The best climate fiction can do more than spur us to action to save the world we have — it can help us conceptualize the worlds, both beautiful and dire, that may lie ahead. These stories can be maps to the future, tools for understanding the complex systems that intertwine with the changing climates to come.
Thursday, April 28th, 2022
Monday, April 25th, 2022
I went to TEDxBrighton on Friday. I didn’t actually realise it was happening until just a couple of days beforehand, but I once I knew, I figured I should take advantage of it being right here in my own town.
All in all, it was a terrific day. The MCing by Adam Pearson was great—just the right mix of enthusiasm and tongue-in-cheek humour. The curation of the line-up worked well too. The day was broken up into four loosely-themed sections. As I’m currently in the process of curating an event myself, I can appreciate how challenging it is.
Each section opened with a musical act. Again, having been involved behind the scenes with many events myself, I was impressed by the audaciousness, just from a logistical perspective. It all went relatively smoothly.
The talks at a TED or TEDx event can be a mixed bag. You can have a scientist on stage distilling years of research into a succint message followed by someone talking nonsense about some pseudo-psychological self-help scheme. But at TEDxBrighton, we lucked out.
A highlight for me was Dr James Mannion talking about implementation science—something that felt directly applicable to design work. Victoria Jenkins was also terrific, and again, her points about inclusive design felt very relevant. And of course I really enjoyed the space-based talks by Melissa Thorpe and Bianca Cefalo. Now that I think about it, just about everyone was great: Katie Vincent, Lewis Wedlock, Dina Nayeri—they all wowed me.
With one exception. There was a talk that was supposed to be about the future of democracy. In reality it quickly veered into DAOs before descending into a pitch for crypto and NFTs. The call to action was literally for everyone in the audience to go out and get a crypto wallet and buy an NFT …using ethereum no less! We were exhorted to use an unbelievably wasteful and energy-intensive proof-of-work technology to get our hands on a receipt for a JPG …from the same stage that would later highlight the work of climate activists like Tommie Eaton. It was really quite disgusting. The fear-based message of the talk was literally about getting in on the scheme before it’s too late. At one point we were told to “do the research.” I’m surprised we weren’t all told that we’re “not going to make it.”
A disgraceful shill for a ponzi scheme would’ve ruined any other event. Fortunately the line-up at TEDxBrighton was so strong that one scam artist couldn’t torpedo the day. Just like crypto itself—and associated bollocks like NFTs and web3—it was infuriating to have to sit through it in the short term, but then it just faded away into insignificance. One desperate peddler of snake oil couldn’t make a dent in an otherwise great day.
Tuesday, April 12th, 2022
Starting and finishing
Someone was asking recently about advice for public speaking. This was specifically for in-person events now that we’re returning to actual live conferences.
Everyone’s speaking style is different so there’s no universal advice. That said, just about everyone recommends practicing. Practice your talk. Then practice it again and again.
That’s good advice but it’s also quite time-consuming. Something I’ve recommended in the past is to really concentrate on the start and the end of the talk.
You should be able to deliver the first five minutes of your talk in your sleep. If something is going to throw you, it’s likely to happen at the beginning of your talk. Whether it’s a technical hitch or just the weirdness and nerves of standing on stage, you want to be able to cruise through that part of the talk on auto-pilot. After five minutes or so, your nerves will have calmed and any audio or visual oddities should be sorted.
Likewise you want to really nail the last few minutes of your talk. Have a good strong ending that you can deliver convincingly.
Make it very clear when you’re done—usually through a decisive “thank you!”—to let the audience know that they may now burst into rapturous applause. Beware the false ending. “Thank you …and this is my Twitter handle. I always like hearing from people. So. Yeah.” Remember, the audience is on your side and they want to show their appreciation for your talk but you have to let them know without any doubt when the talk is done.
At band practice we sometimes joke “Hey, as long as we all start together and finish together, that’s what matters.” It’s funny because there’s a kernel of truth to it. If you start a song with a great intro and you finish the song with a tight rock’n’roll ending, nobody’s going to remember if somebody flubbed a note halfway through.
So, yes, practice your talk. But really practice the start and the end of your talk.
Tuesday, November 30th, 2021
Friday, November 5th, 2021
Memories of Ajax
I just finished watching The Billion Dollar Code, a German language miniseries on Netflix. It’s no Halt and Catch Fire, but it combines ’90s nostalgia, early web tech, and an opportunity for me to exercise my German comprehension.
It’s based on a true story, but with amalgamated characters. The plot, which centres around the preparation for a court case, inevitably invites comparison to The Social Network, although this time the viewpoint is from that of the underdogs trying to take on the incumbent. The incumbent is Google. The underdogs are ART+COM, artist-hackers who created the technology later used by Google Earth.
Early on, one of the characters says something about creating a one-to-one model of the whole world. That phrase struck me as familiar…
I remember being at the inaugural Future Of Web Apps conference in London back in 2006. Discussing the talks with friends afterwards, we all got a kick out of the speaker from Google, who happened to be German. His content and delivery was like a wonderfully Stranglovesque mad scientist. I’m sure I remember him saying something like “vee made a vun-to-vun model of the vurld.”
His name was Steffen Meschkat. I liveblogged the talk at the time. Turns out he was indeed on the team at ART+COM when they created Terravision, the technology later appropriated by Google (he ended up working at Google, which doesn’t make for as exciting a story as the TV show).
His 2006 talk was all about Ajax, something he was very familiar with, being on the Google Maps team. The Internet Archive even has a copy of the original audio!
It’s easy to forget now just how much hype there was around Ajax back then. It prompted me to write a book about combining Ajax and progressive enhancement.
These days, no one talks about Ajax. But that’s not because the technology went away. Quite the opposite. The technology became so ubiquituous that it no longer even needs a label.
A web developer today might ask “what’s Ajax?” in the same way that a fish might ask “what’s water?”
Wednesday, November 3rd, 2021
Publishing The State Of The Web
I put a lot of work into this talk and I think it paid off. I wrote about preparing the talk. I also wrote about recording it. I also published links related to the talk. It was an intense process, but a rewarding one.
I almost called the talk The Overview Effect. My main goal with the talk was to instil a sense of perspective. Hence the references to the famous Earthrise photograph.
On the one hand, I wanted the audience to grasp just how far the web has come. So the first half of the talk is a bit of a trip down memory lane, with a constant return to just how much we can accomplish in browsers today. It’s all very positive and upbeat.
Then I twist the knife. Having shown just how far we’ve progressed technically, I switch gears the moment I say:
The biggest challenges facing the World Wide Web today are not technical challenges.
Then I dive into those challenges, as I see them. It turns out that technical challenges would be preferable to the seemingly intractable problems of today’s web.
I almost wish I could’ve flipped the order: talk about the negative stuff first but then finish with the positive. I worry that the talk could be a bit of a downer. Still, I tried to finish on an optimistic note.
Tuesday, November 2nd, 2021
Here’s the video of my latest conference talk—I really like how it turned out.
I’ve also published a transcript.
Hello, my friends. I’d like us to try to collectively achieve something today. What I’d like us to achieve is a sense of perspective.
To do this we need to take a step back and cast an eye on the past.
For example, I can look back and say “Wow, what a terrible year!”
A year of death. A year of polarisation. Of inequality. A corrupt government. Protests in the street as people struggled to fight against systemic racism.
Yes, I am of course talking about the year 1968.
By the end of 1968, the United States of America was a nation in turmoil. Civil rights. The war in Vietnam. It felt like the polarising issues of the day were splitting the country in two.
But in the final week of the year, something happened that offered a sense of perspective.
In an audacious move, NASA decided to bring forward the schedule of its Apollo programme. Apollo 7 was a success but that mission was confined to Earth orbit. For Apollo 8, human beings would leave Earth’s orbit for the first time in history. The bold plan was to fly to and around the moon before returning safely to Earth.
From today’s perspective, you might just see it as a dry run for Apollo 11 when human beings would step foot on the moon. But at the time, it was an unbelievably bold move. A literal moonshot.
On the winter solstice, December 21st 1968, Jim Lovell, Frank Borman, and Bill Anders were launched on their six day mission to the moon and back.
The mission was a success. Everything went according to plan. But the reason why we remember the Apollo 8 mission today is for something that wasn’t planned.
First of all, after the translunar injection when the crew had left Earth orbit and were on their way to the moon (already the furthest distance ever travelled by our species), someone—probably Bill Anders—pointed a camera back at Earth.
