sure you’ll all familiar with it. You use it all the time. I think it’s a great piece of technology, great affordance on there. Built in progress bar, and it’s got an undo at the end.
What’s interesting is if you look at the evolution of technology and you compare it to the evolution of biology, you start to see some of the same trends; trends towards specialisation, ubiquity, and cooperation.
The pencil does one thing really, really well. The Acheulean hand ax does one thing really, really well.
All over the world you found Acheulean hand axes, and all over the world you will find the pencil in pretty much the same form.
And, most importantly of all, cooperation. No human being can make a pencil. Not by themselves. It requires cooperation.
There’s a famous book by Leonard Read called I, Pencil, and it’s told from the point of view of a pencil and describing how it requires cooperation. It requires human beings to come together to fell the trees to get the wood, to get the graphite, to put it all together. No single human being can do that by themselves. We have to cooperate to create technology.
You can try to create technology by yourself, but you’re probably going to have a hard time. Like Thomas Thwaites, he’s an artist in the U.K. You might have seen his most recent project. He tried to live as a goat for a year.
This is from a while back where he attempted to make a toaster from scratch. When I say from scratch, I mean from scratch. He wanted to mine his own metals. He wanted to smelt the steel. He wanted to create the plastic, wire it all up, and do it all by himself. It was a very interesting process. It didn’t really work out. I mean it worked for like a second or two when he plugged it in and then completely burned out, and it was prohibitively expensive.
When it comes to technology, cooperation is built in, along with those other trends: specialisation, ubiquity.
It’s easy to think when we compare these trends in biology and technology and we see the overlap, to fall into the trap of thinking they’re basically the same process, but they’re not. Underneath the hood the process is very different.
In biology it’s natural selection, this long, messy, slow process. But kind of like DNA, it’s very simple building blocks that results in amazing complexity. With technology it’s kind of the other way around. Nature doesn’t imagine the end result of a species and then work towards that end result. Nature doesn’t imagine an elephant or an ostrich. It’s just, that’s the end result of evolution. Whereas with technology, we can imagine things, design things, and then build them. Picture something in our mind that we want to exist in the world and then work together to build that.
Now one of my favourite examples of imagining technology and then creating it is a design school called Chindogu created by Kenji Kawakami. He started the International Chindogu Society in 1995. There’s goals, principles behind Chindogu, and the main one is that these things, these pieces of technology must be not exactly useful, but somehow not all together useless.
I’ll show you what I mean and you get the idea. You look at these things and you think, uh, that’s crazy. But actually, is it crazy or is it brilliant? Like this, I think, well, that’s ridiculous. Well— actually, not entirely useless, not exactly useful, but, you know, keeping your shoes dry in the rain. That seems sort of useful.
They’re described as being un-useless. These are un-useless objects. But why not? I mean why not harvest the kinetic energy of your child to clean the floors? If you don’t have a child, that’s fine. It works other ways.
These things, I mean they’re fun to imagine and to create, but you couldn’t imagine them actually in the world being used. You couldn’t imagine mass adoption. Like, I found this thing from the book of Chindogu from 1995, and it describes this device where you kind of put a camera on the end of a stick so you can take self portraits, but you couldn’t really imagine anyone actually using something like this out in the world, right?
These are all examples of what we see in the history of technology. From Acheulean hand axes to pencils to Chindogu, there are bits of hardware. When we think of technology, that’s what we tend to think of: bits of hardware. And the hardware is augmenting the human. The human is using the hardware to gain benefit.
Something interesting happened in the 20th Century when we started to get another layer in between the human and the hardware, and that’s software. Then the human can interact with the software, and the software can interact with the hardware. I would say the best example of this, looking back through the history of technology of the last 100 years or so, would be the Apollo Program, the perfect mixture of human, software, and hardware.
By the way, seeing as we were just talking about selfies and selfie sticks, I just want to point out that this picture is one of the very few examples of an everyone-elsie. This picture was taken by Michael Collins in the Command Module, and Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin are in that spaceship, and every human being alive on planet earth is also in this picture with one exception, Michael Collins, the person taking the picture. It’s an everyone-elsie.
