The 1960s idea of “appropriate technology” feels like an early version of the principle of least power.
Tuesday, April 27th, 2021
Thursday, April 22nd, 2021
I’ve lately been trying an exercise where, when reading anything by or about tech companies, I replace uses of the word “infrastructure” with “means of production.”
Sunday, April 18th, 2021
New technologies don’t have power; for that they’d need a community, documentation, and a thriving ecosystem of ancillary technology. What they have is potential, which resonates with the potential within the startup and the early adopter; perhaps they can all, over time, grow together.
This means startups don’t adopt new technologies despite their immaturity, they adopt them because of that immaturity. This drives a constant churn of novelty and obsolescence, which amplifies the importance of a technologist’s skillset, which drives startups to adopt new technologies.
This flywheel has been spinning for a long time, and won’t stop simply because I’ve pointed out that we’re conflating novelty with technological advancement. Hopefully we can slow it down, though, because I believe it’s causing real harm.
Saturday, April 3rd, 2021
Principles and the English language
One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.
I think a lot about design principles for the web. The two principles I keep coming back to are the robustness principle and the principle of least power.
When it comes to words, the guide that I return to again and again is George Orwell, specifically his short essay, Politics and the English Language.
Towards the end, he offers some rules for writing.
- Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
- Never use a long word where a short one will do.
- If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
- Never use the passive where you can use the active.
- Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
- Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.
These look a lot like design principles. Not only that, but some of them look like specific design principles. Take the robustness principle:
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
That first part applies to Orwell’s third rule:
If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
Be conservative in what words you send.
Then there’s the principle of least power:
Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
Compare that to Orwell’s second rule:
Never use a long word where a short one will do.
That could be rephrased as:
Choose the shortest word suitable for a given purpose.
Or, going in the other direction, the principle of least power could be rephrased in Orwell’s terms as:
Never use a powerful language where a simple language will do.
Oh, I like that! I like that a lot.
Tuesday, March 30th, 2021
The principle of most availability
I’ve been thinking some more about the technical experience of booking a vaccination apointment and how much joy it brought me.
All of those technologies are platform-agnostic.
No matter what operating system I’m using, or what email software I’ve chosen, email works. It gets more complicated when you introduce HTML email. My response to that is the same as the old joke; you know the one: “Doctor, it hurts when I do this.” (“Well, don’t do that.”)
No matter what operating system my phone is using, SMS works. It gets more complicated when you introduce read receipts, memoji, or other additions. See my response to HTML email.
Then there’s the web. No matter what operating system I’m using on a device that could be a phone or a tablet or a laptop or desktop tower, and no matter what browser I’ve chosen to use, the World Wide Web works.
It feels like the principle of least power in action.
But another way of rephrasing “least power” is “most availability.” Technologies that are old, simple, and boring tend to be more widely available.
I remember when software used to come packaged in boxes and displayed on shelves. The packaging always had a list on the side. It looked like the nutritional information on a food product, but this was a list of “system requirements”: operating system, graphics card, sound card, CPU. I never liked the idea of system requirements. It felt so …exclusionary. And for me, the promise of technology was liberation and freedom to act on my own terms.
Alas, many developers don’t build with this mindset. I mean, I understand why: it means thinking about users with the most boring, least powerful technology. It’s simpler and more exciting to assume that everyone’s got a shared baseline of newer technology. But by doing that, you’re missing out on one of the web’s superpowers: that something served up at the same URL with the same underlying code can simultaneously serve people with older technology and also provide a whizz-bang experience to people with the latest and greatest technology.
Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the kind of communication technologies that are as universal as email, SMS, and the web.
QR codes are kind of heading in that direction, although I still have qualms because of their proprietary history. But there’s something nice and lo-fi about them. They’re like print stylesheets in reverse (and I love print stylesheets). A funky little bridge between the physical and the digital. I just wish they weren’t so opaque: you never know if scanning that QR code will actually take you to the promised resource, or if you’re about to rickroll yourself.