This was the first picture ever taken by a human being of the whole earth. It’s quite a perspective-setting sight, seeing the whole Earth. To us today, it’s almost commonplace. But remember that were was a time when no one had ever seen this view.
In fact, throughout the 1960s activist Stewart Brand had a campaign, handing out buttons with the question, “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?”
I like the “yet” at the end of that. It gives it a conspiracy-tinged edge.
Stewart Brand suspected that if people could see their home planet in one image, it could reset their perspectives. They would truly grok the idea of Spaceship Earth, as Buckminster Fuller would say. The idea came to Brand when he was on a rooftop, tripping on acid, experiencing the horizon curve away from him and giving him quite a sense of perspective.
Later, he would start the Whole Earth Catalog. It was like a print version of Wikipedia, with everything you needed to know to run a commune.
Later still, he went on to found the Long Now Foundation, an organisation dedicated to long-term thinking. I’m a proud member.
Their most famous project is the clock of the long now, which will keep time for 10,000 years. This is just a scale model in the Science Museum in London. The full-size clock is being built inside a mountain on geologically stable ground. Just thinking about the engineering challenges involved is bound to give you a certain sense of perspective.
But let’s snap back from 10,000 in the future to that Apollo 8 mission in December of 1968.
This picture of the whole earth wasn’t the most important picture taken by Bill Anders on that flight. By Christmas Eve, the crew had reached the moon and successfully entered lunar orbit.
Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There’s the Earth coming up. Wow, that’s pretty.
Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.
You got a color film, Jim? Hand me that roll of color quick, would you…
Oh man, that’s…
This is what Bill Anders captured.
I could try to describe it. But they should’ve sent a poet.
Fifty years later, this poet puts it beautifully. This is Amanda Gorman’s poem Earthrise.
On Christmas Eve, 1968, astronaut Bill Anders
Snapped a photo of the earth
As Apollo 8 orbited the moon.
Those three guys
To see from their eyes
Our planet looked like an earthrise
A blue orb hovering over the moon’s gray horizon,
with deep oceans and silver skies.
It was our world’s first glance at itself
Our first chance to see a shared reality,
A declared stance and a commonality;
A glimpse into our planet’s mirror,
And as threats drew nearer,
Our own urgency became clearer,
As we realize that we hold nothing dearer
than this floating body we all call home.
Astronauts have been known to experience something called the overview effect. It’s a profound change in perspective that comes from seeing the totality of our home planet in all its beauty and fragility.
The Earthrise photograph gave the world a taste of the overview effect, right at a time when it was most needed.
The World Wide Web
I wonder if it’s possible to get an overview effect for the World Wide Web?
There is no photograph of the whole web. We can’t see the web. We can’t travel into space and look back at our online home.
But we can travel back in time. Let’s travel back to 1945.
That was the year that an article was published in The Atlantic Monthly by Vannevar Bush. He was a pop scientist of his day, like Neil de Grasse Tyson or Bill Nye.
The article was called As We May Think. In the article, Bush describes a hypothetical device called a memex.
Imagine a desk filled with reams and reams of microfilm. The operator of this device can find information and also make connections between bits of information, linking them together in whatever way makes sense to them.
This sounds a lot like hypertext. That word would be coined decades later by Ted Nelson to describe “text which is not constrained to be linear.”
Vannevar Bush’s idea of the memex and Ted Nelson’s ideas about hypertext would be a big influence on Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web.
But his big breakthrough wasn’t just making hypertext into a reality. Other people had already done that.
Douglas Engelbart, who wanted to make the computer equivalent of the memex, had already demonstrated a working hypertext system in 1968 in an astonishing demonstration that came to be known as The Mother Of All Demos.
The idea of hypertext was kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure book. Individual pieces of text in a book are connected with unique identifiers and you can jump from one piece of text to another within the same book.
But what if you could jump between books? That’s the other piece of the puzzle.
The idea of connecting computers together came from the concept of “time sharing” allowing you to remotely access another computer.
With funding from the US Department of Defence’s Advance Research Projects Agency, time sharing was taken to the next level with the creation of a computer network called the ARPANET.
It grew. And it grew. Until it was no longer just a network of computers. It was a network of networks. Or internetwork. Internet, for short.
Tim Berners-Lee took the infrastructure of the internet and mashed it up with the idea of hypertext. Instead of imagining hypertext as a book with interconnected concepts, he imaged a library of books where you could jump from one idea in one book to another idea in a completely different book in a completely different part of the library.
This was the World Wide Web. And Tim Berners-Lee called it the World Wide Web even when it only existed on his computer. You have to admire the chutspah of that!
But the really incredible thing is that it worked! In March of 1989 he proposed a global hypertext system, where anybody could create new pages without asking anyone for permission, and anyone could access those pages no matter what kind of device or operating system they were using.
And that’s what we have today. While the World Wide Web might seem inevitable in hindsight, it was anything but. It is a remarkable achievement.
The World Wide Web was somewhat lacking in colour originally. When I started making websites in the mid nineties, colour had arrived but it was limited.
When I started making websites in the mid nineties, colour had arrived but it was somewhat limited.
We had a palette of 216 web safe colours. You knew if a colour was “web safe” if the hexadecimal notation was three sets of duplicated values. If you altered one of those values even slightly, there was no guarantee that the colour would display consistently on the monitors of the time.
I have a confession to make: I kind of liked this constraint in a weird way. To this day, if I have a colour value that’s almost web-safe, I can’t resist nudging it slightly.
Fortunately, monitors improved. They got flatter for one thing. They were also capable of displaying plenty of colours.
And we also got more and more ways of specifying colours. As well as hexadecimal, we got RGB: Red, Green, Blue. Better yet, we got RGBa …with alpha transparency. That’s opacity to you and me.
Then we got HSL: hue, saturation, lightness. Or should I say HSLa: hue, saturation, lightness, and alpha transparency.
And there are more colour spaces on the way. HWB (hue, whiteness, blackness), LAB, LCH. And there’s work on a color() function so you can specify even more colour spaces.
In the beginning, typography on the World Wide Web was non-existent. Your browser used whatever was available on your operating system.
That situation continued for quite a while. You’d have to guess which fonts were likely to be available on Windows or Mac.
If you wanted to use a sans-serif typeface, there was Arial on Windows and Helvetica on the Mac. Verdana was a pretty safe bet too.
For a while your only safe option for a serif typeface was Times New Roman. When Mathew Carter’s Georgia was released, it was a godsend. Here was a typeface specifically designed for the screen.
Later Microsoft released another four fonts designed for the screen. Four new fonts! It felt like we were being spoiled.
But what if you wanted to use a typeface that didn’t come installed with an operating system? Well, you went into Photoshop and made an image of the text. Now the user had to download additional images. The text wasn’t selectable and it was a fixed width.
We came up with all sorts of clever techniques to do what was called “image replacement” for text. Some of the techniques involved CSS and background images. One of the techniques involved Flash. It was called sIFR: Scalable Inman Flash Replacement. A later technique called Cufón converted the letter shapes into paths in Canvas.
All of these techniques were hacks. Very clever hacks, but hacks nonetheless. They were clever and they worked but they always reminded me of Samuel Johnson’s description of a dog walking on its hind legs:
It is not done well but you are surprised to find it done at all.
What if you wanted to use an actual font file in a web page?
There was only one browser that supported font embedding: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer. The catch was that you had to use a proprietary font format called Embedded Open Type.
Both type foundries and browser makers were nervous about allowing regular font files to be embedded in web pages. They were worried about licensing. Wouldn’t this lead to even more people downloading fonts illegally? How would the licensing be enforced?
The impasse was broken with a two-pronged approach. First of all, we got a new font format called Web Open Font Format or WOFF. It could be used to take a regular font file and wrap it in a light veneer of metadata about licensing. There’s a sequel that’s even better than the original, WOFF2.
The other breakthrough was the creation of intermediary services like Typekit and Fontdeck. They would take care of serving the actual font files, making sure they couldn’t be easily downloaded. They could also keep track of numbers to ensure that type foundries were being compensated fairly.
Over time it became clear to type foundries that most web designers wanted to do the right thing when it came to licensing fonts. And so these days, you can probably license a font straight from a type foundry for use on the web and host it yourself.
You might need to buy a few different weights. Regular. Bold. Maybe italic. What about extra bold? Or a light weight? It all starts to add up, especially for the end user who has to download all those files.
I remember being at the web typography conference Ampersand years ago and hearing a talk from Nick Sherman. He asked us to imagine one single font file that could go from light to regular to bold and everything in between. What he described sounded like science fiction.