I think the Apollo program is the pinnacle of human achievement so far, I would say, and this perfect example of this mixture of, like, amazing humans required to do this, amazing hardware to get them there, and amazing software. It’s hard to imagine how it would have been possible to send people to the moon without the work of Margaret Hamilton. Writing the onboard flight software and also creating entire schools of thought of software engineering.
Since then, and looking through the trend of technology from then onwards, what you start to notice is that the hardware becomes less and less important, and the software is what really starts to count with Moore’s law and everything like that, that we can put more and more complexity into the software. Maybe the end goal of technology is eventually that the hardware becomes completely irrelevant, fades away. This idea of design dissolving in behaviour.
This idea of the hardware becoming irrelevant in a way was kind of what was at the heart of the World Wide web project created by Tim Berners-Lee when he was at CERN because there at CERN — CERN is an amazing place, but everybody just kind of does whatever they want. It’s crazy. There’s almost no hierarchy, which means everybody uses whatever kind of computer they want. You can’t dictate to people at CERN you all must use this operating system. That was at the heart of the World Wide web project, the idea to make the hardware irrelevant. It shouldn’t matter what kind of computer you’ve got. You should still be able to access information.
We kind of take that for granted today, but it is quite a revolutionary thought. We don’t worry about it today. You make a website, of course you can look at it on a Windows device or a Mac or a Linux machine or an iPhone, an iOS device, or an Android device. Of course. But it wasn’t clear at the time. You know back at the time you would make software for specific operating systems, so this idea of making hardware irrelevant was kind of revolutionary.
The World Wide web project is a classic example of a piece of technology that didn’t come out of nowhere. It built on what came before. Like every other piece of technology, it built on what was already there. You can’t have Twitter or Facebook without the World Wide Web, and you can’t have the World Wide web without the Internet. You can’t have the Internet without computers. You can’t have computers without electricity. You can’t have electricity without the Industrial Revolution. Building on the shoulders of giants all the way up.
There’s also this idea of the adjacent possible. It’s when these things become possible. You couldn’t have had the World Wide web right after the Industrial Revolution because these other steps hadn’t yet taken place. It’s something that the author Steven Johnson takes about: the adjacent possible. It was impossible to invent the microwave oven in 16th Century Holland because there were too many other things that needed to be invented in the way.
It’s easy to see this as an inevitable process that, of course electricity follows industrialisation. Of course computers come, and of course the Internet comes. And there is a certain amount of inevitability. This happens all the time in the history of technology where there’s simultaneous inventions and people are beating one another to the patent office by hours to patent, whether it’s radio or the telephone or any of these devices that it seemed inevitable.
I don’t think the specifics are inevitable. Something like the World Wide web was inevitable, but the World Wide web we got was not. Something like the Internet was inevitable, but not the Internet that we got.
The World Wide web project itself has these building blocks: HTTP, the protocol, URLs as identifiers, and HTML was a simple format. Again, these formats are built upon what came before. Because it turns out that making the technology—creating a format or a protocol or spec for identifying things—not to belittle the work, but that’s actually not the hard part. The hard part is convincing people to use the protocol, convincing people to use the format.
That’s where you butt up against humans. How do you convince humans? Which always reminds me of Grace Hopper, an amazing computer scientist, rear admiral Grace Hopper, co-inventor of COBOL and the inventor of the compiler, without which we wouldn’t have computing as we know it today. She bumped up against this all the time, that people were reluctant to try new things. She had this phrase. She said, “Humans are allergic to change.” Now, she used to try and fight that. In fact, she used to have a clock on her wall that went backwards to simply demonstrate that it’s an arbitrary convention. You could change the convention.
She said the most dangerous phrase in the English language is, “We’ve always done it that way.” So she was right to notice that humans are allergic to change. I think we could all agree on that.