Telephone numbers kind of fall into the same category as SMS, but with the added option of voice. I’ve always found the prospect of doing something with, say, Twilio’s API more interesting than building something inside a walled garden like Facebook Messenger or Alexa.
I know very little about chat apps or voice apps, but I don’t think there’s a cross-platform format that works with different products, right? I imagine it’s like the situation with native apps which require a different codebase for each app store and operating system. And so there’s a constant stream of technologies that try to fulfil the dream of writing once and running everywhere: React Native, Flutter.
They’re trying to solve a very clear and obvious problem: writing the same app more than once is really wasteful. But that’s the nature of the game when it comes to runtime-specific apps. The only alternative is to either deliberately limit your audience …or apply the principle of least power/most availability.
The wastefulness of having to write the same app for multiple platforms isn’t the only thing that puts me off making native apps. The exclusivity works in two directions. There’s the exclusive nature of the runtime that requires a bespoke codebase. There’s also the exclusive nature of the app store. It feels like a return to shelves of packaged software with strict system requirements. You can’t just walk in and put your software on the shelf. That’s the shopkeeper’s job.
There is no shopkeeper for the World Wide Web.
Monday, March 29th, 2021
Ainissa Ramirez recounts the story of the transatlantic telegraph cable, the Apollo project of its day.
Thursday, March 25th, 2021
Richard MacManus has started a blog all about the history of web development—this is going straight to my RSS reader!
Most internet history books, websites, podcasts, etc, are from a business perspective. What’s missing, I believe, is an internet history with a technical point of view: which products were developed, the technologies used, how the web has changed over time, developmental trends, and so on.
Simply put, I want to describe how the web actually works and how that has evolved over the past 25-30 years.
Wednesday, March 17th, 2021
I really like the approach that Carie takes here. Instead of pointing to specific patterns to use, she provides a framework for evaluating technology. Solutions come and go but this kind of critical thinking is a long-lasting skill.
Sunday, March 14th, 2021
This website is hosted across a network of solar powered servers and is sent to you from wherever there is the most sunshine.
Thursday, February 18th, 2021
I’m excited by this documentary project from John! The first video installment features three historic “pages”:
- As We May Think,
- Information Management: A Proposal, and
- the first web page.
Thursday, February 11th, 2021
SETI—the Search for Extra Terrestrial Information processing:
What we get is a computational device surrounding the Asymptotic Giant Branch star that is roughly the size of our Solar System.
Monday, January 25th, 2021
You catch more flies with honey than Tailwind.
Saturday, January 16th, 2021
A Creative Commons licensed web book that you can read online.
Carbon dioxide removal at a climate-significant scale is one of the most complex endeavors we can imagine, interlocking technologies, social systems, economies, transportation systems, agricultural systems, and, of course, the political economy required to fund it. This primer aims to lower the learning curve for action by putting as many facts as possible in the hands of the people who will take on this challenge. This book can eliminate much uncertainty and fear, and, we hope, speed the process of getting real solutions into the field.
Monday, December 14th, 2020
I really enjoyed this trip down memory lane with Chris:
From the Web’s inception, an ancient to contemporary history of the Web.
Saturday, December 12th, 2020
Technologies are always coming out of networks that require other related ideas to have the next one. The fact that we have simultaneous independent invention as a norm works against the idea of the heroic inventor, that we’re dependent on them for inventions. These things will come when all the other pieces are ready.
Wednesday, December 9th, 2020
Chris is gathering end-of-year thoughts from people in response to the question:
What is one thing you learned about building websites this year?
Monday, November 16th, 2020
The street finds its own uses for things, and it may be that the use for Google Glass is assistive technology. Here’s Léonie’s in-depth hands-on review of Envision Glasses, based on Google Glass.
The short wait whilst the image is processed is mitigated by the fact a double tap is all that’s needed to request another scene description, and being able to do it just by looking at what I’m interested in and tapping a couple of times on my glasses is nothing short of happiness in a pair of spectacles.
Thursday, November 12th, 2020
James has penned a sweeping arc from the The Mechanical Turk, Sesame Street, and Teletubbies to Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.