Tags: tech

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Wednesday, September 18th, 2019

The Appification of Everything & Why it Needs to End

When your only tool seems like a smartphone, everything looks like an app.

Amber writes on Ev’s blog about products that deliberately choose to be dependent on smartphone connectivity:

We read service outage stories like these seemingly every week, and have become numb to the fundamental reality: The idea of placing the safety of yourself, your child, or another loved one in the hands of an app dependent on a server you cannot touch, control, or know the status of, is utterly unacceptable.

Tuesday, September 17th, 2019

Geneva Copenhagen Amsterdam

Back in the late 2000s, I used to go to Copenhagen every for an event called Reboot. It was a fun, eclectic mix of talks and discussions, but alas, the last one was over a decade ago.

It was organised by Thomas Madsen-Mygdal. I hadn’t seen Thomas in years, but then, earlier this year, our paths crossed when I was back at CERN for the 30th anniversary of the web. He got a real kick out of the browser recreation project I was part of.

I few months ago, I got an email from Thomas about the new event he’s running in Copenhagen called Techfestival. He was wondering if there was some way of making the WorldWideWeb project part of the event. We ended up settling on having a stand—a modern computer running a modern web browser running a recreation of the first ever web browser from almost three decades ago.

So I showed up at Techfestival and found that the computer had been set up in a Shoreditchian shipping container. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was supposed to do, so I just hung around nearby until someone wandering by would pause and start tentatively approaching the stand.

If you’re at Techfestival.co in Copenhagen, drop in to this shipping container where I’ll be demoing WorldWideWeb.cern.ch

“Would you like to try the time machine?” I asked. Nobody refused the offer. I explained that they were looking at a recreation of the world’s first web browser, and then showed them how they could enter a URL to see how the oldest web browser would render a modern website.

Lots of people entered facebook.com or google.com, but some people had their own websites, either personal or for their business. They enjoyed seeing how well (or not) their pages held up. They’d take photos of the screen.

People asked lots of questions, which I really enjoyed answering. After a while, I was able to spot the themes that came up frequently. Some people were confusing the origin story of the internet with the origin story of the web, so I was more than happy to go into detail on either or both.

The experience helped me clarify in my own mind what was exciting and interesting about the birth of the web—how much has changed, and how much and stayed the same.

All of this very useful fodder for a conference talk I’m putting together. This will be a joint talk with Remy at the Fronteers conference in Amsterdam in a couple of weeks. We’re calling the talk How We Built the World Wide Web in Five Days:

The World Wide Web turned 30 years old this year. To mark the occasion, a motley group of web nerds gathered at CERN, the birthplace of the web, to build a time machine. The first ever web browser was, confusingly, called WorldWideWeb. What if we could recreate the experience of using it …but within a modern browser! Join (Je)Remy on a journey through time and space and code as they excavate the foundations of Tim Berners-Lee’s gloriously ambitious and hacky hypertext system that went on to conquer the world.

Neither of us is under any illusions about the nature of a joint talk. It’s not half as much work; it’s more like twice the work. We’ve both seen enough uneven joint presentations to know what we want to avoid.

We’ve been honing the material and doing some run-throughs at the Clearleft HQ at 68 Middle Street this week. The talk has a somewhat unusual structure with two converging timelines. I think it’s going to work really well, but I won’t know until we actually deliver the talk in Amsterdam. I’m excited—and a bit nervous—about it.

Whether it’s in a shipping container in Copenhagen or on a stage in Amsterdam, I’m starting to realise just how much I enjoy talking about web history.

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

Priorities

I recently wrote about a web-specific example of a general principle for choosing the right tool for the job:

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

I was—yet again—talking about appropriateness. Use the right technology for the task at hand. Here’s the example I gave:

It feels “wrong” when a powerful client-side JavaScript framework is applied to something that could be accomplished using HTML. Making a blog that’s a single page app is over-engineering.

