Most of these dystopian scenarios are, after all, post-apocalyptic: the bad thing happened, the tension broke, and now so much less is at stake. The anxiety and ambivalence we feel toward late-stage capitalism, income inequality, political corruption, and environmental degradation—acute psychological pandemics in the here and now—are utterly dissolved. In a strange, wicked way, the aftermath feels fine.
Monday, January 16th, 2017
Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017
Paul takes a look at the year ahead on the web and likes what he sees. There’s plenty of new browser features and APIs of course, but more interesting:
The web reaching more people as they come online with Mobile. There is still a huge amount of potential and growth in India, Indonesia, China, Thailand, Vietnam, all of Africa. You name it, mobile is growing massively still and the web is accessible on all of these devices.
Friday, December 23rd, 2016
Matt Griffin’s thoughtful documentary is now available for free on Vimeo. It’s a lovely look at the past, present, and future of the web, marred only by the brief appearance of yours truly.
Saturday, October 22nd, 2016
The fascinating history of India’s space program is the jumping-off point for a comparison of differing cultural attitudes to space exploration in Anab’s transcript of her Webstock talk, published on Ev’s blog.
From astronauts to afronauts, from cosmonauts to vyomanauts, how can deep space exploration inspire us to create more democratic future visions?
Sunday, October 9th, 2016
The Rational Optimist
As part of my ongoing obsession with figuring out how we evaluate technology, I finally got around to reading Matt Ridley’s The Rational Optimist. It was an exasperating read.
On the one hand, it’s a history of the progress of human civilisation. Like Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels Of Our Nature, it piles on the data demonstrating the upward trend in peace, wealth, and health. I know that’s counterintuitive, and it seems to fly in the face of what we read in the news every day. Mind you, The New York Times took some time out recently to acknowledge the trend.
Ridley’s thesis—and it’s a compelling one—is that cooperation and trade are the drivers of progress. As I read through his historical accounts of the benefits of open borders and the cautionary tales of small-minded insular empires that collapsed, I remember thinking, “Boy, he must be pretty upset about Brexit—his own country choosing to turn its back on trade agreements with its neighbours so that it could became a small, petty island chasing the phantom of self-sufficiency”. (Self-sufficiency, or subsistence living, as Ridley rightly argues throughout the book, correlates directly with poverty.)
But throughout these accounts, there are constant needling asides pointing to the perceived enemies of trade and progress: bureaucrats and governments, with their pesky taxes and rule of law. As the accounts enter the twentieth century, the gloves come off completely revealing a pair of dyed-in-the-wool libertarian fists that Ridley uses to pummel any nuance or balance. “Ah,” I thought, “if he cares more about the perceived evils of regulation than the proven benefits of trade, maybe he might actually think Brexit is a good idea after all.”
It was an interesting moment. Given the conflicting arguments in his book, I could imagine him equally well being an impassioned remainer as a vocal leaver. I decided to collapse this probability wave with a quick Google search, and sure enough …he’s strongly in favour of Brexit.
In theory, an author’s political views shouldn’t make any difference to a book about technology and progress. In practice, they barge into the narrative like boorish gatecrashers threatening to derail it entirely. The irony is that while Ridley is trying to make the case for rational optimism, his own personal political feelings are interspersed like a dusting of irrationality, undoing his own well-researched case.
It’s not just the argument that suffers. Those are the moments when the writing starts to get frothy, if not downright unhinged. There were a number of confusing and ugly sentences that pulled me out of the narrative and made me wonder where the editor was that day.
The last time I remember reading passages of such poor writing in a non-fiction book was Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. In the foreword, Taleb provides a textbook example of the Dunning-Kruger effect by proudly boasting that he does not need an editor.
But there was another reason why I thought of The Black Swan while reading The Rational Optimist.
While Ridley’s anti-government feelings might have damaged his claim to rationality, surely his optimism is unassailable? Take, for example, his conclusions on climate change. He doesn’t (quite) deny that climate change is real, but argues persuasively that it won’t be so bad. After all, just look at the history of false pessimism that litters the twentieth century: acid rain, overpopulation, the Y2K bug. Those turned out okay, therefore climate change will be the same.
It’s here that Ridley succumbs to the trap that Taleb wrote about in his book: using past events to make predictions about inherently unpredictable future events. Taleb was talking about economics—warning of the pitfalls of treating economic data as though it followed a bell-curve curve, when it fact it’s a power-law distribution.
Fine. That’s simply a logical fallacy, easily overlooked. But where Ridley really lets himself down is in the subsequent defence of fossil fuels. Or rather, in his attack on other sources of energy.
When recounting the mistakes of the naysayers of old, he points out that their fundamental mistake is to assume stasis. Hence their dire predictions of war, poverty, and famine. Ehrlich’s overpopulation scare, for example, didn’t account for the world-changing work of Borlaug’s green revolution (and Ridley rightly singles out Norman Borlaug for praise—possibly the single most important human being in history).
Yet when it comes to alternative sources of energy, they are treated as though they are set in stone, incapable of change. Wind and solar power are dismissed as too costly and inefficient. The Rational Optimist was written in 2008. Eight years ago, solar energy must have indeed looked like a costly investment. But things have changed in the meantime.
As Matt Ridley himself writes:
It is a common trick to forecast the future on the assumption of no technological change, and find it dire. This is not wrong. The future would indeed be dire if invention and discovery ceased.
And yet he fails to apply this thinking when comparing energy sources. If anything, his defence of fossil fuels feels grounded in a sense of resigned acceptance; a sense of …pessimism.
Matt Ridley rejects any hope of innovation from new ideas in the arena of energy production. I hope that he might take his own words to heart:
By far the most dangerous, and indeed unsustainable thing the human race could do to itself would be to turn off the innovation tap. Not inventing, and not adopting new ideas, can itself be both dangerous and immoral.
