The point of this post is to show how nicely container queries can play with web components, but I want to also point out how nice the design of the web component is here: instead of just using an empty custom element, Max uses progressive enhancement to elevate the markup within the custom element.
Sunday, May 16th, 2021
Saturday, May 15th, 2021
I subscribe to Peter Gasston’s newsletter, The Tech Landscape. It’s good. Peter’s a smart guy with his finger on the pulse of many technologies that are beyond my ken. I recommend subscribing.
But I was very taken aback by what he wrote in issue 202. It was to do with algorithmic recommendation engines.
This week I want to take a little dump on a tweet I read. I’m not going to link to it (I’m not that person), but it basically said something like: “I’m afraid to Google something because I don’t want the algorithm to think I like it, and I’m afraid to click a link because I don’t want the algorithm to show me more like it… what a cage.”
- GET requests shouldn’t have side effects. Adding to a dossier on someone’s browsing habits definitely counts as a side effect.
- It is literally a fundamental principle of the web platform that it should be safe to visit a web page.
But Peter describes ubiquitous surveillance as a feature, not a bug:
It’s observing what someone likes or does, then trying to make recommendations for more things like it—whether that’s books, TV shows, clothes, advertising, or whatever. It works on probability, so it’s going to make better guesses the more it knows you; if you like ten things of type A, then liking one thing of type B shouldn’t be enough to completely change its recommendations. The problem is, we don’t like “the algorithm” if it doesn’t work, and we don’t like it if works too well (“creepy!”). But it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage.
He would be correct if the balance of power were tipped towards the person actively looking for recommendations. As I said in my earlier post:
Don’t get me wrong: building a profile of someone based on their actions isn’t inherently wrong. If a user taps on “like” or “favourite” or “bookmark”, they are actively telling the server to perform an update (and so those actions should be POST requests). But do you see the difference in where the power lies?
When Peter says “it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage” that may be true for him, but that is not a shared feeling, as the original tweet demonstrates. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss someone else’s psychological pain because you don’t think they “get it”. I’m pretty sure everyone “gets” how recommendation engines are supposed to work. That’s not the issue. Trying to provide relevant content isn’t the problem. It’s the unbelievably heavy-handed methods that make it feel like a cage.
Peter uses the metaphor of a record shop:
“The algorithm” is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice; imagine you went to a record shop (remember them?) which had every recording ever released; how would you find new music? You’d either buy music by bands you know you already liked, or you’d take a pure gamble on something—which most of the time would be a miss. So you’d ask a store worker, and they’d recommend the music they liked—but that’s no guarantee you’d like it. A good worker would ask what type of music you like, and recommend music based on that—you might not like all the recommendations, but there’s more of a chance you’d like some. That’s just what “the algorithm” does.
But that’s not true. You don’t ask “the algorithm” for a recommendation—it foists them on you whether you want them or not. A more apt metaphor would be that you walked by a record shop once and the store worker came out and followed you down the street, into your home, and watched your every move for the rest of your life.
What Peter describes sounds great—a helpful knowledgable software agent that you ask for recommendations. But that’s not what “the algorithm” is. And that’s why it feels like a cage. That’s why it is a cage.
The original tweet was an open, honest, and vulnerable insight into what online recommendation engines feel like. That’s a valuable insight that should be taken on board, not dismissed.
And what a lack of imagination to look at an existing broken system—that doesn’t even provide good recommendations while making people afraid to click on links—and shrug and say that this is the best we can do. If this really is “is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice” then it’s no wonder that people feel like they need to go on a digital detox and get away from their devices in order to feel normal. It’s like saying that decapitation is the best way of solving headaches.
Imagine living in a surveillance state like East Germany, and saying “Well, how else is the government supposed to make informed decisions without constantly monitoring its citizens?” I think it’s more likely that you’d feel like you’re in a cage.
Apples to oranges? Kind of. But whether it’s surveillance communism or surveillance capitalism, there’s a shared methodology at work. They’re both systems that disempower people for the supposedly greater good of amassing data. Both are built on the false premise that problems can be solved by getting more and more data. If that results in collateral damage to people’s privacy and mental health, well …it’s all for the greater good, right?