But her tactic was, “I try to change that,” whereas with Tim Berners-Lee and the World Wide Web, he sort of embraced it. He sort of went with it. He said, “Okay. I’ve got these things I want to convince people to use, but humans are allergic to change,” and that’s why he built on top of what was already there.
He didn’t create these things from scratch. HTTP, the protocol, is built on top of TCP/IP, the work of Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf. The URLs work on top of the Domain Name System and the work of Jon Postel. And HTML, this very simple format, was built on top of a format, a flavour of SGML, that everybody at CERN was already using. So it wasn’t a hard sell to get people to use HTML because it was very familiar.
In fact, if you were to look at SGML back then in use at CERN, you would see these elements.
These are SGML elements used in CERN SGML. You could literally take a CERN SGML document, change the file extension to .htm, and it was an HTML document.
It’s true. Humans are allergic to change, so go with that. Don’t make it hard for them.
Now of course, we got these elements in HTML. This is where they came from. It’s just taking wholesale from SGML. Over time, we got a whole bunch more elements. We got more semantic richness added to HTML, so we can structure our documents more clearly.
Where it gets really interesting is that we also got more behavioural elements added to HTML, the elements that browsers recognise and do quite advanced things with like video and audio and canvas.
<canvas> <video> <audio> <picture> <datalist>
Now what’s interesting is that I find it fascinating that we can evolve a format like this. We can just keep adding things to the format. The reason why we could do that is because these elements were designed with backwards compatibility built in. If you have an open video tag, closing video tag, you can put content in between there for the browsers that don’t understand the video tag.
The same with canvas. You can put fallback content in there, so you don’t have to wait for every browser to support one of these elements. You can start using it straight away and still provide something for older browsers. That’s very deliberate.
The canvas element was actually a proprietary element created by Apple and other browsers saw it and said, “Oh, yeah, we like that. We’re going to take that,” and they started standardising on it. To begin with, it was a standalone element like img. You put a closing slash there or whatever. But when it got standardised, they deliberately added a closing tag so that people could put fallback content in there. What I’m saying is it wasn’t an accident. It was designed.
Now Chris yesterday mentioned the HTML design principles, and this is one of them—that when you’re creating new elements, new attributes, you should design them in such a way that “the content can degrade gracefully in older or less capable user agents even when making use of these new elements, attributes, APIs, content models.” It is a design decision. There are HTML design principles. They’re very good.
I like design principles. I like design principles a lot. I actually collect them. I’m a bit of a nerd for design principles, and I collect them at this URL:
There you will find design principles for software, for organisations, for people, for schools of thought. There’s Chindogu design principles I’ve collected there.
I guess why I’m fascinated by principles is where they sit. Jina talked about this yesterday in relation to a design system, in that you begin with the goals. This is like the vision, what you’re trying to achieve, and then the principles define how you’re going to achieve that. Then the patterns are the result of the principles. The principles are based on the goals, which result in the patterns.
In the case of the World Wide Web, the goal is to make hardware irrelevant. Access to information regardless of hardware. The principles are encoded in the HTML design principles, and then the patterns are those elements that we get, those elements that are designed with backwards compatibility in mind.
Now when we look at new things added to HMTL, new features, new browser APIs, what we tend to ask, of course, is: how well does it work?
How well does this thing do what it claims it’s going to do? That’s an excellent question to ask whenever you’re evaluating a new technology or tool. But I don’t think it’s the most important question. I think it’s just as important to ask: how well does it fail?
How well does it fail?
If you look at those HTML elements, which have been designed that way, they fail well. They fail well in older browsers. You can have that fallback content. I think this is a good lens to look at technology through because what we tend to do, when there’s a new browser API, we go to Can I Use, and we see, well, what’s the support like? We see some green, and we see some red. But the red doesn’t tell you how well it fails.
Here’s an example: CSS shapes. If you go to caniuse.com and you look at the support, there’s some green, and there’s some red. You might think there’s not enough green, so I’m not going to use it. But what you should really be asking is, how well does it fail?
