But real problems are messy. Tech culture prefers to solve harder, more abstract problems that haven’t been sullied by contact with reality. So they worry about how to give Mars an earth-like climate, rather than how to give Earth an earth-like climate. They debate how to make a morally benevolent God-like AI, rather than figuring out how to put ethical guard rails around the more pedestrian AI they are introducing into every area of people’s lives.
Friday, May 19th, 2017
Wednesday, December 7th, 2016
Software is politics, because software is power.
The transcript of a tremendous talk by Richard Pope.
Friday, November 25th, 2016
A superb 2012 essay by Olia Lialin. J.C.R. Licklider, Vannevar Bush, Ted Nelson, Douglas Engelbart, Don Norman, Lawrence Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain, Douglas Rushkoff and Cory Doctorow all make an appearance.
There’s a lot to think about here. I’m particular struck by the idea that calling people “users” isn’t necessarily the dehumanising Lakoffian language we think it is; users have power and control. If we stop treating people like users, we may end up infantilising and disempowering them.
But when you read it in a broader context, the denial of the word “user” in favor of “people” becomes dangerous. Being a User is the last reminder that there is, whether visible or not, a computer, a programmed system you use.
Monday, November 21st, 2016
Russell wrote an article for Wired magazine all about PowerPoint, but this extended director’s cut on his own site is the real deal.
Who knew that the creator of PowerPoint was such an enthusiast for the concertina?
Monday, July 27th, 2015
Tuesday, July 14th, 2015
This piece by Cennydd on ethics in digital design reminded me of something Jonathan Harris wrote a while back.
I like that he cautions against hiding the seams:
Designers should also strive to give digital products a healthy balance of seamlessness and interrogability. While it’s appealing to create technology that needs little human intervention, this sort of black box can be a breeding ground for dishonest behaviour.
Thursday, August 14th, 2014
How computers work:
One day, a man name Alan Turing found a magic lamp, and rubbed it. Out popped a genie, and Turing wished for infinite wishes. Then we killed him for being gay, but we still have the wishes.
Then we networked computers together:
The network is ultimately not doing a favor for those in power, even if they think they’ve mastered it for now. It increases their power a bit, it increases the power of individuals immeasurably. We just have to learn to live in the age of networks.
We are all nodes in many networks. This is a beautiful description of how one of those networks operates.
Monday, August 4th, 2014
Cole Peters calls upon designers and developers to realise the power they have to shape the modern world and act accordingly.
It is in those of us who work in tech and on the web that digital privacy may find its greatest chance for survival. As labourers in one of the most pivotal industries of our times, we possess the knowledge and skills required to create tools and ecosystems that defend our privacy and liberties.
I don’t disagree, but I think it’s also important to recognise how much power is in the hands of non-designers and non-developers: journalists, politicians, voters …everyone has a choice to make.
Monday, May 12th, 2014
You can listen to an audio version of Seams.
“The function of science fiction,” said Ray Bradbury, “is not only to predict the future, but to prevent it.”
Dystopias are the default setting for science fiction. It’s rare to find utopian sci-fi, and when you do—as in the post-singularity Culture novels of Iain M.Banks—there’s always more than a germ of dystopia; the dystutopias that Margaret Atwood speaks of.
You’ve got your political dystopias—1984 and all its imitators. Then there’s alien invasion dystopias, machine-intelligence dystopias, and a whole slew of post-apocalyptic dystopias: nuclear war, pandemic disease, environmental collapse, genetic engineering …take your pick. From the cosy catastrophes of John Wyndham to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, this is the stock and trade of speculative fiction.
Of all these undesirable futures, one that troubles more than any other is the Wall·E dystopia. I’m not talking about the environmental wasteland depicted on Earth. I mean the dystutopia depicted aboard the generation starship The Axiom. Here, humanity’s every need is catered to without requiring any thought. And so humanity atrophies, becoming physically obese and intellectually lazy.
It’s not a new idea. H. G. Wells had already shown us a distant future like this in his classic novel The Time Machine. In the far future of that book’s timeline, humanity splits into two. The savagery of the canabalistic Morlocks is contrasted with the docile passive stupidity of the Eloi, but as Jaron Lanier points out, both endpoints are equally horrific.
In Wall·E, the Eloi have advanced technology. Their technology has been designed according to a design principle enshrined in the title of a Dead Kennedys album: Give Me Convenience Or Give Me Death.
That’s the reason why the Wall·E dystopia disturbs me so much. It’s all-too believable. For many years now, the rallying cry of digital designers has been epitomised by the title of Steve Krug’s terrific book, Don’t Make Me Think. But what happens when that rallying cry is taken too far? What happens when it stops being “don’t make think while I’m trying to complete a task” to simply “don’t make me think” full stop?
Convenience. Ease of use. Seamlessness.