It’s fucking bullshit. I don’t want to live in that cage and I don’t want anyone else to have to live in it either. I’m going to do everything I can to tear it down.
This would be such a great addition to CSS—a parent/ancestor selector!
With the combined might of
calc(), CSS has become a powerful language for specifying rules to account for all kinds of situations.
Friday, May 14th, 2021
Here’s the thing: we need politics in the workplace. Politics—that is, the act of negotiating our relationships and obligations to each other—is critical to the work of building and sustaining democracy. And the workplace isn’t separate from democracy—it is democracy. It is as much a part of the democratic system as a neighborhood association or a town council, as a library or youth center or food bank. By the very nature of the outsized role that work plays in our lives, it’s where most of us have the potential to make the biggest impact on how we—and our families and communities—live.
Mandy, as always, hits the nail on the head.
When we talk about politics belonging outside the workplace, we reduce democracy to an extracurricular instead of a core part of our lives. Democracy cannot be sustained by annual visits to the ballot box—it isn’t something we have, it’s something we practice. Like all things that require practice, if you don’t practice it often, you lose it.
Wednesday, May 12th, 2021
Google Workspace Updates: Google Docs will now use canvas based rendering: this may impact some Chrome extensions
We’re updating the way Google Docs renders documents. Over the course of the next several months, we’ll be migrating the underlying technical implementation of Docs from the current HTML-based rendering approach to a canvas-based approach to improve performance and improve consistency in how content appears across different platforms.
I’ll be very interested to see how they handle the accessibility of this move.
Tuesday, May 11th, 2021
The more I consume content in reading apps, the more I am reminded of the importance and the power of progressive enhancement as a strategy to create resilient and malleable experiences that work for everyone, regardless of how they choose to consume our content.
Top stuff from Sara here!
We have a tendency to always make an assumption about how our readers are reading our content—probably in the browser, with our fancy styles applied to it. But if we make a habit out of thinking about the Web in layers and CSS as an enhancement on top of the content layer, then we can start optimizing and enhancing our users’ reading experiences regardless of their context.
Thinking about the different ways in which users access the Web only shines light on the importance of a progressively enhanced approach to building for the Web. The more we think about the Web in layers and try to improve the experience of one layer before moving to the next, the more resilient experiences we can create. That’s what the essence of progressive enhancement is about.
Monday, May 10th, 2021
The Clearleft podcast is currently between seasons, but that’s not going to stop me from yapping on in audio files at any opportunity.
I’ve been continuing my audio narration of Jay Hoffman’s excellent Web History series over on CSS tricks. We’re eight chapters in already! That’s a good few hours of audio—each chapter is over half an hour long.
The latest chapter was a joy to narrate. It’s all about the history of CSS so I remember many of the events that are mentioned, like when Tantek saved the web by implenting doctype switching (seriously, I honestly believe that if that hadn’t happened, CSS wouldn’t have “won”). Eric is in there. And Molly. And Elika. And Chris. And Dave.
If you’re not completely sick of hearing my voice, you can also listen to the latest episode of the Object Oriented UX podcast with Sophia V. Prater. Our chat starts about eleven minutes into the episode and goes on for a good hour.
It was nice to be on the other side of the microphone, so to speak. The topic was Resilient Web Design but the conversation went in all sorts of directions.
I do enjoy a good natter. If you’ve got a podcast and you fancy having a chat, let me know.
Using progressive enhancement means your users will be able to do what they need to do if any part of the stack fails.
What a terrific short guide to sensible web development!
- Start with HTML
- Using interactive elements
- Adding the extras
- Building more complex services
- Testing your service
- Case studies and related guides
Thursday, April 29th, 2021
Collection of common CSS mistakes, and how to fix them.
I like the way this is organised: it’s like “code smells” for CSS. Some of them will probably be familiar, in which case, you can dive in and find out what’s going on.
Sunday, April 25th, 2021
A round-up of alternatives to Google Analytics.
Saturday, April 24th, 2021
Professional web designer on a closed course. Do not attempt.