In the case of CSS shapes, here’s an example of CSS shapes in action. I’ve got a border radius on this image, and on this text here I’ve said, shape-outside: circle on the image, so the text is wrapping around that circle. How well does it fail? Well, let’s look at it in a browser that doesn’t support CSS shapes, and we see the text goes in a straight line.
I’d say it fails pretty well because this is what would have happened anyway, and the text wrapping around the circle was kind of an enhancement on top of what would have happened anyway. Actually, it fails really well, so you might as well go ahead and use it. You might as well go ahead and use it even if it was only supported in one browser or two browsers because it fails well.
Let’s use that lens of asking how well does it work and how well does it fail to look at some of the technologies that you’ve probably been hearing about—some of the buzzwords in the world of front-end development. Let’s start with this. This is a big buzzword these days: service workers.
Who has heard of service workers? Okay. Quite a few.
Who is using service workers? Not so many. Interesting.
The rest of you, you’ve heard of it, and you’re currently probably in the state of evaluating the technology, trying to decide whether you should use this technology.
I’m not going to explain how service workers work. I guess I’ll just describe what it can do. It’s an amazing piece of technology that you kind of install on the user’s machine and then it sits there like a virus intercepting requests, which sounds scary, but actually is really powerful because you can really improve performance. You can serve things from a cache. You get access to the cache API. You can make things work offline, which is kind of amazing, because you’ve got access to those requests.
I was trying to describe it the other day and the best way I could think of describing it was a service worker is like doing a man-in-the-middle attack on your own website, but in a good way—in a good way. There’s endless possibilities of what you can do with this technology. It’s very powerful. And, at the very least, you can make a nice, custom, offline page instead of the dinosaur game or whatever people would normally get when they’re offline. You can have a custom offline page in the same way you could have a custom 404 page.
The Guardian have a service worker on their site, and they do a crossword puzzle. You’re on the train, you’re trying to read that article, but there’s no internet connection. Well, you can play the crossword puzzle. Little things like that, so it can be used for real delight. It’s a great technology.
Well, let’s see what the support is like on Can I Use. Not bad. Not bad at all. Some good green there, but there’s quite a bit of red. If this is the reason why you haven’t used service workers yet because you see the support and you think, “Not enough support. I’m not going to invest my time,” I think you haven’t asked the question, “how well does it fail?” This is where I think the absolute genius of service worker comes in.
Service workers fail superbly because here’s what happens with a service worker. The first time someone visits your site there, of course, is no service worker installed on the client. They must first visit your site, get the downloads, have that service worker installed, which means every browser doesn’t support service workers for the first visit.
Then, on subsequent visits, you can use the service worker for the browsers that support it as this enhancement. Provide the custom offline page. Cache those assets. Do offline first stuff. But you’re not going to harm any of those browsers that are in the red on Can I Use, and that’s deliberate in the design of service workers. It’s been designed that way. I think service workers fail really well.
Let’s look at another hot topic.
Who has heard of web components? Who is using web components—the real thing now? Okay. Wow. Brave. Brave person.
Web components actually aren’t a specific technology. web components is an umbrella term. I mean, in a way, service workers is kind of an umbrella term because it’s what you get access to through service workers that counts. You get access to the fetch API and the cache API and even notifications through a service worker.
With web components, it’s this term for a combination of specs, a combination of APIs like custom elements, the very sinister sounding shadow DOM, which is not as scary as it sounds, and there’s other things in there too like HTML imports and template. All of this stuff together is given the label web components. The idea is we’ve already got these very powerful elements in HTML, and it’s great when they get added to HTML, but it takes a long time. The standards process is slow. What if we could just make our own elements? That’s what you get to do with custom elements. You get to make shit up.
These common patterns. You keep having to reinvent the wheel. Let’s make an element for that. The only requirement with a custom element is that you have to have a hyphen in there. This is kind of a long-term agreement with the spec makers that they will never make an HTML element with a hyphen in it. Therefore, it’s kind of a safe space to use a hyphen in a made up element.