Surprisingly, I got some pushback on this. Šime Vidas wrote:

Based on my experience, this is not necessarily the case.

Going from server-side rendering and progressive enhancement via JS to a single-page app powered by a JS framework was a enormous reduction in complexity for me (so the opposite of over-engineering).

(Emphasis mine.) He goes on to say:

My main concerns are ease of use & maintainability. If you get those things right, you’re good and it’s not over-engineering.

There’s no doubt that maintainability is a desirable goal. And ease of use for the developer is also important …but I think they pale in comparison to ease of use for the end user.

To be fair, the specific use-case I mentioned was making a blog. And a blog is a personal thing. You can do whatever the heck you like on your own website and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

So I probably chose a poor example to illustrate my point. I was thinking more about when you’re making websites for a living. You’re being paid money to make something available on the web. In that situation, I strongly believe that user needs should win out over developer convenience.

I wrote about this recently:

As a user-centred developer, my priority is doing what’s best for end users. That’s not to say I don’t value developer convenience. I do. But I prioritise user needs over developer needs. And in any case, those two needs don’t even come into conflict most of the time.

That’s why I responded to Šime, saying:

Your main concern should be user needs—not your own.

When I talk about over-engineering, I’m speaking from the perspective of end users, not developers.

Before considering your ease of use, and maintainability, consider users first.

In fairness to Šime, he’s being very open and honest about his priorities. I admire that. I’ve seen too many developers try to provide user experience justifications for decisions made for developer convenience. Once again I recommend Alex’s excellent article, The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch:

The swap is executed by implying that by making things better for developers, users will eventually benefit equivalently. The unstated agreement is that developers share all of the same goals with the same intensity as end users and even managers. This is not true.

Now I worry I wasn’t specific enough when I talked about choosing appropriate technology:

Appropriateness is something I keep coming back to when it comes to evaluating web technologies. I don’t think there are good tools and bad tools; just tools that are appropriate or inapropriate for the task at hand.

I should have made it clear that I was talking about what is appropriate or inapropriate for users. I think I made the mistake of assuming that this was obvious, and didn’t need saying. I’ll try not to make that mistake again.

There’s a whole group of tools where this point isn’t even relevant—build tools, task runners, version control …anything that never directly touches the end user; use whatever works for you. But if you’re making decisions around HTML, ARIA, CSS, or JavaScript, then appropriateness for the end user should take precedence.

If you’re in that situation—you are being paid money to make websites, and you are making technology decisions—I urge you to remember Charlie’s words: it isn’t about you.

Sunday, August 4th, 2019

What Technology Is Most Likely to Become Obsolete During Your Lifetime?

Old technology seldom just goes away. Whiteboards and LED screens join chalk blackboards, but don’t eliminate them. Landline phones get scarce, but not phones. Film cameras become rarities, but not cameras. Typewriters disappear, but not typing. And the technologies that seem to be the most outclassed may come back as a the cult objects of aficionados—the vinyl record, for example. All this is to say that no one can tell us what will be obsolete in fifty years, but probably a lot less will be obsolete than we think.

Wednesday, July 31st, 2019

The Real Dark Web

Charlie’s thoughts on dev perception:

People speak about “the old guard” and “stupid backwards techniques”, forgetting that it’s real humans, with real constraints who are working on these solutions. Most of us are working in a “stupid backwards way” because that “backwardsness” WORKS. It is something that is proven and is clearly documented. We can implement it confident that it will not disappear from fashion within a couple of years.

Tuesday, July 30th, 2019

Thursday, July 25th, 2019

Design tools are holding us back

My main concern about this new generation of tools is that they require a specific toolchain in order to function. “If you just use this version of React and just use this styling library and configure things in exactly this way, your designers can play around with coded components.” It worries me that teams would end up choosing (and subsequently holding onto) specific tools not because they’re the best choices for our users but because the designers’ and developers’ workflow depends on a specific toolchain to work properly.

