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Tuesday, June 8th, 2021

Deceptive dark patterns

When I was braindumping my thoughts prompted by last week’s UX Fest conference, I wrote about dark patterns.

Well, actually I wrote about deceptive dark patterns. That was a deliberate choice.

The phrase “dark pattern” is …problematic. We really don’t need to be associating darkness with negativity any more than we already do in our language and culture.

This is something I discussed with Melissa Smith after her talk on this topic. The consensus in general seems to be that the terminology is far from ideal, but it’s a bit late to change it now (I’m sure if Harry were coining the term today, he would choose a different phrase).

The defining characteristic of a “dark” pattern is that intentionally deceptive. How about we shift the terminology to talk about deceptive patterns?

Now, I get that inertia is a powerful force and it would be confusing to try do to a find-and-replace on all the resources that already exist on documenting “dark” patterns. So here’s a compromise:

From here on out, let’s start using the adjective “deceptive” in addition to the existing adjective “dark.” That’s what I did in my blog post. I only used the phrase “deceptive dark patterns.”

If we do that consistently, then after a while we’ll be able to drop one of those adjectives—“dark”—and refer to “deceptive patterns.”

Personally I’d love it if we could change the terminology overnight—and I’m quite heartened by the speed at which we changed our Github branches from “master” to “main”—but being pragmatic, I think this approach stands a greater chance of success.

Who’s with me?

Sunday, June 6th, 2021

Saturday, May 22nd, 2021

150

The fact that so many people publish their thoughts and share knowledge, is something I’ve always loved about the web. Whether it is practical stuff about how to solve a coding issue or some kind of opinion… everyone’s brain is wired differently. It may resonate, it may not, that’s also fine.

Saturday, May 15th, 2021

The cage

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.”

I saw the same tweet. It resonated with me. I had responded with a link to a post I wrote a while back called Get safe. That post made two points:

  1. GET requests shouldn’t have side effects. Adding to a dossier on someone’s browsing habits definitely counts as a side effect.
  2. 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.

Tuesday, April 27th, 2021

Appropriate Measures — Real Life

The 1960s idea of “appropriate technology” feels like an early version of the principle of least power.

The Botanist Who Defied Stalin - Issue 99: Universality - Nautilus

Lysenko vs. Vavilov feels like the 20th century version of Edison vs. Tesla.

Sunday, April 25th, 2021

A quick look at privacy-focused analytics for small sites

A round-up of alternatives to Google Analytics.

Thursday, April 22nd, 2021

The Infrastructural Power Beneath the Internet as We Know It - The Reboot

I’ve lately been trying an exercise where, when reading anything by or about tech companies, I replace uses of the word “infrastructure” with “means of production.”

Brilliant!

Sunday, April 18th, 2021

trapped in the technologist factory

New technologies don’t have power; for that they’d need a community, documentation, and a thriving ecosystem of ancillary technology. What they have is potential, which resonates with the potential within the startup and the early adopter; perhaps they can all, over time, grow together.

This means startups don’t adopt new technologies despite their immaturity, they adopt them because of that immaturity. This drives a constant churn of novelty and obsolescence, which amplifies the importance of a technologist’s skillset, which drives startups to adopt new technologies.

This flywheel has been spinning for a long time, and won’t stop simply because I’ve pointed out that we’re conflating novelty with technological advancement. Hopefully we can slow it down, though, because I believe it’s causing real harm.

Tuesday, April 6th, 2021

Of the web

I’m subscribed to a lot of blogs in my RSS reader. I follow some people because what they write about is very different to what I know about. But I also follow lots of people who have similar interests and ideas to me. So I’m not exactly in an echo chamber, but I do have the reverb turned up pretty high.

Sometimes these people post thoughts that are eerily similar to what I’ve been thinking about. Ethan has been known to do this. Get out of my head, Marcotte!

But even if Ethan wasn’t some sort of telepath, he’d still be in my RSS reader. We’re friends. Lots of the people in my RSS reader are my friends. When I read their words, I can hear their voices.

Then there are the people I’ve never met. Like Desirée García, Piper Haywood, or Jim Nielsen. Never met them, don’t know them, but damn, do I enjoy reading their blogs. Last year alone, I ended up linking to Jim’s posts ten different times.

Or Baldur Bjarnason. I can’t remember when I first came across his writing, but it really, really resonates with me. I probably owe him royalties for the amount of times I’ve cited his post Over-engineering is under-engineering.