It is now science fact, indistinguishable from magic. Variable fonts are here. You can typeset text on the web to be light, or regular, or bold, or anything in between.
When you use CSS to declare the font-weight property, you can use keywords like “normal” or “bold” but you can also use corresponding numbers like 400 or 700. There’s a scale with nine options from 100 to 900. But why isn’t the scale simply one to nine?
Well, even though the idea of variable fonts would have been pure fantasy when this part of CSS was being specced, the authors had some foresight:
One of the reasons we chose to use three-digit numbers was to support intermediate values in the future.
With the creation of variable fonts, Håkon Wium Lee added:
And the future is now.
On today’s web you could have 999 font-weight options.
In the beginning, the World Wide Web was a medium for text only. There were no images and certainly no videos.
In an early mailing list discussion, there was talk of creating a new HTML element for images. Perhaps it should be called “icon”. Or maybe it should be more generic and be called “embed”. Tim Berners-Lee said he imagined using the rel attribute on the A element for embedding images.
While this discussion was happening, Marc Andreessen popped in to say that he had just shipped a new HTML element in the Mosaic browser. It’s called IMG and it takes an attribute called SRC that points to the source of the image.
This was a self-closing tag so there was no way to put fallback content in between the opening and closing tags if the image couldn’t be displayed. So the ALT attribute was introduced instead to provide an alternative description of the image.
For the images themselves, there were really only two choices. JPG for photographic images. GIF for icons or anything that needed basic transparency. GIFs could also do animation and today, that’s pretty much all they’re used for. That’s because there was a concerted campaign to ditch the GIF format on the web. Unisys, who owned the rights to a compression algorithm used by the GIF format, had started to make noises about potentially demanding license fees for its use.
The Portable Network Graphics format—or PNG—was created in response. It was more performant and it allowed you to have proper alpha transparency.
These were all bitmap formats. What if you wanted a vector format for images that would retain crispness at any size or resolution? There was only one option: Flash. You’d have to embed a Flash movie in your web page just to get the benefit of vector graphics.
By the 21st century there were some eggheads working on a text-based vector file format that could be embedded in webpages, but it sounded like a pipe dream. It was called SVG for Scalable Vector Graphics. The format was dreamed up in 2001 but for years, not a single browser supported it. It was like some theoretical graphical Shangri-La.
But by 2011, every major browser supported it. Styleable, scriptable, animatable, vector graphics have gone from fantasy to reality.
There’s more choice in the world of bitmap images too. WebP is well supported. AVIF is is gaining support.
These elements have been designed with more thought than the IMG element. They are not self-closing elements, by design. You can put fallback content between the opening and closing tags.
The audio and video elements arrived long after the IMG element. For a long time, there was no easy way to do video or audio on the web.
That was very frustrating for me. The first websites I ever built were for bands. The only way to stream music was with a proprietary plug-in like Real Audio.
While the web standards were still being worked on, Flash delivered the goods with streaming audio and video. This happened over and over. Flash gave us vector graphics, animation, video, and more. But the price was lock-in. Flash was a proprietary format.
Still, Flash showed the web standards bodies the direction of travel. Flash was the hare. Web standards were the tortoise.
We know how that race ended.
In a way, Flash was like the Research and Development incubator for the World Wide Web. We got CSS animations, SVG, and streaming video because Flash showed that there was an appetite for them.
Until web standards provide a way to do something, designers and developers will reach for whatever tool gets the job done. Take layout, for example.
In the early days of the web, you could have any layout you wanted …as long as it was a single column.
Before long, HTML expanded to provide some rudimentary formatting for that single column of text. Presentational elements and attributes were invented. And even when elements and attributes weren’t meant to be used for formatting, people got creative.
Tables for layout. A single pixel GIF that could be given width and height. These were clever solutions. But they were hacks. And they were in danger of turning HTML into a presentational language instead of a language for structuring content.
CSS came to the rescue. A language specifically for presentation.
But we still didn’t get proper layout tools. There was a lot of debate in the early days about whether CSS should even attempt to provide layout tools or whether that was a job for a separate technology.
We could lay things out using the float property, but really that was just another hack.
Floats were an improvement over tables for layout, but we only swapped one tool for another. Our collective thinking still wasn’t very web-like.
For example, designers and developers insisted on building websites with a fixed width. This started in the era of table layouts and carried over into CSS.
To start with, the fixed width was 640 pixels. Then it was 800 pixels. Then people settled on the magical number of 960 pixels. Designers and developers didn’t seem at all concerned that people had different sized screens.
That was until the iPhone came out. It caused a panic. What fixed width were we supposed to design for now?
The answer was there all along. Even before the web appeared in mobile devices, it was possible to build fluid layouts that would adapt to screen size. It’s just that the majority of designers and developers chose not to build in this way.
I was pleased that mobile came along and shook things up. It exposed the assumptions that people were making. And it forced designers and developers to think in a more fluid, webby way.
Even better, CSS had expanded to include media queries so it was possible to alter layouts at different breakpoints.
Ethan came along and put a nice bow on it with his definition of responsive design: fluid media, fluid layouts, and media queries.
I fell in love with responsive web design instantly becuase it matched how I was already thinking about the web. I was one of the handful of weirdos who insisted on building fluid websites when everyone else was using fixed-width layouts.
But I thought that responsive web design would struggle to take hold.
I’m delighted to say that I was wrong. Responsive web design has become the default!
If I could go back to my past self in the mid 2000s, I’d love to tell them that in the future, everyone would be building with fluid layouts (and also that time travel had been invented apparently).
Not only that, but we finally have proper layout tools for the web. Flexbox. Grid. No more hacks. We’re even getting container queries soon (thanks, Miriam!).
Web browsers now are positively overflowing with fantastic design tools that would have been unimaginable to my past self. Support for these technologies is pretty much universal.
When browsers differ today, it’s only terms of which standards they don’t yet support. There was a time when browsers differed massively in how they handled basic web technologies.
There was a time when being a web developer meant understanding all the different quirks between browsers.
And browser makers spent a ludicrous amount of time reverse-engineering the quirky behaviour of whichever browser was the market leader.
That changed with HTML5. We remember HTML5 for introducing new APIs, new form fields, and new structural elements. But the biggest innovation was completely invisible. For the first time, error-handling was standardised. Browsers had a set of rules they could work from. Once browsers adopted this consistent approach to error-handling, cross-browser differences dried up.
In the beginning, there was no scripting on the web, just like there was no styling. Tim Berners-Lee wasn’t opposed to the idea of executing arbitrary code on the web. But he pointed out that you’d need everyone to agree on which programming language browsers would use.
You need something really powerful, but at the same time ubiquitous. Remember a facet of the web is universal readership. There is no universal interpreted programming language.
The important thing is that multiple browsers implemented it. Then the hype started. We were told about this great new technology called DHTML. The D stood for dynamic! This would allow us to programmatically manipulate elements in a web page.
But… the two major browsers at the time, Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, used two completely incompatible syntaxes. For Netscape Navigator you’d use document.layers. For Internet Explorer it was document.all.
This was when developers said enough was enough. We wanted standards. The Web Standards Project was formed and we lobbied browser makers to implement web standards, like CSS and also the Document Object Model. This was a standardised way of manipulating elements in a web page. You could use methods like getElementById and getElementsByTagName.
That worked fine, but it was yet another vocabulary to learn. If you already knew CSS, then you already understood how to get an element by ID and get elements by tag name, but with a different syntax.
Now we no longer need jQuery. We’ve got querySelector and querySelectorAll. But the reason we no longer need jQuery is because of jQuery. Just like Flash, jQuery showed what developers wanted. And just as with Flash, the web standards took more time. But now jQuery is obsolete …precisely because it was so successful.
It’s a similar story with Sass and CSS. There was a time when Sass was the only way to have a feature like variables. But now with custom properties available in CSS, Sass is becoming increasingly obsolete …precisely because it was so successful and showed the direction of travel.
But some capabilities can’t be polyfilled. If a browser doesn’t provide API access to a particular sensor, for example, there’s no way to spackle that gap.
For quite a while, if you wanted access to device APIs, you’d have to build a native app. But over time, that has changed. Now browsers are capable of providing app-like experiences. You can get location data. You can access the camera. You can provide notifications. You can even make websites work offline using service workers.
Native apps had all these capabilities before web browsers. Just as with Flash and jQuery, native apps pointed the way. The gap always looks insurmountable to begin with. But over time, the web always manages to catch up.