Principle

I like good design principles. I collect design principles—of varying quality—at principles.adactio.com. Ben Brignell also has a (much larger) collection at principles.design.

You can spot the less useful design principles after a while. They tend to be wishy-washy; more like empty aspirational exhortations than genuinely useful guidelines for alignment. I’ve written about what makes for good design principles before. Matthew Ström also asked—and answered—What makes a good design principle?

  • Good design principles are memorable.
  • Good design principles help you say no.
  • Good design principles aren’t truisms.
  • Good design principles are applicable.

I like those. They’re like design principles for design principles.

One set of design principles that I’ve included in my collection is from gov.uk: government design principles . I think they’re very well thought-through (although I’m always suspicious when I see a nice even number like 10 for the amount of items in the list). There’s a great line in design principle number two—Do less:

Government should only do what only government can do.

This wasn’t a theoretical issue. The multiple departmental websites that preceded gov.uk were notorious for having too much irrelevant content—content that was readily available elsewhere. It was downright wasteful to duplicate that content on a government site. It wasn’t appropriate.

Appropriateness is something I keep coming back to when it comes to evaluating web technologies. I don’t think there are good tools and bad tools; just tools that are appropriate or inapropriate for the task at hand. Whether it’s task runners or JavaScript frameworks, appropriateness feels like it should be the deciding factor.

I think that the design principle from GDS could be abstracted into a general technology principle:

Any particular technology should only do what only that particular technology can do.

Take JavaScript, for example. It feels “wrong” when a powerful client-side JavaScript framework is applied to something that could be accomplished using HTML. Making a blog that’s a single page app is over-engineering. It violates this principle:

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

Need to manage state or immediately update the interface in response to user action? Only JavaScript can do that. But if you need to present the user with some static content, JavaScript can do that …but it’s not the only technology that can do that. HTML would be more appropriate.

I realise that this is basically a reformulation of one of my favourite design principles, the rule of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Or, as Derek put it:

In the web front-end stack — HTML, CSS, JS, and ARIA — if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof, and just works.

ARIA should only do what only ARIA can do.

JavaScript should only do what only JavaScript can do.

CSS should only do what only CSS can do.

HTML should only do what only HTML can do.

Thursday, July 18th, 2019

Ralph Lavelle: On resilience

Thoughts on frameworks, prompted by a re-reading of Resilient Web Design. I quite like the book being described as a “a bird’s-eye view of the whole web design circus.”

Monday, July 15th, 2019

NeXT Software and Peripherals catalog Fall 1989

Brian found this scanned copy of a NeXT manual on the Internet Archive. I feel a great fondness for this machine after our CERN project.

Saturday, July 6th, 2019

Chaos Design: Before the robots take our jobs, can we please get them to help us do some good work?

This is a great piece! It starts with a look back at some of the great minds of the nineteenth century: Herschel, Darwin, Babbage and Lovelace. Then it brings us, via JCR Licklider, to the present state of the web before looking ahead to what the future might bring.

So what will the life of an interface designer be like in the year 2120? or 2121 even? A nice round 300 years after Babbage first had the idea of calculations being executed by steam.

I think there are some missteps along the way (I certainly don’t think that inline styles—AKA CSS in JS—are necessarily a move forwards) but I love the idea of applying chaos engineering to web design:

Think of every characteristic of an interface you depend on to not ‘fail’ for your design to ‘work.’ Now imagine if these services were randomly ‘failing’ constantly during your design process. How might we design differently? How would our workflows and priorities change?

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

inessential: No Algorithms

My hypothesis: these algorithms — driven by the all-consuming need for engagement in order to sell ads — are part of what’s destroying western liberal democracy, and my app will not contribute to that.