His latest post is postively Marcottian in how it exposes what’s been fermenting in my own mind. But because he writes clearly, it really helps clarify my own thinking. It’s often been said that you should write to figure out what you think, and I can absolutely relate to that. But here’s a case where somebody else’s writing really helps to solidify my own thoughts.

Which type of novelty-seeking web developer are you?

It starts with some existentialist stock-taking. I can relate, what with the whole five decades thing. But then it turns the existential questioning to the World Wide Web itself, or rather, the people building the web.

In a way, it’s like taking the question of the great divide (front of the front end and back of the front end), and then turning it 45 degrees to reveal an entirely hidden dimension.

In examining the nature of the web, he hits on the litmus of how you view encapsulation:

I mention this first as it’s the aspect of the web that modern web developers hate the most without even giving it a label. Single-Page-Apps and GraphQL are both efforts to eradicate the encapsulation that’s baked into the foundation of every layer of the web.

Most modern devs are trying to get rid of it but it’s one of the web’s most strategic advantages.

I hadn’t thought of this before.

By default, if you don’t go against the grain of the web, each HTTP endpoint is encapsulated from each other.

Moreover, all of this can happen really fast if you aren’t going overboard with your CSS and JS.

He finishes with a look at another of the web’s most powerful features: distribution. In between are the things that make the web webby: hypertext and flexibility (The Dao of the Web).

It’s the idea that the web isn’t a single fixed thing but a fluid multitude whose shape is dictated by its surroundings.

This resonates with me because it highlights two different ways of viewing the web.

On the one hand, you can see the web purely as a distribution channel. In the past you might have been distributing a Flash movie. These days you might be distributing a single page app. Either way, the web is there as a low-friction way of getting your creation in front of other people.

The other way of building for the web is to go with the web’s grain, embracing flexibility and playing to the strengths of the medium through progressive enhancement. This is the distinction I was getting at when I talked about something being not just on the web, but of the web.

With that mindset, Baldur then takes us through some of the technologies that he’s excited about, like SvelteKit and Hotwire. I think it’s the same mindset that got me excited about service workers. As Baldur says:

They are helping the web become better at being its own thing.

That’s my tagline right there.

Saturday, April 3rd, 2021

Principles and the English language

I work with words. Sometimes they’re my words. Sometimes they’re words that my colleagues have written:

One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.

I also work with web technologies, usually front-of-the-front-end stuff. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The technologies that users experience directly in web browsers.

I think a lot about design principles for the web. The two principles I keep coming back to are the robustness principle and the principle of least power.

When it comes to words, the guide that I return to again and again is George Orwell, specifically his short essay, Politics and the English Language.

Towards the end, he offers some rules for writing.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These look a lot like design principles. Not only that, but some of them look like specific design principles. Take the robustness principle:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

That first part applies to Orwell’s third rule:

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Be conservative in what words you send.

Then there’s the principle of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Compare that to Orwell’s second rule:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

That could be rephrased as:

Choose the shortest word suitable for a given purpose.

Or, going in the other direction, the principle of least power could be rephrased in Orwell’s terms as:

Never use a powerful language where a simple language will do.

Oh, I like that! I like that a lot.

Tuesday, March 30th, 2021

The principle of most availability

I’ve been thinking some more about the technical experience of booking a vaccination apointment and how much joy it brought me.

I’ve written before about how I’ve got a blind spot for the web so it’s no surprise that I was praising the use of a well marked-up form, styled clearly, and unencumbered by unnecessary JavaScript. But other technologies were in play too: Short Message Service (SMS) and email.

All of those technologies are platform-agnostic.

No matter what operating system I’m using, or what email software I’ve chosen, email works. It gets more complicated when you introduce HTML email. My response to that is the same as the old joke; you know the one: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” (“Well, don’t do that.”)

No matter what operating system my phone is using, SMS works. It gets more complicated when you introduce read receipts, memoji, or other additions. See my response to HTML email.

Then there’s the web. No matter what operating system I’m using on a device that could be a phone or a tablet or a laptop or desktop tower, and no matter what browser I’ve chosen to use, the World Wide Web works.

I originally said:

It feels like the principle of least power in action.

But another way of rephrasing “least power” is “most availability.” Technologies that are old, simple, and boring tend to be more widely available.

I remember when software used to come packaged in boxes and displayed on shelves. The packaging always had a list on the side. It looked like the nutritional information on a food product, but this was a list of “system requirements”: operating system, graphics card, sound card, CPU. I never liked the idea of system requirements. It felt so …exclusionary. And for me, the promise of technology was liberation and freedom to act on my own terms.