At the beginning of 2021, Ire said:
By the end of the year, I would predict that any major native mobile application could be instead built using native web capabilities.
The web has come along way. It has grown and evolved. Browsers have become more and more powerful while maintaining backward compatibility.
In the past we had to hack our way around the technological limitations of the web and we had a long wish list of features we wanted.
I’m not saying we’re done. I’m sure that more features will keep coming. But our wish list has shrunk.
The biggest challenges facing the World Wide Web today are not technical challenges.
Today it is possible to create beautiful websites that make full use of colour, typography, layout, animation, and more. But this isn’t what users experience.
This is what users experience. A tedious frustrating game of whack-a-mole with websites that claim to value our privacy while asking us to relinquish it.
This is not a technical problem. It is a design decision. The decision might not be made by anyone with designer in their job title, but make no mistake, business decisions have a direct effect on user experience.
On the face of it, the problem seems to be with the business model of advertising. But that’s not quite right. To be more precise, the problem is with the business model of behavioural advertising. That relies on intermediaries to amass huge amounts of personal data so that they can supposedly serve up relevant advertising.
But contextual advertising, which serves up ads based on the content you’re looking at doesn’t require the invasive collection of personal data. And it works. Behavioural advertising, despite being a huge industry that depends on people giving up their privacy, doesn’t even work very well. And on the few occasions when it does work, it just feels creepy.
The problem is not advertising. The problem is tracking. The greatest trick the middlemen ever pulled was convincing us that you can’t have effective advertising without tracking. That is false. But they’ve managed to skew our sense of perspective so that invasive advertising seems inevitable.
Advertising was always possible on the web. You could publish anything and an ad is just one more thing you could choose to publish. But tracking was impossible. That’s because the early web was stateless. A browser requests a resource from a server and once that transaction is done, they both promptly forget about it. That made it very hard to do things like online shopping or logging into an account.
Perhaps none of this applies to you anyway. You may be thinking that this is a problem for websites. But you build web apps.
But the phrase “single page app” has a more definite meaning. It refers to an architectural decision. That decision is to reinvent the web browser inside a web browser.
I think there’s a certain mindset being applied to web development here. And that mindset comes from the world of software. Again, it’s a testament to how far the web has come that it can be treated as a software platform on par with operating systems like iOS, Android, or Windows. There’s a lot to be learned from the world of software development, like testing, for example. But the web is different. When a user navigates to a URL, it shouldn’t feel like they’re installing a piece of software.
We should be aiming to keep our payloads as small as possible. And given how powerful browsers have become, we need fewer and fewer dependencies—fewer and fewer polyfills.
When asked to justify the enormous payloads, web developers have responded by saying that user’s expectations have changed. That is correct, but not in the way that I think they mean.
When I talk to people about using the web—especially on mobile—their expectations are that they will have a terrible experience. That websites will be slow to load. And I guarantee you that none of them are saying, “Well I’d be annoyed if this were a website but seeing as this is a web app, I’m absolutely fine with this terrible experience.”
I said that the biggest challenges facing the World Wide Web today are not technical challenges. I think the biggest challenge facing the web today is people’s expectations.
There is no technical reason for websites or web apps to be so frustrating. But we have collectively led people to expect a bad experience on the web.
There’s a great German word, “Verschlimmbessern”: the act of making something worse in the attempt to make it better. Perhaps we verschlimmbessert the web.
Stop solving problems you don’t yet have.
Lean into what web browsers can accomplish today. If you find something missing, that’s the time to reach for a library …but treat it like a polyfill. Whereas web standards stick around, every library and framework comes with a limited lifespan. Treat them as cattle, not pets.
I understand that tools and frameworks can make your life easier. And if we’re talking about server-side frameworks, then I say “Go for it.” Or if you’re using build tools that sit on your computer to do version control, linting, pre-processing, or transpiling, then I say “Go for it.”
But once you make users download tools or frameworks, you’re making them pay a tax for your developer convenience.
We need to value user needs above developer convenience. If I have the choice of making something the user’s problem or making it my problem, I’ll make it my problem every time. That’s my job.
We need to change people’s expectations of the World Wide Web, especially on mobile. Otherwise, the web will be lost.
Two years ago, I had the great honour of being invited to CERN to mark the 30th anniversary of the original proposal for the World Wide Web. One of the other people there was the journalist Zeynep Tüfekçi. She was on a panel along with Tim Berners-Lee and other luminaries of the early web. At the end of the panel discussion, she was asked:
What would you tell the next generation about how to use this wonderful tool?
If you have something wonderful, if you do not defend it, you will lose it. If you do not defend the magic and the things that make it wonderful, it’s just not going to stay magical by itself.
I believe that we can save the web. I believe that we can change people’s expectations. We’ll do that by showing them what the web is capable of.
It sounds like a moonshot. But, y’know, moonshots aren’t made possible by astronauts. They’re made possible by people like Poppy Northcutt in mission control. Katherine Johnson running the numbers. And Margaret Hamilton inventing the field of software engineering to create the software for the lunar lander. Individual people working together on something bigger than any one person.
There’s a story told about the first time President Kennedy visited NASA. While he was a getting a tour of the place, he introduced himself to a janitor. And the president asked the janitor what he did. The janitor answered:
I’m helping put a man on the moon.
It’s the kind of story that’s trotted out by company bosses to make you feel good about having your labour exploited for the team. But that janitor’s loyalty wasn’t to NASA, an organisation. He was working for something bigger.
I encourage you to have that sense of perspective. Whatever company or organisation you happen to be working for right now, remember that you are building something bigger.
The future of the World Wide Web is in good hands. It’s in your hands.
Tuesday, October 19th, 2021
A great talk from Dave on web components:
The talk makes a callback to my talk Building from a few years back. I like that. It feels like a long thoughtful converstation.
Thursday, October 7th, 2021
This is a terrific and nuanced talk that packs a lot into less than twenty minutes.
(The secret sauce in transitional web apps is progressive enhancement.)
Monday, August 30th, 2021
Men specialized in hardware while software development was seen as an exciting alternative to secretarial work. In 1967, Cosmopolitan published an article titled The Computer Girls, encouraging young women to pursue careers in computer science. So the curve went up, and continued to do so up until 1984. That’s when personal computers appeared.
When Apple released the Macintosh 128K and the Commodore 64 was introduced to the market, they were presented as toys. And, as toys were gendered, they were targeted at boys. We can look at advertisements from that time and quickly find a pattern: fathers and sons, young men, even one where a man is being undressed by two women with the motto Two bytes are better than one. It’s more evident with the ads for computer games; if women appear, they do so sexualized and half-naked. Not that appealing for young girls, one could imagine.
Tuesday, August 24th, 2021
I’m speaking at a conference this week. But unlike all the conference talks I’ve done for the past year and a half, this one won’t be online. I’m going to Zürich.
I have to admit, when I was first contacted about speaking at a real, honest-to-goodness in-person event, I assumed that things would be in a better state by the end of August 2021. The delta variant has somewhat scuppered the predicted trajectory of The Situation.
Still, this isn’t quite like going to speak at an event in 2020. I’m double-vaccinated for one thing. And although this event will be held indoors, the numbers are going to be halved and every attendee will need to show proof of vaccination along with their conference ticket. That helps to put my mind at ease.
But as the event draws nearer, I must admit to feeling uneasy. There’ll be airports and airplanes. I’m not looking forward to dealing with those. But I am looking forward to seeing some lovely people on the other end.
Friday, August 6th, 2021
It feels like the web we’re making now is a web designed for commercial interests.
If the web is “for everyone”, how and where are “everyone’s” interested being represented?
Browsers are not an enterprise of the people. We do not elect our browser representatives who decide what a browser is and is not.
Monday, June 21st, 2021
Talking about sci-fi
I gave my sci-fi talk last week at Marc’s Stay Curious event. I really like the format of these evening events: two talks followed by joint discussion, interspersed with music from Tobi. This particular evening was especially enjoyable, with some great discussion points being raised.
Steph and I had already colluded ahead of time on how we were going to split up the talks. She would go narrow and dive into one specific subgenre, solarpunk. I would go broad and give a big picture overview of science fiction literature.
Obviously I couldn’t possibly squeeze the entire subject of sci-fi into one short talk, so all I could really do was give my own personal subjective account. Hence, the talk is called Sci-fi and Me. I’ve published the transcript, uploaded the slides and the audio, and Marc has published the video on YouTube and Vimeo. Kudos to Tina Pham for going above and beyond to deliver a supremely accurate transcript with a super-fast turnaround.
