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Sunday, August 9th, 2020

Beyond Smart Rocks

Claire L. Evans on computational slime molds and other forms of unconvential computing that look beyond silicon:

In moments of technological frustration, it helps to remember that a computer is basically a rock. That is its fundamental witchcraft, or ours: for all its processing power, the device that runs your life is just a complex arrangement of minerals animated by electricity and language. Smart rocks.

Connections

Fourteen years ago, I gave a talk at the Reboot conference in Copenhagen. It was called In Praise of the Hyperlink. For the most part, it was a gushing love letter to hypertext, but it also included this observation:

For a conspiracy theorist, there can be no better tool than a piece of technology that allows you to arbitrarily connect information. That tool now exists. It’s called the World Wide Web and it was invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee.

You know those “crazy walls” that are such a common trope in TV shows and movies? The detectives enter the lair of the unhinged villain and discover an overwhelming wall that’s like looking at the inside of that person’s head. It’s not the stuff itself that’s unnerving; it’s the red thread that connects the stuff.

Red thread. Blue hyperlinks.

When I spoke about the World Wide Web, hypertext, apophenia, and conspiracy theorists back in 2006, conspiracy theories could still be considered mostly harmless. It was the domain of Dan Brown potboilers and UFO enthusiasts with posters on their walls declaring “I Want To Believe”. But even back then, 911 truthers were demonstrating a darker side to the fun and games.

There’s always been a gamification angle to conspiracy theories. Players are rewarded with the same dopamine hits for “doing the research” and connecting unrelated topics. Now that’s been weaponised into QAnon.

In his newsletter, Dan Hon wrote QAnon looks like an alternate reality game. You remember ARGs? The kind of designed experience where people had to cooperate in order to solve the puzzle.

Being a part of QAnon involves doing a lot of independent research. You can imagine the onboarding experience in terms of being exposed to some new phrases, Googling those phrases (which are specifically coded enough to lead to certain websites, and certain information). Finding something out, doing that independent research will give you a dopamine hit. You’ve discovered something, all by yourself. You’ve achieved something. You get to tell your friends about what you’ve discovered because now you know a secret that other people don’t. You’ve done something smart.

We saw this in the games we designed. Players love to be the first person to do something. They love even more to tell everyone else about it. It’s like Crossfit. 

Dan’s brother Adrian also wrote about this connection: What ARGs Can Teach Us About QAnon:

There is a vast amount of information online, and sometimes it is possible to solve “mysteries”, which makes it hard to criticise people for trying, especially when it comes to stopping perceived injustices. But it’s the sheer volume of information online that makes it so easy and so tempting and so fun to draw spurious connections.

This is something that Molly Sauter has been studying for years now, like in her essay The Apophenic Machine:

Humans are storytellers, pattern-spotters, metaphor-makers. When these instincts run away with us, when we impose patterns or relationships on otherwise unrelated things, we call it apophenia. When we create these connections online, we call it the internet, the web circling back to itself again and again. The internet is an apophenic machine.

I remember interviewing Lauren Beukes back in 2012 about her forthcoming book about a time-travelling serial killer:

Me: And you’ve written a time-travel book that’s set entirely in the past.

Lauren: Yes. The book ends in 1993 and that’s because I did not want to have to deal with Kirby the heroine getting some access to CCTV cameras and uploading the footage to 4chan and having them solve the mystery in four minutes flat.

By the way, I noticed something interesting about the methodology behind conspiracy theories—particularly the open-ended never-ending miasma of something like QAnon. It’s no surprise that the methodology is basically an inversion of the scientific method. It’s the Texas sharpshooter fallacy writ large. Well, you know the way that I’m always going on about design principles and they way that good design principles should be reversible? Conspiracy theories take universal principles and invert them. Take Occam’s razor:

Do not multiply entities without necessity.

That’s what they want you to think! Wake up, sheeple! The success of something like QAnon—or a well-designed ARG—depends on a mindset that rigorously inverts Occam’s razor:

Multiply entities without necessity!

That’s always been the logic of conspiracy theories from faked moon landings to crop circles. I remember well when the circlemakers came clean and showed exactly how they had been making their beautiful art. Conspiracy theorists—just like cultists—don’t pack up and go home in the face of evidence. They double down. There was something almost pitiable about the way the crop circle UFO crowd were bending over backwards to reject proof and instead apply the inversion of Occam’s razor to come up with even more outlandish explanations to encompass the circlemakers’ confession.