Thursday, June 27th, 2019

Wednesday, June 26th, 2019

Phenological Mismatch - e-flux Architecture - e-flux

Over the last fifty years, we have come to recognize that the fuel of our civilizational expansion has become the main driver of our extinction, and that of many of the species we share the planet with. We are now coming to realize that is as true of our cognitive infrastructure. Something is out of sync, felt everywhere: something amiss in the temporal order, and it is as related to political and technological shifts, shifts in our own cognition and attention, as it is to climatic ones. To think clearly in such times requires an intersectional understanding of time itself, a way of thinking that escapes the cognitive traps, ancient and modern, into which we too easily fall. Because our technologies, the infrastructures we have built to escape our past, have turned instead to cancelling our future.

James writes beautifully about rates of change.

The greatest trick our utility-directed technologies have performed is to constantly pull us out of time: to distract us from the here and now, to treat time as a kind of fossil fuel which can be endlessly extracted in the service of a utopian future which never quite arrives. If information is the new oil, we are already, in the hyper-accelerated way of present things, well into the fracking age, with tremors shuddering through the landscape and the tap water on fire. But this is not enough; it will never be enough. We must be displaced utterly in time, caught up in endless imaginings of the future while endlessly neglecting the lessons and potential actions of the present moment.

Thursday, June 20th, 2019

Hack the Moon

The history of Apollo’s hardware and software—the technology, the missions, and the people; people like Elaine Denniston and Margaret Hamilton.

(The site is made by Draper, the company founded by Doc Draper, father of inertial navigation.)

Tuesday, June 18th, 2019

The New Wilderness (Idle Words)

An excellent piece by Maciej on the crucial difference between individual privacy and ambient privacy (and what that means for regulation):

Ambient privacy is not a property of people, or of their data, but of the world around us. Just like you can’t drop out of the oil economy by refusing to drive a car, you can’t opt out of the surveillance economy by forswearing technology (and for many people, that choice is not an option). While there may be worthy reasons to take your life off the grid, the infrastructure will go up around you whether you use it or not.

Because our laws frame privacy as an individual right, we don’t have a mechanism for deciding whether we want to live in a surveillance society. Congress has remained silent on the matter, with both parties content to watch Silicon Valley make up its own rules. The large tech companies point to our willing use of their services as proof that people don’t really care about their privacy. But this is like arguing that inmates are happy to be in jail because they use the prison library. Confronted with the reality of a monitored world, people make the rational decision to make the best of it.

That is not consent.

For more detail, I highly recommend reading his testimony to the senate hearing on Privacy Rights and Data Collection in a Digital Economy.

Friday, May 31st, 2019

The World-Wide Work

I’ve been to a lot of events and I’ve seen a lot of talks. I find that, even after all this time, I always get something out of every presentation I see. Kudos to anyone who’s got the guts to get up on stage and share their thoughts.

But there are some talks that are genuinely special. When they come along, it’s a real privilege to be in the room. Wilson’s talk, When We Build was one of those moments. There are some others that weren’t recorded, but will always stay with me.

Earlier this year, I had the great honour of opening the New Adventures conference in Nottingham. I definitely felt a lot of pressure, and I did my utmost to set the scene for the day. The final talk of the day was delivered by my good friend Ethan. He took it to another level.

Like I said at the time:

Look, I could gush over how good Ethan’s talk was, or try to summarise it, but there’s really no point. I’ll just say that I felt the same sense of being present at something genuinely important that I felt when I was in the room for his original responsive web design talk at An Event Apart back in 2010. When the video is released, you really must watch it.

Well, the video has been released and you really must watch it. Don’t multitask. Don’t fast forward. Set aside some time and space, and then take it all in.

The subject matter, the narrative structure, the delivery, and the message come together in a unique way.

If, having watched the presentation, you want to dive deeper into any of Ethan’s references, check out the reading list that accompanies the talk.

I mentioned that I felt under pressure to deliver a good opener for New Adventures. I know that Ethan was really feeling the pressure too. He needn’t have worried. He delivered one of the best conference talks I’ve ever seen.