Tuesday, April 20th, 2021
Core web vitals from Google are the ingredients for an alphabet soup of exlusionary intialisms. But once you get past the unnecessary jargon, there’s a sensible approach underpinning the measurements.
From May—no, June—these measurements will be a ranking signal for Google search so performance will become more of an SEO issue. This is good news. This is what Google should’ve done years ago instead of pissing up the wall with their dreadful and damaging AMP project that blackmailed publishers into using a proprietary format in exchange for preferential search treatment. It was all done supposedly in the name of performance, but in reality all it did was antagonise users and publishers alike.
A new and unusual phenomenon: clients reluctant (even refusing) to fix performance issues unless they directly improve Vitals.
Once you put a measurement on something, there’s a danger of focusing too much on the measurement. Chris is worried that we’re going to see tips’n’tricks for gaming core web vitals:
This feels like the start of a weird new era of web performance where the metrics of web performance have shifted to user-centric measurements, but people are implementing tricky strategies to game those numbers with methods that, if anything, slightly harm user experience.
The map is not the territory. The numbers are a proxy for user experience, but it’s notoriously difficult to measure intangible ideas like pain and frustration. As Laurie says:
This is 100% the downside of automatic tools that give you a “score”. It’s like gameification. It’s about hitting that perfect score instead of the holistic experience.
And Ethan has written about the power imbalance that exists when Google holds all the cards, whether it’s AMP or core web vitals:
Google used its dominant position in the marketplace to force widespread adoption of a largely proprietary technology for creating websites. By switching to Core Web Vitals, those power dynamics haven’t materially changed.
We would do well to remember:
When you measure, include the measurer.
(If you prefer using initialisms, remember that CFP is Certified Financial Planner, CLS is Community Legal Services, and FID is Flame Ionization Detector. Together they form CWV, Catholic War Veterans.)
I hadn’t come across this before—run Lighthouse tests on your pages from six different locations around the world at once.
Monday, April 19th, 2021
I really like the idea of a shared convention for styling web components with custom properties—feels like BEM meets microformats.
Tuesday, April 6th, 2021
Receive one email a day for 30 days, each featuring at least one HTML element.
Right up my alley!
Wednesday, March 31st, 2021
Many, if not all, of our world’s most wicked problems are rooted in the excessive hiding of complexity behind illusions of simplicity—the relentless shielding of messy details in favor of easy-to-use interfaces.
But there’s always a tradeoff between complexity, truth, and control. The more details are hidden, the harder it is to understand how the system actually works. (And the harder it is to control). The map becomes less and less representative of the territory. We often trade completeness and control for simplicity. We’d rather have a map that’s easy to navigate than a map that shows us every single detail about the territory. We’d rather have a simple user interface than an infinitely flexible one that exposes a bunch of switches and settings. We don’t want to have to think too hard. We just want to get where we’re going.
Seamful and seamless design are reframed here as ethical and deceptive design:
Ethical design is like a glove. It obscures the underlying structure (i.e. your hand) but preserves some truth about its shape and how it works. Deceptive design is like a mitten. It obscures the underlying structure and also hides a lot about its shape and how it works.
Monday, March 29th, 2021
Good to see Google, Mozilla, and Apple collaborating on fixing cross-browser CSS compatability issues:
- position: sticky
You can track progress here.
Saturday, March 27th, 2021
Imagine the tech utopia of mainstream science fiction. The bustle of self-driving cars, helpful robot assistants, and holograms throughout the sparkling city square immediately marks this world apart from ours, but something else is different, something that can only be described in terms of ambiance. Everything is frictionless here: The streets are filled with commuters, as is the sky, but the vehicles attune their choreography to one another so precisely that there is never any traffic, only an endless smooth procession through space. The people radiate a sense of purpose; they are all on their way somewhere, or else, they have already arrived. There’s an overwhelming amount of activity on display at every corner, but it does not feel chaotic, because there is no visible strife or deprivation. We might appreciate its otherworldly beauty, but we need not question the underlying mechanics of this utopia — everything works because it was designed to work, and in this world, design governs the space we inhabit as surely and exactly as the laws of physics.
Wednesday, March 24th, 2021
Given the widespread browser support for
prefers-reduced-motion now, this approach makes a lot of sense.