Anyway, I recommend reading what Dan and Adrian have written about the shared psychology of QAnon and Alternate Reality Games, not least because they also suggest some potential course corrections.

I think the best way to fight QAnon, at its roots, is with a robust social safety net program. This not-a-game is being played out of fear, out of a lack of safety, and it’s meeting peoples’ needs in a collectively, societally destructive way.

I want to add one more red thread to this crazy wall. There’s a book about conspiracy theories that has become more and more relevant over time. It’s also wonderfully entertaining. Here’s my recommendation from that Reboot presentation in 2006:

For a real hot-tub of conspiracy theory pleasure, nothing beats Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

…luck rewarded us, because, wanting connections, we found connections — always, everywhere, and between everything. The world exploded into a whirling network of kinships, where everything pointed to everything else, everything explained everything else…

Chapter 1: Birth | CSS-Tricks

This is wonderful! A whole series on the history of the web from Jay Hoffman, the creator of the similarly-themed newsletter and timeline.

This first chapter is right up my alley, looking at the origins of hypertext, the internet, and the World Wide Web.

Sunday, August 2nd, 2020

Friday, July 31st, 2020

Recreating Wildlife Photographer of the Year online – part 1 – Introduction and technical approach – Blogs from the Natural History Museum

You’ve seen the Wildlife Photographer Of The Year project from Clearleft’s viewpoint …and you’ve listened to the podcast episode, right?

Now here’s the story from the team that made the website. It’s a great walkthrough of thoughtfully evaluating technologies to figure out the best approach.

Thursday, July 30th, 2020

Lateral Thinking With Withered Technology · Matthias Ott – User Experience Designer

What web development can learn from the Nintendo Game and Watch.

The Web now consists of an ever-growing number of different frameworks, methodologies, screen sizes, devices, browsers, and connection speeds. “Lateral thinking with withered technology” – progressively enhanced – might actually be an ideal philosophy for building accessible, performant, resilient, and original experiences for a wide audience of users on the Web.

Wednesday, July 29th, 2020

Design ops on the Clearleft podcast

The latest episode of the Clearleft podcast is out. If you’re a subscriber, it will magically appear in your podcast software of choice using the power of RSS. If you’re not a subscriber, it isn’t too late to change that.

This week’s episode is all about design ops. I began contructing the episode by gathering raw material from talks at Leading Design. There’s good stuff from Kim Fellman, Jacqui Frey, Courtney Kaplan, and Meredith Black.

But as I was putting the snippets together, I felt like the episode was missing something. It needed a bit of oomph. So I harangued Andy for some of his time. I wasn’t just fishing for spicy hot takes—something that Andy is known for. Andy is also the right person to explain design ops. If you search for that term, one of the first results you’ll get is a post he wrote on the Clearleft blog a few years back called Design Ops — A New Discipline.

I remember helping Andy edit that post and I distinctly recall my feedback. The initial post didn’t have a definition of the term, and I felt that a definition was necessary (and Andy added one to the post).

My cluenessness about the meaning of terms like “design ops” or “service design” isn’t some schtick I’m putting on for the benefit of the podcast. I’m genuinely trying to understand these terms better. I don’t like the feeling of hearing a term being used a lot without a clear understanding of what that term means. All too often my understanding feels more like “I think I know it means, but I’m not sure I could describe it.” I’m not comfortable with that.

Making podcast episodes on these topics—which are outside my comfort zone—has been really helpful. I now feel like I have a much better understanding of service design, design ops and other topical terms. I hope that the podcast will be just as helpful for listeners who feel as bamboozled as I do.

Ben Holliday recently said:

The secret of design being useful in many places is not talking about design too much and just getting on with it. I sometimes think we create significant language barriers with job titles, design theory and making people learn a new language for the privilege of working with us.

I think there’s some truth to that. Andy disagrees. Strongly.

In our chat, Andy and I had what politicians would describe as “a robust discussion.” I certainly got some great material for the podcast (though some of the more contentious bits remain on the cutting room floor).

Calling on Andy for this episode was definitely the right call. I definitely got the added oomph I was looking for. In fact, this ended up being one of my favourite episodes.

There’s a lot of snappy editing, all in service of crafting a compelling narrative. First, there’s the origin story of design ops. Then there’s an explanation of what it entails. From around the 13 minute mark, there’s a pivot—via design systems—into asking whether introducing a new term is exclusionary. That’s when the sparks start to fly. Finally, I pull it back to talking about how Clearleft can help in providing design ops as a service.