Thank you, Ethan.

Friday, May 24th, 2019

The Bit Player

Ooh! A documentary on Claude Shannon—exciting!

I just finished reading A Mind At Play, the (very good) biography of Claude Shannon, so this film feels very timely.

Mixing contemporary interviews, archival film, animation and dialogue drawn from interviews conducted with Shannon himself, The Bit Player tells the story of an overlooked genius who revolutionized the world, but never lost his childlike curiosity.

Tuesday, May 21st, 2019

The Training Commission

Coming to your inbox soon:

The Training Commission is a speculative fiction email newsletter about the compromises and consequences of using technology to reckon with collective trauma. Several years after a period of civil unrest and digital blackouts in the United States, a truth and reconciliation process has led to a major restructuring of the federal government, major tech companies, and the criminal justice system.

Thursday, May 2nd, 2019

Frameworking

There are many reasons to use a JavaScript framework like Vue, Angular, or React. Last year, Nicole asked for some of those reasons. Her question received many, many answers from people pointing out the benefits of using a framework. Interesingly, though, not a single one of those benefits was for end users.

(Mind you, if the framework is being used on the server to pre-render pages, then it’s a moot point—in that situation, it makes no difference to the end user whether you use a framework or not.)

Hidde recently tried using a client-side JavaScript framework for the first time and documented the process:

In the last few months I built my very first framework-based front-end, in Vue.js. I complemented it with a router, a store and a GraphQL library, in order to have, respectively, multiple (virtual) pages, globally shared data and a smart way to load new data in my templates.

It’s a very even-handed write-up. I highly recommend reading it. He describes the pros and cons of using a framework and using vanilla JavaScript:

I am glad I tried a framework and found its features were extremely helpful in creating a consistent interface for my users. My hope is though, that I won’t forget about vanilla. It’s perfectly valid to build a website with no or few dependencies.

Speaking of vanilla JavaScript… the blogging machine that is Chris Ferdinandi also wrote a comparison post recently, asking Why do people choose frameworks over vanilla JS? Again, it’s very even-handed and well worth a read. He readily concedes that if you’re working at scale, a framework is almost certainly a good idea:

If you’re building a large scale application (literally Facebook, Twitter, QuickBooks scale), the performance wins of a framework make the overhead worth it.

Alas, I’ve seen many, many framework-driven sites that are most definitely not that operating at that scale. Trys speaks the honest truth here:

We kid ourselves into thinking we’re building groundbreakingly complex systems that require bleeding-edge tools, but in reality, much of what we build is a way to render two things: a list, and a single item. Here are some users, here is a user. Here are your contacts, here are your messages with that contact. There ain’t much more to it than that.

Just the other day, I saw a new site launch that was mostly a marketing site—the home page weighed over five megabytes, two megabytes of which were taken up with JavaScript, and the whole thing required JavaScript to render text to the screen (I’m not going to link to it because I don’t want to engage in any kind of public shaming and finger-wagging).

I worry that all the perfectly valid (developer experience) reasons for using a framwork are outweighing the more important (user experience) reasons for avoiding shipping your dependencies to end users. Like Alex says:

If your conception of “DX” doesn’t include it, or isn’t subservient to the user experience, rethink.

And yes, I am going to take this opportunity to link once again to Alex’s article The “Developer Experience” Bait-and-Switch. Please read it if you haven’t already. Please re-read it if you have.

Anyway, my main reason for writing this is to point you to thoughtful posts like Hidde’s and Chris’s. I think it’s great to see people thoughtfully weighing up the pros and cons of choosing any particular technology—I’m a bit obsessed with the topic of evaluating technology.

If you’re weighing up the pros and cons of using, say, a particular JavaScript library or framework, that’s wonderful. My worry is that there are people working in front-end development who aren’t putting that level of thought into their technology choices, but are instead using a particular framework because it’s what they’re used to.

To quote Grace Hopper:

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’