Okay, but if you just make up an element like this, it’s effectively the same as having a span in your document. It doesn’t do anything. It’s the other specs that make it come to life, like having HTML imports that link off to a file that describes what the browser is supposed to do with this new element that you’ve created.
Web components are intended as a solution to this, so it sounds pretty great. How well does it work? Well, let’s see what the browser support is like for some parts of web components. Let’s take custom elements. Yeah, some green, but there’s an awful lot of red. Never mind, as we’ve learned from looking at things like CSS shapes and service workers. But the red doesn’t tell us anything because the lack of support in a browser doesn’t answer the question, how well does it fail? How well do web components fail?
This is where it gets interesting because the answer to the question, “How well do web components fail?” is …it depends.
It depends on how you use the web components. It depends on if you applied the same kind of design principles that the creators of HTML applied when they’re making new elements.
Let’s say you make an image-gallery element, and you make it so that the content of the image gallery is inside the open and closing tag.
Now in a non-supporting browser this is actually acceptable because they won’t understand what this image-gallery thing is. They won’t throw an error because HTML is very tolerant of stuff it doesn’t understand. They’ll just display the images as images. That’s acceptable.
In fact, there’s demo sites to demonstrate the power of web components that do this. The Polymer Project, there’s a whole collection of web components, and they created an entire online shop to demonstrate how cool web components are, and this is the HTML of that shop.
The body element simply contains a shop-app custom element and then a script, and all the power is in the script. Here the web component fails really badly because you get absolutely nothing. That’s what I mean when I say it depends. It depends entirely on how we use them.
Now the good news is, as we saw from looking at Can I Use, it’s very early days with web components. We haven’t figured out yet what the best practices are, so we can set the course of the future here. We can decide that there should be design principles for how we collectively use this powerful technology like web components.
See, the exciting thing about web components is that they give us developers the same power that previously only browser makers had. But the scary thing about web components is that they give us developers the same power that previously only browser makers had. With great power, et cetera, et cetera, and we should rise to the challenge of that responsibility.
What’s interesting about both these things we’re looking at is that, like I said, they’re not really a single technology in themselves. They’re kind of these umbrella terms. With service worker it’s an umbrella term for fetch and cache and notifications, background sync — very cool stuff. With web components it’s an umbrella term for custom elements and HTML imports and shadow DOM and all this stuff.
But they’re both coming from the same place, the same sort of point of view, which is this idea that we, web developers, should be given that power and that responsibility to have access to these low-level APIs rather than just waiting for standards bodies to give us access through new APIs. This is all encapsulated in a school of thought called The Extensible Web, that we should have access to these low-level APIs.
The Extensible web is effectively — it’s literally a manifesto. There’s a manifesto for The Extensible Web. It’s just a phrase. It’s not a technology, just words, but words are very powerful when it comes to technology, when it comes to adopting technology. Words can get you very far. Ajax is just a word. It’s just a word for technologies that already existed at the time, but Jesse James Garrett put a word on it, and it made it easier to talk about it, and it helped the adoption of those technologies.
Responsive web Design: what Ethan did was he put a phrase to a collection of technologies: media queries, fluid layouts, fluid images. Wrapped it all up in a very powerful term, Responsive web Design, and the web was never the same.
Progressive Web Apps
Here’s a term you’ve probably heard of over the last couple of days: progressive web apps. Anybody who went to the Microsoft talk yesterday at lunchtime would have heard about progressive web apps. It’s just a term. It’s just an umbrella term for other technologies underneath. Progressive web app is the combination of having your site run over HTTPS, so it’s secure, which by the way is a requirement for running a service worker, and then also having a manifest file, which contains all this metadata. Chris mentioned it yesterday. You point to your icons and metadata about your site. All that adds up to, hey, you’ve got a progressive web app.