I divided the talk into three sections. The first is my own personal story of growing up in small-town Ireland and reading every sci-fi book I could get my hands on from the local library. The second part was a quick history of sci-fi publishing covering the last two hundred years. The third and final part was a run-down of ten topics that sci-fi deals with. For each topic, I gave a brief explanation, mentioned a few books and then chose one that best represents that particular topic. That was hard.
- Planetary romance. I mentioned the John Carter books of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the Helliconia trilogy by Brian Aldiss, and the Riverworld saga by Philip José Farmer. I chose Dune by Frank Herbert.
- Space opera. I mentioned the Skylark and Lensman books by E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith, the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds, and the Machineries of Empire books by Yoon Ha Lee. I chose Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.
- Generation starships. I mentioned Non-Stop by Brian Aldiss. I chose Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.
- Utopia. I mentioned the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks. I chose The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin
- Dystopia. I mentioned The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I chose 1984 by George Orwell.
- Post-apocalypse. I mentioned The Drought and The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, Day Of The Triffids by John Wyndham, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. I chose Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.
- Artificial intelligence. I mentioned Machines Like Me by Ian McEwan and Klara And The Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. I chose I, Robot by Isaac Asimov.
- First contact. I mentioned The War Of The Worlds by H.G. Wells, Childhood’s End and Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem, and Contact by Carl Sagan. I chose Stories Of Your Life And Others by Ted Chiang.
- Time travel. I mentioned The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, and The Peripheral by William Gibson. I chose Kindred by Octavia Butler.
- Alternative history. I mentioned A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison. I chose The Man In The High Castle by Philip K. Dick.
- Cyberpunk. I mentioned Snowcrash by Neal Stephenson. I chose Neuromancer by William Gibson.
Okay, that’s eleven, not ten, but that last one is a bit of a cheat—it’s a subgenre rather than a topic. But it allowed me to segue nicely into Steph’s talk.
Here’s a list of those eleven books. I can recommend each and every one of them. Still, the problem with going with this topic-based approach was that some of my favourite sci-fi books of all time fall outside of any kind of classification system. Where would I put The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester, one of my all-time favourites? How could I classify Philip K. Dick books like Ubik, The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch, or A Scanner Darkly? And where would I even begin to describe the books of Christopher Priest?
But despite the inevitable gaps, I’m really pleased with how the overall talk turned out. I had a lot of fun preparing it and even more fun presenting it. It made a nice change from the usual topics I talk about. Incidentally, if you’ve got a conference or a podcast and you ever want me to talk about something other than the web, I’m always happy to blather on about sci-fi.
Here’s the talk. I hope you like it.
Saturday, June 19th, 2021
I’m going to talk about sci-fi, in general. Of course, there isn’t enough time to cover everything, so I’ve got to restrict myself.
First of all, I’m just going to talk about science fiction literature. I’m not going to go into film, television, games, or anything like that. But of course, in the discussion, I’m more than happy to talk about sci-fi films, television, and all that stuff. But for brevity’s sake, I thought I’ll just stick to books here.
Also, I can’t possibly give an authoritative account of all of science fiction literature, so it’s going to be very subjective. I thought what I can talk about is myself. In fact, it’s one of my favourite subjects.
So, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to talk about sci-fi and me.
So, let me tell you about my childhood. I grew up in a small town on the south coast of Ireland called Cobh. Here it is. It’s very picturesque when you’re looking at it from a distance. But I have to say, growing up there (in the 1970s and 1980s), there really wasn’t a whole lot to do.
There was no World Wide Web at this point. It was, frankly, a bit boring.
But there was one building in town that saved me, and that was this building here in the town square. This is the library. It was inside the library (amongst the shelves of books) that I was able to pass the time and find an escape.
It was here that I started reading the work, for example, of Isaac Asimov, a science fiction writer. He’s also a science writer. He wrote a lot of books. I think it might have even been a science book that got me into Isaac Asimov.
I was a nerdy kid into science, and I remember there was a book in the library that was essays and short stories. There’d be an essay about science followed by a short story that was science fiction, and it would keep going like that. It was by Isaac Asimov. I enjoyed those science fiction stories as much as the science, so I started reading more of his books, books about galactic empires, books about intelligent robots, detective stories but set on other planets.
There was a real underpinning of science to these books, hard science, in Isaac Asimov’s work. I enjoyed it, so I started reading other science fiction books in the library. I found these books by Arthur C. Clarke, which were very similar in some ways to Isaac Asimov in the sense that they’re very grounded in science, in the hard science.
In fact, the two authors used to get mistaken for one another in terms of their work. They formed an agreement. Isaac Asimov would graciously accept a compliment about 2001: A Space Odyssey and Arthur C. Clarke would graciously accept a compliment about the Foundation series.
Anyway, so these books, hard science fiction books, I loved them. I was really getting into them. There were plenty of them in the local library.
The other author that seemed to have plenty of books in the local library was Ray Bradbury. This tended to be more short stories than full-length novels and also, it was different to the Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke in the sense that it wasn’t so much grounded in the science. You got the impression he didn’t really care that much about how the science worked. It was more about atmosphere, stories, and characters.
These were kind of three big names in my formative years of reading sci-fi. I kind of went through the library reading all of the books by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury.
Once I had done that, I started to investigate other books that were science fiction (in the library). I distinctly remember these books being in the library by Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed. I read them and I really enjoyed them. They are terrific books.
These, again, are different to the hard science fiction of something like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. There were questions of politics and gender starting to enter into the stories.
Also, I remember there were two books by Alfred Bester, these two books, The Demolished Man and Tiger! Tiger! (also called The Stars My Destination). These were just wild. These were almost psychedelic.
I mean they were action-packed, but also, the writing style was action-packed. It was kind of like reading the Hunter S. Thompson of science fiction. It was fear and loathing in outer space.
These were opening my mind to other kinds of science fiction, and I also had my mind opened (and maybe warped) by reading the Philip K. Dick books that were in the library. Again, you got the impression he didn’t really care that much about the technology or the science. It was all about the stuff happening inside people’s heads, questioning what reality is.
At this point in my life, I hadn’t yet done any drugs. But reading Philip K. Dick kind of gave me a taste, I think, of what it would be like to do drugs.
These were also names that loomed large in my early science fiction readings: Ursula K. Le Guin, Alfred Bester, and Philip K. Dick.
Then there were the one-offs in the library. I remember coming across this book by Frank Herbert called Dune, reading it, and really enjoying it. It was spaceships and sandworms, but also kind of mysticism and environmentalism, even.
I remember having my tiny little mind blown by reading this book of short stories by Fredric Brown. They’re kind of like typical Twilight Zone short stories with a twist in the tale. I just love that.
I think a lot of science fiction short stories can almost be the natural home for it because there is one idea explored fairly quickly. Short stories are really good for that.
I remember reading stories about the future. What would the world be like in the year 1999? Like in Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! A tale of overpopulation that we all had to look forward to.
I remember this book by Walter M. Miller, A Canticle for Leibowitz, which was kind of a book about the long now (civilisations rising and falling). Again, it blew my little mind as a youngster and maybe started an interest I have to this day in thinking long-term.
So, this is kind of the spread of the science fiction books I read as a youngster, and I kept reading books after this. Throughout my life, I’ve read science fiction.
I don’t think it’s that unusual to read science fiction. In fact, I think just about anybody who reads has probably read science fiction because everyone has probably read one of these books. Maybe they’ve read Brave New World or 1984, some Kurt Vonnegut like Slaughterhouse 5 or The Sirens of Titan, the Margaret Atwood books like The Handmaid’s Tale, or Kazuo Ishiguro books.
Now, a lot of the time the authors of these books who are mainstream authors maybe wouldn’t be happy about having their works classified as sci-fi or science fiction. The term maybe was a little downmarket, so sometimes people will try to argue that these books are not science fiction even though clearly the premise of every one of these books is science fictional. But it’s almost like these books are too good to be science fiction. There’s a little bit of snobbishness.
Brian Aldiss has a wonderful little poem, a little couplet to describe this attitude. He said:
“SF is no good,” they cry until we’re deaf.
“But this is good.”
“Well, then it’s not SF!”
Recently, I found out that there’s a term for these books by mainstream authors that cross over into science fiction, and these are called slipstream books. I think everyone at some point has read a slipstream science fiction book that maybe has got them interested in diving further into science fiction.
What is sci-fi?