The whole episode comes out at 21 minutes, which feels just right to me.

I’m really pleased with how this episode turned out, and I hope you’ll like it too. Have a listen and decide for yourself.

Tuesday, July 28th, 2020

Google’s Top Search Result? Surprise! It’s Google – The Markup

I’ve been using Duck Duck Go for ages so I didn’t realise quite how much of a walled garden Google search has become.

41% of the first page of Google search results is taken up by Google products.

This is some excellent reporting. The data and methodology are entirely falsifiable so feel free to grab the code and replicate the results.

Note the fear with which publishers talk about Google (anonymously). It’s the same fear that app developers exhibit when talking about Apple (anonymously).

Ain’t centralisation something?

Monday, July 27th, 2020

the Web at a crossroads - Web Directions

John weighs in on the clashing priorities of browser vendors.

Imagine if the web never got CSS. Never got a way to style content in sophisticated ways. It’s hard to imagine its rise to prominence in the early 2000s. I’d not be alone in arguing a similar lack of access to the sort of features inherent to the mobile experience that WebKit and the folks at Mozilla have expressed concern about would (not might) largely consign the Web to an increasingly marginal role.

Friday, July 24th, 2020

Make me think! – Ralph Ammer

This is about seamful design.

We need to know things better if we want to be better.

It’s also about progressive enhancement.

Highly sophisticated systems work flawlessly, as long as things go as expected.

When a problem occurs which hasn’t been anticipated by the designers, those systems are prone to fail. The more complex the systems are, the higher are the chances that things go wrong. They are less resilient.

Sunday, July 19th, 2020

90s Festival Generator

I spent far too long hitting refresh and then clicking on the names of some of the Irish bands down near the bottom of the line-up.

Saturday, July 18th, 2020

Works offline

How do we tell our visitors our sites work offline? How do we tell our visitors that they don’t need an app because it’s no more capable than the URL they’re on right now?

Remy expands on his call for ideas on branding websites that work offline with a universal symbol, along the lines of what we had with RSS.

What I’d personally like to see as an outcome: some simple iconography that I can use on my own site and other projects that can offer ambient badging to reassure my visitor that the URL they’re visiting will work offline.

Your blog doesn’t need a JavaScript framework /// Iain Bean

If the browser needs to parse 296kb of JavaScript to show a list of blog posts, that’s not Progressive Enhancement, it’s using the wrong tool for the job.

A good explanation of the hydration problem in tools like Gatsby.

JavaScript is a powerful language that can do some incredible things, but it’s incredibly easy to jump to using it too early in development, when you could be using HTML and CSS instead.

Thursday, July 16th, 2020

Wednesday, July 15th, 2020

The Shape Of The Machine « blarg?

On AMP:

Google could have approached the “be better on mobile” problem, search optimization and revenue sharing any number of ways, obviously, but the one they’ve chosen and built out is the one that guarantees that either you let them middleman all of your traffic or they cut off your oxygen.

There’s also this observation, which is spot-on:

Google has managed to structure this surveillance-and-value-extraction machine entirely out of people who are convinced that they, personally, are doing good for the world. The stuff they’re working on isn’t that bad – we’ve got such beautiful intentions!

Round 1: post your ideas / designs · Issue #1 · works-offline/logo

This is an interesting push by Remy to try to figure out a way we can collectively indicate to users that a site works offline.

Well, seeing as browsers have completely dropped the ball on any kind of ambient badging, it’s fair enough that we take matters into our own hands.

Sunday, July 12th, 2020

Playing The Sailor’s Bonnet (reel) on mandolin:

https://thesession.org/tunes/570

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gcvZyQaa0r8

Wednesday, July 1st, 2020

The design systems between us. — Ethan Marcotte

Smart thoughts from Ethan on how design systems can cement your existing ways of working, but can’t magically change how collaboration works at your organisation.

Modern digital teams rarely discuss decisions in terms of the collaborative costs they incur. It’s tempting—and natural!—to see design- or engineering-related decisions in isolation: that selecting Vue as a front-end framework only impacts the engineering team, or that migrating to Figma only impacts designers. But each of these changes the way that team works, which impacts how other teams will work and collaborate with them.

Friday, June 26th, 2020

Why BaseCamp & Hey.com are Wrong About the Apple App Store

I feel for BaseCamp, I do. But give up on the native app path. Make sure your existing web interface is a good progressive web app and you can end-run around Apple.

We Are As Gods

A forthcoming documentary about Stewart Brand (with music by Brian Eno).