It’s a good sounding — I like this term. It’s a good sounding term. It was created by Frances Berriman and her husband, Alex Russell, to describe this. Again, a little bit of a manifesto in that these sites should be responsive and intuitive and they need to fulfil these criteria. But I worry sometimes about the phrasing. I mean, all the technologies are great. And you will actually get rewarded if you use these technologies. If you use HTTPS, you got a service worker, you got a manifest file. On Chrome for Android, if someone visits your site a couple of times, they’ll be prompted to add the site to the home screen just as though it were a native app. It will behave like a native app in the app switcher. You’re getting rewarded for these best practices.
But when I see the poster children for progressive web apps, my heart sinks when I see stuff like this. This is the Washington Post progressive web app, but this is what you get if you visit on the “wrong” device. In this case I’m visiting on a desktop browser, and I’m being told to come back with a mobile browser. Oh, how the tables have turned! It was not that long ago when we were being turned away on our mobile devices, and now we’re turning people away on desktops.
This was a solved problem. We did this with responsive web design. The idea of having a separate site for your progressive web app - no, no, no. We’re going back to the days of m.sites and the “real” website. No. No. I feel this is the wrong direction.
I worry that maybe this progressive web app terminology might be hurting it and the way that Google are pushing this app shell model. Anything can be a progressive web app, anything on the web.
I mean I’ve got things that I’ve turned into progressive web apps, and some of them might be, okay, maybe you consider this site, Huffduffer, as an app. I don’t know what a web app is, but people tell me it might be a web app. But I’ve also got like a community website, and it fulfils all the criteria. I guess it’s a progressive web app. My personal site, it’s a blog, but technically it’s a progressive web app. I put a book online. A book is an app now because it fulfils all the criteria. Even a single page collecting design principles is technically a progressive web app.
I worry about the phrasing, potentially limiting people when they come to evaluate the technology. “Oh, progressive web app, well, that’s not for me because I’m not building apps. I’m building some other kind of site.” I think that would be a real shame because literally every site on the web can benefit from those technologies, which brings me to the next question when we’re evaluating technology. Who benefits from the technology?
Broadly speaking, I would say there’s kind of two schools of who could benefit from a particular technology on the Web. Does the technology benefit the developer or does the technology benefit the user? Much like what Chris was showing yesterday with the Tetris blocks and kind of going on a scale from technologies that benefit users to technologies that benefit developers.
Now I would say that nine times out of ten there is no conflict. Nine times out of ten a piece of technology is beneficial to the developer and beneficial to the user. You could argue that any technology that benefits the developer is de facto a benefit to the user because the developer is working better, working faster, therefore they can get the website out, and that’s good for the user.
Let’s talk about technologies that directly impact users versus the technologies that directly impact developers. Now personally I’m going to generally fall down on the side of technologies that benefit users over technologies that benefit developers. I mean, you look at something like service workers. There isn’t actually a benefit to developers. If anything, there’s a tax because you’ve got to get your head around service workers. You’ve got a new thing to learn. You’ve got to get your head down, learn how it works, write the code. It’s actually not beneficial for developers, but the end result—offline pages, faster performance—hugely beneficial for users. I’ll fall down on that side.
Going back to when I told you I was a nerd for design principles. Well, I actually have a favourite design principle and it’s from the HTML design principles. It’s the one that Chris mentioned yesterday morning. It’s known as the priority of constituencies:
In case of conflict, consider users over authors over specifiers over theoretical purity.
That’s pretty much the way I evaluate technology too. I think of the users first. And the authors, that’s us, we have quite a strong voice in that list, but it is second to users.
Now when we’re considering the tools and we’re evaluating who benefits from this tool, “Is it developers, or is it users, or is it both?” I think we need to stop and make a distinction about the kinds of tools we work with. I’m trying to work out how to phrase this distinction, and I kind of think of it as inward facing tools and outward facing tools: inward facing tools developers use; outward facing tools that directly touch end users.