On the face of it, these all seem like desirable traits in digital and physical products alike. But they come at a price. When we design, we try to do the work so that the user doesn’t have to. We do the thinking so the user doesn’t have to. Don’t make the user think. But taken too far, that mindset becomes dangerous.
Marshall McLuhan said that every extension is also an amputution. As we augment the abilities of people to accomplish their tasks, we should be careful not to needlessly curtail what they can do:
Here we are, a society hell bent on extending our reach through phones, through computers, through “seamless integration” and yet all along the way we’re unwittingly losing perhaps as much as we gain. The mediums we create are built to carry out specific tasks efficiently, but by doing so they have a tendency to restrict our options for accomplishing that task by other means. We begin to learn the “One” way to do it, when in fact there are infinite ways. The medium begins to restrict our thinking, our imagination, our potential.
The idea of “seamlessness” as a desirable trait in what we design is one that bothers me. Technology has seams. By hiding those seams, we may think we are helping the end user, but we are also making a conscience choice to deceive them (or at least restrict what they can do).
I see this a lot in the world of web devlopment. We’re constantly faced with challenges like dealing with users on slow networks or small screens. So we try to come up with solutions (bandwidth media queries, responsive images) that have at their heart an assumption that we know better than the end user what they should get.
I’m not saying that everything should be an option in a menu for the user to figure out—picking smart defaults is very much part of our job. But I do think there’s real value in giving the user the final choice.
I remember Jake giving a good example of this. If he’s travelling and he’s on a 3G network on his phone, or using shitty hotel WiFi on his laptop, and someone sends him a link to a video of some cats, he doesn’t mind if he gets the low-quality version as long as he gets to see the feline shenanigans in short order. But if he’s in the same situation and someone sends him a link to the just-released trailer for the new Star Trek movie, he’s willing to wait for hours so that he can watch in high-definition.
That’s a choice. All too often, these kind of choices are pre-made by designers and developers instead of being offered to the end user. We probably mean well, but there’s a real danger in assuming that just because someone is using a particular device that we can infer what their context is:
Mind reading is no way to base fundamental content decisions.
My point is that while we don’t want to overwhelm the user with choice overload, we also need to be careful not to unintentionally remove valuable choices that can empower people. In our quest to make experiences seamless, we run the risk of also making those experiences rigid and inflexible.
The drive for a “seamless experience” has been used to justify some harsh amputations. When Twitter declared war on the very developers it used to champion, and changed its API and terms of service so that tweets had to be displayed the same way everywhere, it was done in the name of “a consistent user experience.” Twitter knows best.
The web is made up of parts and there are seams between those parts: HTML, HTTP, and URLs. The software that can expose or hide those seams is the web browser. Web browsers are made by human beings and it’s the mindset and assumptions of those human beings that determines whether web browsers are enabling or disabling users to make use of those seams.
“View source” is a seam that exposes the HTML lying beneath every web page. That kind of X-ray vision can be quite powerful. Clearly it’s not an important feature for most users, but it is directly responsible for showing people how web pages are made …and intimating that anyone can do it. In the introduction to my first book I thanked “view source” along with my other teachers like Jeff Veen, Steve Champeon, and Jeffrey Zeldman.
These days, browsers don’t like to expose “view source” as easily as they once did. It’s hidden amongst the developer tools. There’s an assumption there that it’s not intended for regular users. The browser makers know best.
The CSS that styles web pages can be over-ridden by the end user. This is not a bug. It is a very powerful feature. That feature is being removed:
I understand that vendors can do whatever they want to control how you experience the web, because it is their software, their product, but removing user stylesheets feels sooo un-web to me, which is irony. A browser’s largest responsibility is to give people access to the web. It’s like the web is this open hand, but software is this closed fist.
Then there’s the URL. The ultimate seam.
Historically, browsers have exposed this seam, but now—just as with “view source” and user stylesheets—the visibility of the URL is being relegated to being a power-user tool.
The ultimate amputation.
The irony here is that the justification for this change is not the usual mantra of providing “a more seamless user experience.” Instead, the justification is supposedly security.
This strike me as really strange. Security is the one area where seamlessness is definitely not a desirable characteristic. A secure system requires people to be mindful and aware of their situation. This is certainly true on the web, as Tom points out:
Hiding information away makes me less able to make decisions: it makes me a less informed user.
The whole reason that phishing is a problem is because users don’t pay any bloody attention to what they see in their location bar. Putting less information in the location bar makes the location bar less useful and thus there’s less point paying any attention to it.
Tom has hit on the fundamental mismatch here. Chrome is a piece of software that wants to provide a good user experience—“don’t make me think!”—while at the same trying to make users mindful of their surroundings:
Security requires educated, pro-active, informed thinking users.
Usability is about making the whole process of using the web seamless and thoughtless: a child should be able to do it.
So from the security standpoint, obfuscating the URL is exactly the wrong thing to do.