Now, the question I’m really skirting around here is, what is sci-fi? I’m not sure I can answer that question.
Isaac Asimov had a definition. He said it’s that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology. I think that’s a pretty good description of his books and the hard science fiction books of Arthur C. Clarke. But I don’t think that that necessarily describes some of the other authors I’ve mentioned, so it feels a little narrow to me.
Pamela Sargent famously said that science fiction is the literature of ideas. There is something to that, like when I was talking about how short stories feel like a natural home for sci-fi because you’ve got one idea, you explore it in a short story, and you’re done.
But I also feel like that way of phrasing science fiction as the literature of ideas almost leaves something unsaid, like, it’s the literature of ideas as opposed to plot, characterisation, and all this other kind of stuff that happens in literature. I always think, why not both? You know. Why can’t we have ideas, plot, characters, and all the other good stuff?
Also, ideas aren’t unique to sci-fi. Every form of literature has to have some idea or there’s no point writing the book. Every crime novel has to have an idea behind it. So, I’m not sure if that’s a great definition either.
Maybe the best definition came from Damon Knight who said sci-fi is what we point to when we say it. It’s kind of, “I know it when I see it,” kind of thing. I think there’s something to that.
Any time you come up with a definition of sci-fi, it’s always hard to drive hard lines between sci-fi and other adjacent genres like fantasy. They’re often spoke about together, sci-fi and fantasy. I think I can tell the difference between sci-fi and fantasy, but I can’t describe the difference. I don’t think there is a hard line.
Science fiction feels like it’s looking towards the future, even when it isn’t. Maybe the sci-fi story isn’t actually set in the future. But it feels like it’s looking to the future and asking, “What if?” whereas fantasy feels like it’s looking to the past and asking, “What if?” But again, fantasy isn’t necessarily set in the past, and science fiction isn’t necessarily set in the future.
You could say, “Oh, well, science fiction is based on science, and fantasy is based on magic,” but any sci-fi book that features faster than light travel is effectively talking about magic, not science. So, again, I don’t think you can draw those hard lines.
There are other genres that are very adjacent and cross over with sci-fi and fantasy, like horror. You get sci-fi horror, fantasy horror. What about any mainstream book that has magical realism to it? You could say that’s a form of fantasy or science fiction.
Ultimately, I think this question, “What is sci-fi?” is a really interesting question if you’re a publisher. It’s probably important for you to answer this question if you are a publisher. But if you are a reader, honestly, I don’t think it’s that important a question.
What is sci-fi for?
There’s another question that comes on from this, which is, “What is sci-fi for? What’s its purpose?” Is it propaganda for science, almost like the way Isaac Asimov is describing it?
Sometimes, it has been used that way. In the 1950s and ’60s, it was almost like a way of getting people into science. Reading science fiction certainly influenced future careers in science, but that feels like a very limiting way to describe a whole field of literature.
Is sci-fi for predicting the future? Most sci-fi authors would say, “No, no, no.” Ray Bradbury said, “I write science fiction not to predict the future, but to prevent it.” But there is always this element of trying to ask what if and play out the variables into the future.
Frederik Pohl said, “A good science fiction story should be able to predict not the automobile but the traffic jam,” which is kind of a nice way of looking at how it’s not just prediction.
Maybe thinking about sci-fi as literature of the future would obscure the fact that actually, most science fiction tends to really be about today or the time it’s published. It might be set in the future but, often, it’s dealing with issues of the day.
Ultimately, it’s about the human condition. Really, so is every form of literature. So, I don’t think there’s a good answer for this either. I don’t think there’s an answer for the question, “What is sci-fi for?” that you could put all science fiction into.
Okay, so we’re going to avoid the philosophical questions. Let’s get down to something a bit more straightforward. Let’s have a history of science fiction and science fiction literature.
Caveats again: this is going to be very subjective, just as, like, my history. It’s also going to be a very Western view because I grew up in Ireland, a Western country.
Where would I begin the history of science fiction? I could start with the myths and legends and religions of most cultures, which have some kind of science fiction or fantasy element to them. You know, the Bible, a work of fantasy.
But if I wanted to start with what I would think is the modern birth of the sci-fi novel, I think Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus could be said to be the first sci-fi novel and invents a whole bunch of tropes that we still use to this day: the mad scientist meddling with powers beyond their control.
It’s dealing with electricity, and I talked about how sci-fi is often about topics of the day, and this is when electricity is just coming on the scenes. There are all sorts of questions about the impact of electricity and science fiction is a way of exploring this.
Talking about reanimating the dead, also kind of talking about artificial intelligence. It set the scene for a lot of what was to come.
Later, in the 19th Century, in the 1860s, and then the 1890s, we have these two giants of early science fiction. In France, we have Jules Verne, and he’s writing books like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, From Earth to the Moon, and Journey to the Centre of the Earth, these adventure stories with technology often at the Centre of them.
Then in England, we have H.G. Wells, and he’s creating entire genres from scratch. He writes The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau.
Over in America, you’ve got Edgar Allan Poe mostly doing horror, but there’s definitely sci-fi or fantasy aspects to what he’s doing.
Now, as we get into the 20th Century, where sci-fi really starts to boom – even though the term doesn’t exist yet – is with the pulp fiction in the 1920s, 1930s. This is literally pulp paper that cheap books are written on. They were cheap to print. They were cheap for the authors, too. As in, the authors did not get paid much. People were just churning out these stories. There were pulp paperbacks and also magazines.
Hugo Gernsback, here in the 1920s, he was the editor of Amazing Stories, and he talked about scientification stories. That was kind of his agenda.
Then later, in the 1930s, John W. Campbell became the editor of Astounding Stories. In 1937, he changed the name of it from Astounding Stories to Astounding Science Fiction. This is when the term really comes to prominence.
He does have an agenda. He wants stories grounded in plausible science. He wants that hard kind of science.
What you have here, effectively, is yes the genre is getting this huge boost, but also you’ve got gatekeepers. You’ve got two old, white dude gatekeepers kind of deciding what gets published and what doesn’t. It’s setting the direction.
What happens next, though, is that a lot of science fiction does get published. A lot of good science fiction gets published in what’s known as the Golden Age of Science Fiction in the 1940s and 1950s. This, it turns out, is when authors like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Heinlein are publishing those early books I was reading in the library. I didn’t realise it at the time, but they were books from the Golden Age of Science Fiction.
This tended to be the hard science fiction. It’s grounded in technology. It’s grounded in science. There tend to be scientific explanations for everything in the books.
It’s all good stuff. It’s all enjoyable. But there’s an interesting swing of the pendulum in the 1960s and ’70s. This swing kind of comes from Europe, from the UK. This is known as the New Wave. That term was coined by Michael Moorcock in New Worlds magazine that he was the editor of.
It’s led by these authors like Brian Aldiss and J.G. Ballard where they’re less concerned with outer space and they’re more concerned with inner space: the mind, language, drugs, the inner world. It’s some exciting stuff, quite different to the hard science that’s come before.
Like I say, it started in Europe, but then there was also this wave of it in America, broadening the scope of what sci-fi could be. You got less gatekeeping and you got more new voices. You got Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel R. Delaney expanding what sci-fi could be.
That trend continued into the 1980s when you began to see the rise of authors like Octavia Butler who, to this day, has a huge influence on Afrofuturism. You’re getting more and more voices. You’re getting a wider scope of what science fiction could be.
I think the last big widening of sci-fi happened in the 1980s with William Gibson. He practically invented (from scratch) the genre of cyberpunk. If Mary Shelley was concerned with electricity then, by the 1980s, we were all concerned with computers, digital networks, and technology.
The difference with cyberpunk is where the Asimov story or Clarke story might be talking about someone in a position of power (a captain or an astronaut) and how technology impacts them, cyberpunk is kind of looking at technology at the street level when the street finds its own uses for things. That was expanded into other things as well.
After the 1980s, we start to get the new weird. We get people like Jeff Noon, China Mieville, and Jeff VanderMeer writing stuff. Is it sci-fi? Is it fantasy? Who knows?
Which brings us up to today. Today, we have, I think, a fantastic range of writers writing a fantastic range of science fiction, like Ann Leckie with her Imperial Radch stories, N.K. Jemisin with the fantastic Broken Earth trilogy, Yoon Ha Lee writing Machineries of Empire, and Ted Chiang with terrific short stories and his collections like Exhalation. I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the future, we look back on now as a true Golden Age of Science Fiction where it is wider, there are more voices and, frankly, more interesting stories.