Hence my soft spot for the boring and basic technologies like email, SMS, and yes, web pages. The difference with web pages is that you can choose to layer added extras on top. As long as the fundamental functionality is using universally-supported technology, you’re free to enhance with all the latest CSS and JavaScript. If any of it fails, that’s okay: it falls back to a nice solid base.

Alas, many developers don’t build with this mindset. I mean, I understand why: it means thinking about users with the most boring, least powerful technology. It’s simpler and more exciting to assume that everyone’s got a shared baseline of newer technology. But by doing that, you’re missing out on one of the web’s superpowers: that something served up at the same URL with the same underlying code can simultaneously serve people with older technology and also provide a whizz-bang experience to people with the latest and greatest technology.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the kind of communication technologies that are as universal as email, SMS, and the web.

QR codes are kind of heading in that direction, although I still have qualms because of their proprietary history. But there’s something nice and lo-fi about them. They’re like print stylesheets in reverse (and I love print stylesheets). A funky little bridge between the physical and the digital. I just wish they weren’t so opaque: you never know if scanning that QR code will actually take you to the promised resource, or if you’re about to rickroll yourself.

Telephone numbers kind of fall into the same category as SMS, but with the added option of voice. I’ve always found the prospect of doing something with, say, Twilio’s API more interesting than building something inside a walled garden like Facebook Messenger or Alexa.

I know very little about chat apps or voice apps, but I don’t think there’s a cross-platform format that works with different products, right? I imagine it’s like the situation with native apps which require a different codebase for each app store and operating system. And so there’s a constant stream of technologies that try to fulfil the dream of writing once and running everywhere: React Native, Flutter.

They’re trying to solve a very clear and obvious problem: writing the same app more than once is really wasteful. But that’s the nature of the game when it comes to runtime-specific apps. The only alternative is to either deliberately limit your audience …or apply the principle of least power/most availability.

The wastefulness of having to write the same app for multiple platforms isn’t the only thing that puts me off making native apps. The exclusivity works in two directions. There’s the exclusive nature of the runtime that requires a bespoke codebase. There’s also the exclusive nature of the app store. It feels like a return to shelves of packaged software with strict system requirements. You can’t just walk in and put your software on the shelf. That’s the shopkeeper’s job.

There is no shopkeeper for the World Wide Web.

Monday, March 29th, 2021

A Wire Across the Ocean | American Scientist

Ainissa Ramirez recounts the story of the transatlantic telegraph cable, the Apollo project of its day.

Saturday, March 27th, 2021

Blackout in the Brain Lab - Issue 98: Mind - Nautilus

Black Mirror meets Henrietta Lacks in this short story by Erik Hoel who I had not heard of until today, when I came across his name here and also in a completely unrelated blog post by Peter Watts about the nature of dreams.

Thursday, March 25th, 2021

Web Development History

Richard MacManus has started a blog all about the history of web development—this is going straight to my RSS reader!

Most internet history books, websites, podcasts, etc, are from a business perspective. What’s missing, I believe, is an internet history with a technical point of view: which products were developed, the technologies used, how the web has changed over time, developmental trends, and so on.

Simply put, I want to describe how the web actually works and how that has evolved over the past 25-30 years.

Wednesday, March 17th, 2021

Good, Better, Best: Untangling The Complex World Of Accessible Patterns — Smashing Magazine

I really like the approach that Carie takes here. Instead of pointing to specific patterns to use, she provides a framework for evaluating technology. Solutions come and go but this kind of critical thinking is a long-lasting skill.

Sunday, March 14th, 2021

Solar Protocol

This website is hosted across a network of solar powered servers and is sent to you from wherever there is the most sunshine.

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2021

There’s a voice inside your head that prevents you from sharing ideas—punch it in the face. - Airbag Industries

Violence is never the answer, unless you’re dealing with nazis or your inner critic.

The excuses—or, I’m sorry, reasons—I hear folks say they can’t write include: I’m not very good at writing (you can’t improve if you don’t write often), my website isn’t finished (classic, and also guilty so shut up), and I don’t know what to write about, there’s nothing new for me to add (oh boy).

Sunday, February 28th, 2021

Robin Rendle ・ Inheritance

My work shouldn’t be presented in the Smithsonian behind glass or anything, I’m just pointing at this enormous flaw in the architecture of the web itself: you’re renting servers and renting URLs. Nothing is permanent because on the web we don’t really own any space, we’re just borrowing land temporarily.