In order to actually stay safe online, you need to see the “seams” of the web, you need to pay attention, use your brain.
Chrome knows best.
Making it harder to “view source” might seem like an inconsequentail decision. Removing the ability to apply user stylesheets might seem like an inconsequential decision. Heck, even hiding the URL might seem like an inconsequential decision. But each one of those decisions has repercussions. And each one of those decisions reflects an underlying viewpoint.
Make no mistake, all software is political. We talk about opinionated software but really, all software is opinionated, whether we like it or not. Seemingly inconsequential interface decisions are actually reflections of assumptions, biases and beliefs.
As Nat points out, like all political decisions, this is about power:
There’s been much debate about whether the URLs are ‘ugly’ or ‘beautiful’ and whether people really understand them. This debate misses the point.
The URLs are the cornerstone of the interconnected, decentralised web. Removing the URLs from the browser is an attempt to expand and consolidate centralised power.
If that’s the case, then it really doesn’t matter what we think about Chrome removing visible URLs. What appears to be a design decision about the user interface is in fact a manifestation of a much deeper vision. It’s a vision of a future where people can have everything their heart desires without having to expend needless thought. It’s a bright future filled with seamless experiences.
Welcome aboard The Axiom.
Buy n Large knows best.
Tuesday, May 6th, 2014
Nat’s take on Chrome’s proposal to bury URLs:
The URLs are the cornerstone of the interconnected, decentralised web. Removing the URLs from the browser is an attempt to expand and consolidate centralised power.
Monday, August 26th, 2013
August in America, day twenty-three
Powers Of Ten is a remarkable short film created by Charles and Ray Eames in 1968. It deals with scale, going out to the distance of our galactic neighbourhood and down to the Planck measurement.
It all begins in a park in Chicago.
Ever since first seeing the film I thought it would be fun to find the exact spot around which the universe is explored by the Eameses. I also thought I probably wasn’t the first geek to think that. But my preliminary googling didn’t turn up any prior art. So I put the call out on Twitter:
Geocoders of the lazyweb: I’m trying to figure out the exact lat/lon coordinates of the Eames’ “Powers Of Ten” http://t.co/1lFnZAvm4V Go!— Jeremy Keith (@adactio) August 25, 2013
Within minutes, Matthew came through for me:
@adactio The park's been remodelled, but it's somewhere about (41.864726,-87.613471).— Matthew Somerville (@dracos) August 25, 2013
The actual live action of the picnic scene was filmed in Los Angeles, where Charles and Ray could oversee all aspects of production for the critical opening moments.
Nonetheless, armed with latitude and longitude coordinates, Jessica and I set out to find the one metre square patch of Chicago that’s used as the starting point for the film. We began the trek from our riverside hotel, stopping for an Intelligentsia coffee along the way, passing by the bean to take obligatory mirror shots, and through Millenium Park down to the Field Museum and the Schedd Aquarium, the perfect spot to stop for a Chicago-style hot dog.
With a bit more walking, we made it to the lat/lon coordinates—a more arboreal location now than it was back when Powers Of Ten was filmed. I did what any self-respecting nerd in my situation would do: I made a new spot on Foursquare.
Mission accomplished. After that, we hopped on a water taxi back up to Navy Pier. This short boat ride made Jessica inordinately happy. It certainly was a lovely day to be out on the water. ‘Though I had to keep reminding myself that we were on a lake, not an ocean.
When we got back to our hotel, we asked at reception if there might be a riverside view that we could move to. There was and we did. Now when we look out of our hotel window, we can see the stunning architecture of downtown Chicago in all its glory.
Saturday, June 15th, 2013
An interesting observation on the changes in Apple’s advertising campaigns: it’s no longer about “here’s how great you (the user) can be”, instead it’s increasingly about “here’s how great we (the company) can be.”
Sunday, June 17th, 2012
This is rather wonderful: a DevFort project for navigating interweaving strands of history, James Burke style.
Sunday, December 25th, 2011
Oh, this is good! British Sea Power are doing a monthly residency at The Haunt in Brighton. I’ve got my ticket for the first show.
Thursday, November 17th, 2011
I should just have a recurring event in my calendar set for every week that says “Go watch this again to regain your sense of perspective.”
Tuesday, April 8th, 2008
The Powerhouse Museum in Sydneyâ€”who have been doing some great stuff with public tagging alreadyâ€”have joined the Library of Congress in putting their photographic collection online for crowdsourced tagging.
Thursday, June 14th, 2007
Joe shares his experiences of public speaking. There's some great advice here.
Tara talks about the damaging effect on women who believe that to protect themselves, they cannot be truly open online.
Thursday, November 30th, 2006
Fantastic collection of user-tagged content at the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney.
Tuesday, March 28th, 2006
Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake are on the cover of Newsweek. How cool is that?