Now when it comes to evaluating these technologies, my attitude is, whatever works for you. Now we can have arguments and say, “Oh, I prefer this tool over that tool”, but it really doesn’t matter. What matters is: does it work for you? Does it make you work faster? Does it make your team work faster? That’s really the only criteria because none of these directly touch the end user.
The most important question—I’d say this is true of evaluating any technology—is, what are the assumptions?
What are the assumptions?
What are the assumptions that have been baked into the tool you’re about to use, because I guarantee you there are assumptions baked into those tools. I know that because those tools were created by humans. And we humans, we have biases. We have assumptions, and we can’t help but encode those biases and assumptions into what we make. It’s true of anything we make. It’s particularly true of software.
We talk about opinionated software. But in a way, all software is opinionated. You just have to realise where the opinions lie. This is why you can get into this situation where we’re talking about frameworks and libraries, and one person is saying, “Oh, this library rocks”, and the other person is saying, “No, this library sucks!” They’re both right and they’re both wrong because it entirely depends on how well the philosophy of that tool matches your own philosophy.
If you’re using a tool that’s meant to extend your capabilities and that tool matches your own philosophy, you will work with the tool, and you will work faster and better. But if the philosophy of the tool has a mismatch with your own philosophy, you’re going to fight that tool every step of the way. That’s why people can be right and wrong about these frameworks. What works for one person doesn’t work for another. All software is opinionated.
It makes it really hard to try and create un-opinionated software. At Clearleft we’ve got this tool. It’s an open source project now called Fractal for building pattern libraries, working with pattern libraries. The fundamental principle behind it was that it should be as agnostic as possible, completely agnostic to build tools, completely agnostic to templating languages, that it should be able to work just about anywhere. It turns out it’s really, really hard to make agnostic software because you keep having to make decisions that favour one thing over another at every step.
Whether it’s writing the documentation or showing an example, you have to show the example in some templating language. You have to choose a winner in the documentation to demonstrate something. It’s really hard to write agnostic software. Every default you add to a piece of software shows your assumptions because those defaults matter.
But I don’t want to make it sound like these tools have a way of working and there’s no changing it, that the assumptions are baked in and there’s nothing you can do about it; that you can’t fight against those assumptions. Because there are examples of tools being used other than the uses for which they were intended right throughout the history of technology. I mean, when Alexander Graham Bell created the telephone, he thought that people would use it to listen to concerts that were happening far away. When Edison created the gramophone, he thought that people would record their voices so they could have conversations at a distance. Those two technologies ended up being used for the exact opposition purposes than what their inventors intended.
Here’s an example from the history of technology from Hedy Lamarr, the star of the silver screen the first half of the 20th Century here in Europe. She ended up married to an Austrian industrialist arms manufacturer. After the Anschluss, she would sit in on those meetings taking notes. Nobody paid much attention to her, but she was paying attention to the technical details.
She managed to get out of Nazi occupied Europe, which was a whole adventure in itself. Made her way to America, and she wanted to do something for the war effort, particularly after an incident where a refuge ship was sunk by a torpedo. A whole bunch of children lost their lives, and she wanted to do something to make it easier to get the U-boats. She worked on a system for torpedoes. It was basically a guidance system for radio controlled torpedoes.
The problem is, if you have a radio frequency you’re using to control the torpedo to guide it towards its target, if the enemy figure out what the frequency is, they can jam the signal and now you can no longer control the torpedo. Together with a composer named George Antheil, Hedy Lamarr came up with this system for constantly switching the frequency, so both the torpedo and the person controlling it are constantly switching the radio frequency to the same place, and now it’s much, much harder to jam that transmission.
Okay. But what’s that got to do with us, some technology for guided missiles in World War II? In this room, I’m guessing you’ve got devices that have WiFi and Bluetooth and GPS, and all of those technologies depend on frequency hopping. That wasn’t the use for which it was created, but that’s the use we got out of it.