Monday, August 29th, 2016
Tuesday, July 12th, 2016
Friday, July 1st, 2016
A cautionary tale of digital preservation.
.generation is a short film that intimately documents three millennials in the year 2054 - uncovering their relationships with technology in the aftermath of the information age.
Wednesday, June 22nd, 2016
I’ve seen letterforms you people wouldn’t believe…
Sunday, June 12th, 2016
An in-depth, thoroughly-researched look at the threatened health of the web. It’s grim reading, for the most part, but there’s a glimmer of hope towards the end.
Friday, June 10th, 2016
A wager on the web
Jason has written a great post about progressive web apps. It’s also a post about whether fears of the death of the web are justified.
Lately, I vacillate on whether the web is endangered or poised for a massive growth due to the web’s new capabilities. Frankly, I think there are indicators both ways.
So he applies Pascal’s wager. The hypothesis is that the web is under threat and progressive web apps are a solution to fighting that threat.
- If the hypothesis is incorrect and we don’t build progressive web apps, things continue as they are on the web (which is not great for users—they have to continue to put up with fragile, frustratingly slow sites).
- If the hypothesis is incorrect and we do build progressive web apps, users get better websites.
- If the hypothesis is correct and we do build progressive web apps, users get better websites and we save the web.
- If the hypothesis is correct and we don’t build progressive web apps, the web ends up pining for the fjords.
Whether you see the web as threatened or see Chicken Little in people’s fears and whether you like progressive web apps or feel it is a stupid Google marketing thing, we can all agree that putting energy into improving the experience for the people using our sites is always a good thing.
Jason is absolutely correct. There are literally no downsides to us creating progressive web apps. Everybody wins.
But that isn’t the question that people have been tackling lately. None of these (excellent) blog posts disagree with the conclusion that building progressive web apps as originally defined would be a great move forward for the web:
- Yet another blog about the state and future of Progressive Web App by Ada Rose Edwards
- Progressively less progressive by Andrew Betts
- Progressive web apps – let’s not repeat the errors from the beginning of responsive web design by Michael Scharnagl
The real question that comes out of those posts is whether it’s good or bad for the future of progressive web apps—and by extension, the web—to build stop-gap solutions that use some progressive web app technologies (Service Workers, for example) while failing to be progressive in other ways (only working on mobile devices, for example).
In this case, there are two competing hypotheses:
- In the short term, it’s okay to build so-called progressive web apps that have a fragile technology stack or only work on specific devices, because over time they’ll get improved and we’ll end up with proper progressive web apps in the long term.
- In the short term, we should build proper progressive web apps, and it’s a really bad idea to build so-called progressive web apps that have a fragile technology stack or only work on specific devices, because that encourages more people to build sub-par websites and progressive web apps become synonymous with door-slamming single-page apps in the long term.
The second hypothesis sounds pessimistic, and the first sounds optimistic. But the people arguing for the first hypothesis aren’t coming from a position of optimism. Take Christian’s post, for example, which I fundamentally disagree with:
End users deserve to have an amazing, form-factor specific experience. Let’s build those.
Never make any decision based on fear.
Thursday, May 12th, 2016
Remember: life is ten per cent what happens to you, ten per cent how you respond to it, and eighty per cent how good your reflexes are when the Tall Ones come at your throat with their pincers.
Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016
This is my kind of talk—John Snow’s cholera map, the Yucca Mountain think-tank, the Pioneer plaque, the Voyager record, the Drake equation, the Arecibo signal, and the love song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
♫ These are a few of my fav-our-ite things! ♫
Sunday, April 24th, 2016
I particularly like Ethan’s Stop Making Sense era David Byrne suit.
Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016
The act of linking to this story is making it true.
“I don’t think there’s any law against this,” I said. How could there be a law against something that’s not possible?
Wednesday, March 9th, 2016
Michael Bierut on that logo …and graphic design in general.
Graphic designers, whether we admit it or not, are trained for the short term. Most of the things we design have to discharge their function immediately, whether it’s a design for a book or a poster, a website or an infographic, a sign system, or a business card. In school critiques, architecture and industrial design students produce models. Graphic designers produce finished prototypes. As a result, the idea that we create things that are unfinished, that can only accrue value over time, is foreign to us. It’s so easy for us to visualize the future, and so hard to admit that we really can’t. That’s what we face every time we unveil a new logo.
Sunday, February 21st, 2016
Science fiction as a means of energising climatic and economic change:
Fiction, and science fiction in particular, can help us imagine many futures, and in particular can help us to direct our imaginations towards the futures we want. Imagining a particular kind of future isn’t just day dreaming: it’s an important and active framing that makes it possible for us to construct a future that approaches that imagined vision. In other words, imagining the future is one way of making that future happen.
But it’s important that these visions are preserved:
It’s very likely that our next Octavia Butler is today writing on WattPad or Tumblr or Facebook. When those servers cease to respond, what will we lose? More than the past is at stake—all our imagined futures are at risk, too.
Friday, November 27th, 2015
A new presentation from the wonderfully curmudgeonly Steven Pemberton, the Nosferatu of the web. Ignore the clickbaity title.
This part really, really resonated with me:
The web is the way now that we distribute information. We will need the web pages we create now to be readable in 100 years time, just as we can still read 100-year-old books.
Saturday, October 31st, 2015
Critical thinking without hope is cynicism. Hope without critical thinking is naïveté.
Echoing Margaret Atwood’s observation:
If we abandon hope, we’re cooked. If we rely on nothing but hope, we’re cooked. So I would say judicious hope is necessary.
Wednesday, September 16th, 2015
Just like Nick, John Willshire has put his slides together with the audio from his gobsmackingly good dConstruct presentation on metadesign.