Okay, so on the home stretch, I want to talk about the subjects of science fiction, the topics that sci-fi tends to cover. I’m going to go through ten topics of science fiction, list off what the topic is, name a few books, and then choose one book to represent that topic. It’s going to be a little tricky, but here we go.
Okay, so planetary romance is a sci-fi story that’s basically set on a single planet where the planet is almost like a character: the environment of the planet, the ecosystem of the planet. This goes back a long way. The Edgar Rice Burroughs stories of John Carter of Mars were kind of early planetary romance and even spawned a little sub-genre of Sword and Planet*.
Brian Aldiss did a terrific trilogy called Helliconia, a series where the orbits of a star system are kind of the driving force behind the stories that take place over generations.
Philip Jose Farmer did this fantastic series (the Riverworld series). Everyone in history is reincarnated on this one planet with a giant river spanning it.
If I had to pick one planetary romance to represent the genre, I am going to go with a classic. I’m going to go with Dune by Frank Herbert. It really is a terrific piece of work.
Space opera, the term was intended to denigrate it but, actually, it’s quite fitting. Space opera is what you think of when you think of sci-fi. It’s intergalactic empires, space battles, and good rip-roaring yarns. You can trace it back to these early works by E.E. ’Doc’ Smith. It’s the good ol’ stuff.
Space opera has kind of fell out of favour for a while there, but it started coming back in the last few decades. It got some really great, hard sci-fi space opera by Alastair Reynolds and, more recently, Yoon Ha Lee with Ninefox Gambit – all good stuff.
But if I had to pick one space opera book to represent the genre, I’m going to go with Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. It is terrific. It’s like taking Asimov, Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, and the best of all of them, and putting them all into one series – great stuff.
Now, in space opera, generally, they come up with some way of being able to travel around the galaxy in a faster than light, warp speed, or something like that, which makes it kind of a fantasy, really.
If you accept that you can’t travel faster than light, then maybe you’re going to write about generation starships. This is where you accept that you can’t zip around the galaxy, so you have to take your time getting from star system to star system, which means it’s multiple generations.
Brian Aldiss’s first book was a generation starship book called Non-Stop. But there’s one book that I think has the last word on generation starships, and it’s by Kim Stanley Robinson. It is Aurora. I love this book, a really great book. Definitely the best generation starship book there is.
All right. What about writing about utopias? Funnily enough, not as many utopias as there are the counterpart. Maybe the most famous utopias in recent sci-fi is from Ian M. Banks with his Culture series. The Culture is a socialist utopia in space post-scarcity. They’re great space opera galaxy-spanning stuff.
What’s interesting, though, is most of the stories are not about living in a utopia because living in a post-scarcity utopia is, frankly, super boring. All the stories are about the edge cases. All the stories are literally called special circumstances.
All good fun, but the last word on utopian science fiction must go to Ursula Le Guin with The Dispossessed. It’s an anarcho-syndicalist utopia – or is it? It depends on how you read it.
I definitely have some friends who read this like it was a manual and other friends who read it like it was a warning. I think, inside every utopia, there’s a touch of dystopia, and dystopias are definitely the more common topic for science fiction. Maybe it’s easier to ask, “What’s the worst that can happen?” than to ask, “What’s the best that can happen?”
A lot of the slipstream books would be based on dystopias like Margaret Atwood’s terrific The Handmaid’s Tale. I remember being young and reading (in that library) Fahrenheit 541 by Ray Bradbury, a book about burning books – terrific stuff.
But I’m going to choose one. If I’m going to choose one dystopia, I think I have to go with a classic. It’s never been beat. George Orwell’s 1984, the last word on dystopias. It’s a fantastic work, fantastic piece of literature.
I think George Orwell’s 1984 is what got a lot of people into reading sci-fi. With me, it almost went the opposite. I was already reading sci-fi. But after reading 1984, I ended up going to read everything ever written by George Orwell, which I can highly recommend. There’s no sci-fi, but a terrific writer.
All right. Here’s another topic: a post-apocalypse story. You also get pre-apocalypse stories like, you know, there’s a big asteroid coming or there’s a black hole in the Centre of the Earth or something, and how we live out our last days. But, generally, authors tend to prefer post-apocalyptic settings, whether that’s post-nuclear war, post environmental catastrophe, post-plague. Choose your disaster and then have a story set afterward.
J. G. Ballard, he writes stories about not enough water, too much water, and I think it’s basically he wants to find a reason to put his characters in large, empty spaces because that’s what he enjoys writing about.
Very different, you’d have the post-apocalyptic stories of someone like John Wyndham, somewhat derided by Brian Aldiss’s cozy catastrophes. Yes, the world is ending, but we’ll make it back home in time for tea.
At the complete other extreme from that, you would have something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, which is relentlessly grim tale of post-apocalypse.
I almost picked Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy for the ultimate post-apocalyptic story, and it’s really great stuff post-plague, genetically engineered plague – very timely.
But actually, even more timely – and a book that’s really stayed with me – is Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandell. Not just because the writing is terrific and it is a plague book, so, yes, timely, but it also tackles questions like: What is art for? What is the human condition all about?
All right. Another topic that’s very popular amongst the techies, artificial intelligence, actual artificial intelligence, not what we in the tech world called artificial intelligence, which is a bunch of if/else statements.
Stories of artificial intelligence are also very popular in slipstream books from mainstream authors like recently we had a book from Ian McEwan. We had a new book from Kazuo Ishiguro tackling this topic.
But again, I’m going to go back to the classic, right back to my childhood, and I’ll pick I, Robot, a collection of short stories by Isaac Asimov, where he first raises this idea of three laws of robotics – a word he coined, by the way, robotics from the Czech word for robot.
These three laws are almost like design principles for artificial intelligence. All the subsequent works in this genre kind of push at those design principles. It’s good stuff. Not to be confused with the movie with the same name.
Here’s another topic: first contact with an alien species. Well, sometimes the first contact doesn’t go well and the original book on this is H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds. Every other alien invasion book since then has kind of just been a reworking of The War of the Worlds. It’s terrific stuff.
For more positive views on first contact stories, Arthur C. Clarke dives into books like Childhood’s End. In Rendezvous with Rama, what’s interesting is we don’t actually contact the alien civilisation but we have an artifact that we must decode and get information from. It’s good stuff.
More realistically, though, Solaris by Stanislaw Lem is frustrating because it’s realistic in the sense that we couldn’t possibly understand an alien intelligence. In the book – spoiler alert – we don’t.
For realism set in the world of today, Carl Sagan’s book Contact is terrific. Well worth a read. It really tries to answer what would a first contact situation look like today.
But I’ve got to pick one first contact story, and I’m actually going to go with a short story, and it’s Stories of Your Life by Ted Chaing. I recommend getting the whole book and reading every short story in it because it’s terrific.
This is the short story that the film Arrival was based on, which is an amazing piece of work because I remember reading this fantastic short story and distinctly thinking, “This is unfilmable. This could only exist in literature.” Yet, they did a great job with the movie, which bodes well for the movie of Dune, which is also being directed by Denis Villeneuve.
All right. Time travel as a topic. I have to say I think that time travel is sometimes better handled in media like TV and movies than it is in literature. That said, you’ve got the original time travel story. Again, H.G. Wells just made this stuff from scratch, and it really holds up. It’s a good book. I mean it’s really more about class warfare than it is about time travel, but it’s solid.
Actually, I highly recommend reading a nonfiction book called Time Travel by James Gleick where he looks at the history of time travel as a concept in both fiction and in physics.
You’ve got some interesting concepts like Lauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls, which, as is the premise, time-traveling serial killer, which is a really interesting mashup of genres. You’ve got evidence showing up out of chronological sequence.
By the way, this is being turned into a TV show as we speak, as is The Peripheral by William Gibson, a recent book by him. It’s terrific.
What I love about this, it’s a time travel story where the only thing that travels in time is information. But that’s enough with today’s technology, so it’s like a time travel for remote workers. Again, very timely, as all of William Gibson’s stuff tends to be.
But if I’ve got to choose one, I’m going to choose Kindred by Octavia Butler because it’s just such as a terrific book. To be honest, the time travel aspect isn’t the Centre of the story but it’s absolutely worth reading as just a terrific, terrific piece of literature.
Now, in time travel, you’ve generally got two kinds of time travel. You’ve got the closed-loop time travel, which is kind of like a Greek tragedy. You try and change the past but, in trying to change it, you probably bring about the very thing you were trying to change. The Shining Girls were something like that.