I get that out in the real world as well: “I guess this technology is coming”, you know, with self-driving cars, machine learning, whatever it happens to be. I guess we’ve just got to accept it. There’s even this idea of technological determinism that technology is the driving force of human history. We’re just along for the ride. It’s the future. Take it.
The ultimate extreme of this attitude of technological determinism is the idea of the technological singularity, kind of like the rapture for the nerds. It’s an idea borrowed from cosmology where you have a singularity at the heart of a black hole. You know a star collapses to as dense as possible. It creates a singularity. Nothing can escape, not even light.
The point is there’s an event horizon around a black hole, and it’s impossible from outside the event horizon to get any information from what’s happening beyond the event horizon. With a technological singularity, the idea is that technology will advance so quickly and so rapidly there will be an event horizon, and it’s literally impossible for us to imagine what’s beyond that event horizon. That’s the technological singularity. It makes me uncomfortable.
But looking back over the history of technology and the history of civilisation, I think we’ve had singularities already. I think the Agricultural Revolution was a singularity because, if you tried to describe to nomadic human beings before the Agricultural Revolution what life would be like when you settle down and work on farms, it would be impossible to imagine. The Industrial Revolution was kind of a singularity because it was such a huge change from agriculture. And we’re probably living through a third singularity now, an information age singularity.
But the interesting thing is, looking back at those previous singularities, they didn’t wipe away what came before. Those things live alongside. We still have agriculture at the same time as having industry. We still have nomadic peoples, so it’s not like everything gets wiped out by what comes before.
In fact, Kevin Kelly, who is a very interesting character, he writes about technology. In one of his books he wrote that no technology has ever gone extinct, which sounds like actually a pretty crazy claim, but try and disprove it. And he doesn’t mean it is a technology sitting in a museum somewhere. He means that somewhere in the world somebody is still using that piece of technology, some ancient piece of farming equipment, some ancient piece of computer equipment.
He writes these very provocational sort of books with titles like What Technology Wants, and The Inevitable, which makes it sound like he’s on the side of technological determinism, but actually his point is a bit more subtle. He’s trying to point out that there is an inevitability to what’s coming down the pipe with these technologies, but we shouldn’t confuse that with not being able to control it and not being able to steer the direction of those technologies.
Like I was saying, something like the World Wide Web was inevitable, but the World Wide Web we got was not. I think it’s true of any technology. We can steer it. We can choose how we use the technologies.
Looking at Kevin Kelly and his impressive facial hair, you might be forgiven for thinking that he’s Amish. He isn’t Amish, but he would describe himself as Amish-ish in that he’s lived with the Amish, and he thinks we can learn a lot from the Amish.
It turns out they get a very bad reputation. People think that the Amish reject technology. It’s not true. What they do is they take their time.
The Amish are steadily adopting technology at their pace. They are slow geeks.
I think we could all be slow geeks. We could all be a bit more Amish-ish. I don’t mean in our dress sense or facial hair. I mean in the way that we are slow geeks and we ask questions of our technology. We ask questions like, “How well does it work?” but also, “How well does it fail?” That we ask, “Who benefits from this technology?” And perhaps most importantly that we ask, “What are the assumptions of those technologies?”
Because when I look back at the history of human civilisation and the history of technology, I don’t see technology as the driving force; that it was inevitable that we got to where we are today. What I see as the driving force are people, remarkable people, it’s true, but people nonetheless.
And you know who else is remarkable? You’re remarkable. And your attitude shouldn’t be, “It’s the future. Take it.” It should be, “It’s the future. Make it.” And I’m looking forward to seeing the future you make. Thank you.
I love the way Matthias sums up his experience of the Beyond Tellerrand conference. He focuses on three themes:
Storytelling with code, and
Adopting new technologies.
I heartily agree with his reasons for attending the conference:
There are many ways to broaden your horizons if you are looking for inspiration: You could do some research, read a book or an article, or visit a new city. But one of the best ways surely is the experience of a conference, because it provides you with many new concepts and ideas. Moreover, ideas that were floating around in your head for a while are affirmed.