Or you have the multiverse version of time travel where going back in time forks the universe, and that’s what The Peripheral is about. That multiverse idea is explored in another subgenre, which is alternative history, which kind of asks, “What if something different had happened in history?” and then plays out the what-if from there. Counterfactuals, they’re also known as.
I remember growing up and going through the shelves of that library in Cobh, coming across this book, A Transatlantic Tunnel. Hurrah! by Harry Harrison. It’s set in a world where the American War of Independence failed and now it’s the modern-day. The disgraced descendant of George Washington is in charge of building a transatlantic tunnel for the British Empire.
That tends to be the kind of premise that gets explored in alternative history is what if another side had won the war. There’s a whole series of books set in a world where the South won the Civil War in the United States.
For my recommendation, though, I’m going to go with The Man in the High Castle, which is asking what if the other side won the war. In this case, it’s WWII. It’s by Philip K. Dick. I mean it’s not my favourite Philip K. Dick book, but my favourite Philip K. Dick books are so unclassifiable, I wouldn’t be able to put them under any one topic, and I have to get at least one Philip K. Dick book in here.
A final topic and, ooh, this is a bit of a cheat because it’s not really a topic – it’s a subgenre – cyberpunk. But as I said, cyberpunk deals with the topic of computers or networked computers more specifically, and there’s some good stuff like Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. Really ahead of its time. It definitely influenced a lot of people in tech.
Everyone I know that used to work in Linden Lab, the people who were making Second Life, when you joined, you’re basically handled Snow Crash on your first day and told, “This is what we’re trying to build here.”
But if I’ve got to pick one cyberpunk book, you can’t beat the original Neuromancer by William Gibson. Just terrific stuff.
What’s interesting about cyberpunk is, yes, it’s dealing with the technology of computers and networks, but it’s also got this atmosphere, a kind of noir atmosphere that William Gibson basically created from scratch. Then a whole bunch of other genres spun off from that asking, “Well, what if we could have a different atmosphere?” and explore stories like steampunk. It’s kind of like, “Well, what if the Victorians had computers and technology? What would that be like?”
Basically, if there’s a time in history that you like the aesthetic of, there’s probably a subgenre ending in the word “punk” that describes that aesthetic. You can go to conventions, and you can have your anime and your manga and your books and your games set in these kind of subgenres. They are generally, like I say, about aesthetics with the possible exception of solarpunk, which is what Steph is going to talk about.
Living in the future
I am going to finish with these books as my recommendations for a broad range of topics of science fiction from 50 years of reading science fiction. I think about if I could go back and talk to my younger self in that town in the south coast of Ireland about the world of today. I’m sure it would sound like a science fictional world.
By the way, I wouldn’t go back in time to talk to my younger self because I’ve read enough time travel stories to know that that never ends well. But still, here we are living in the future. I mean this past year with a global pandemic, that is literally straight out of a bunch of science fiction books.
But also, just the discoveries and advancements we’ve made are science fictional. Like when I was growing up and reading science books in that library, we didn’t know if there were any planets outside our own solar system. We didn’t know if exoplanets even existed.
Now, we know that most solar systems have their own planets. We’re discovering them every day. It’s become commonplace.
We have sequenced the human genome, which is a remarkable achievement for a species.
And we have the World Wide Web, this world-spanning network of information that you can access with computers in your pockets. Amazing stuff.
But of all of these advancements by our species, if I had to pick the one that I think is in some ways the most science-fictional, the most far-fetched idea, I would pick the library. If libraries didn’t exist and you tried to make them today, I don’t think you could succeed. You’d be laughed out of the venture capital room, like, “How is that supposed to work?” It sounds absolutely ridiculous, a place where people can go and read books and take those books home with them without paying for them. It sounds almost too altruistic to exist.
But Ray Bradbury, for example, I know he grew up in the library. He said, “I discovered me in the library. I went to find me in the library.” He was a big fan of libraries. He said, “Reading is at the Centre of our lives. The library is our brain. Without the library, you have no civilisation.” He said, “Without libraries, what have we? Have no past and no future.”
So, to end this, I’m not going to end with a call to read lots of sci-fi. I’m just going to end with a call to read – full stop. Read fiction, not just non-fiction. Read fiction. It’s a way of expanding your empathy.
And defend your local library. Use your local library. Don’t let your local library get closed down.
We are living in the future by having libraries. Libraries are science fictional.
With that, thank you.
Here’s the video of the talk I gave on Wednesday evening all about my relationship with reading science fiction. There are handy chapter markers if you want to jump around.
Tuesday, June 8th, 2021
Here’s a great write-up (with sketch notes) of last week’s conference portion of UX Fest:
There was a through-line of ethics through the whole conference that I enjoyed. The “design is the underdog” is tired and no longer true. I think that asking ourselves “now that we are here, how do we avoid causing harm?” is a much more mature conversation.
Sunday, May 23rd, 2021
Speaking about sci-fi
I’m going to be speaking at the Beyond Tellerrand “Stay Curious” event on June 16th. But I’m not going to be talking about anything (directly) web-related…
The topic for the evening is science fiction. There’ll be a talk from me, a talk from Steph, and then a discussion, which I’m really looking forward to.
I got together with Steph last week, which was really fun—we could’ve talked for hours! We compared notes and figured out a way to divvy up the speaking slots. Steph is going to do a deep dive into one specific subgenre of sci-fi. So to set the scene, I’m going to give a broad but shallow overview of the history of sci-fi. To keep things managable, I’m only going to be talking about sci-fi literature (although we can get into films, TV, and anything else in the discussion afterwards).
But I don’t want to just regurgitate facts like a Wikipedia article. I’ve decided that the only honest thing to do is give my own personal history with sci-fi. Instead of trying to give an objective history, I’m going to tell a personal story …even if that means being more open and vulnerable.
I think I’ve got the arc of the story I want to tell. I’ve been putting slides together and I’m quite excited now. I’ve realised I’ve got quite a lot to say. But I don’t want the presentation to get too long. I want to keep it short and snappy so that there’s plenty of time for the discussion afterwards. That’s going to be the best part!
That’s where you come in. The discussion will be driven by the questions and chat from the attendees. Tickets are available on a pay-what-you-want basis, with a minimum price of just €10. It’ll be an evening event, starting at 6:30pm UK time, 7:30pm in central Europe. So if you’re in the States, that’ll be your morning or afternoon.
Come along if you have any interest in sci-fi. If you have no interest in sci-fi, then please come along—we can have a good discusison about it.
Thursday, May 13th, 2021
Hosting UX Fest
I quite enjoy interviewing people. I don’t mean job interviews. I mean, like, talk show interviews. I’ve had a lot of fun over the years moderating panel discussions: @media Ajax in 2007, SxSW in 2008, Mobilism in 2011, the Progressive Web App Dev Summit and EnhanceConf in 2016.
I’ve even got transcripts of some panels I’ve moderated:
- @media 2007 Hot Topics Panel
- Building Portable Social Networks at SxSW 2008,
- @media 2010 Hot Topics Panel,
- Mobilism 2011 Mobile Browser Panel,
- @media 2011 Hot Topics Panel.
I enjoyed each and every one. I also had the pleasure of interviewing the speakers at every Responsive Day Out. Hosting events like that is a blast, but what with The Situation and all, there hasn’t been much opportunity for hosting conferences.
Well, I’m going to be hosting an event next month: UX Fest. It’s this year’s online version of UX London.
An online celebration of digital design, taking place throughout June 2021.
I am simultaneously excited and nervous. I’m excited because I’ll have the chance to interview a whole bunch of really smart people. I’m nervous because it’s all happening online and that might feel quite different to an in-person discussion.
But I have an advantage. While the interviews will be live, the preceding talks will be pre-recorded. That means I have to time watch and rewatch each talk, spot connections between them, and think about thought-provoking questions for each speaker.
So that’s what I’m doing between now and the beginning of June. If you’d like to bear witness to the final results, I encourage you to get a ticket for UX Fest. You can come to the three-day conference in the first week of June, or you can get a ticket for the festival spread out over the following three Thursdays in June, or you can get a combo ticket for both and save some money.
There’s an inclusion programme for the conference and festival days:
Anyone from an underrepresented group is invited to apply. We especially invite and welcome Black, indigenous & people of colour, LGBTQIA+ people and people with disabilities.
There’ll also be a whole bunch of hands-on masterclasses throughout June that you can book individually. I won’t be hosting those though. I’ll have plenty to keep me occupied hosting the conference and the festival.