New Ways of Seeing considers the impact of digital technologies on the way we see, understand, and interact with the world. Building on John Berger’s seminal Ways of Seeing from 1972, the show explores network infrastructures, digital images, systemic bias, education and the environment, in conversation with a number of contemporary art practitioners.
Monday, April 15th, 2019
Sunday, April 14th, 2019
Friday, April 12th, 2019
I would urge front-end developers to take a step back, breathe, and reassess. Let’s stop over engineering for the sake of it. Let’s think what we can do with the basic tools, progressive enhancement and a simpler approach to building websites. There are absolutely valid usecases for SPAs, React, et al. and I’ll continue to use these tools reguarly and when it’s necessary, I’m just not sure that’s 100% of the time.
Wednesday, April 10th, 2019
In some cases, it’s entirely valid to explore new products and technologies, but in others, our striving for novelty becomes the driving factor for abandoning perfectly suitable solutions under the umbrella of technical debt.
Just because a technology is a few years old and possibly frustrating in some cases doesn’t mean you’re in technical debt. We need to stop projecting our annoyances as pitfalls of technological or design choices.
Tuesday, April 9th, 2019
Stylish! Retro! Sciency!
Monday, April 8th, 2019
An online documentary series featuring interviews with smart people about the changing role of design.
As technology becomes more complex and opaque, how will we as designers understand its potential, do hands-on work, translate it into forms people can understand and use, and lead meaningful conversations with manufacturers and policymakers about its downstream implications? We are entering a new technology landscape shaped by artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and synthetic biology.
So far there’s Kevin Slavin, Molly Wright Steenson, and Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, with more to come from the likes of Matt Jones, Anab Jain, Dan Hill, and many, many more.
Friday, April 5th, 2019
After two decades in tech, I realise phones and social media won’t be going away, so we work with them. My take is that I now need to seek positive digital tools that connect more of us to the non-digital world and really benefit our lives.
This is a bit ranty but it resonates with what I’ve been noticing lately:
I’ve discovered how many others have felt similarly, overwhelmed by the choices we have as modern developers, always feeling like there’s something we should be doing better.
Tuesday, April 2nd, 2019
Chris put together a terrific round-up of posts recently called Simple & Boring. It links off to a number of great articles on the topic of complexity (and simplicity) in web development.
You don’t hear about TextMate because TextMate is old. What would I tweet? Still using TextMate. Still good.
I think that’s a very good point.
It’s relatively easy to write and speak about new technologies. You’re excited about them, and there’s probably an eager audience who can learn from what you have to say.
It’s trickier to write something insightful about a tried and trusted (perhaps even boring) technology that’s been around for a while. You could maybe write little tips and tricks, but I bet your inner critic would tell you that nobody’s interested in hearing about that old tech. It’s boring.
The result is that what’s being written about is not a reflection of what’s being widely used. And that’s okay …as long as you know that’s the case. But I worry that theres’s a perception problem. Because of the outsize weighting of new and exciting technologies, a typical developer could feel that their skills are out of date and the technologies they’re using are passé …even if those technologies are actually in wide use.
I don’t know about you, but I constantly feel like I’m behind the curve because I’m not currently using TypeScript or GraphQL or React. Those are all interesting technologies, to be sure, but the time to pick any of them up is when they solve a specific problem I’m having. Learning a new technology just to mitigate a fear of missing out isn’t a scalable strategy. It’s reasonable to investigate a technology because you genuinely think it’s exciting; it’s quite another matter to feel like you must investigate a technology in order to survive. That way lies burn-out.
I find it very grounding to talk to Drew and Rachel about the people using their Perch CMS product. These are working developers, but they are far removed from the world of tools and frameworks forged in the startup world.
In a recent (excellent) article comparing the performance of Formula One websites, Jake made this observation at the end:
However, none of the teams used any of the big modern frameworks. They’re mostly Wordpress & Drupal, with a lot of jQuery. It makes me feel like I’ve been in a bubble in terms of the technologies that make up the bulk of the web.
I think this is very astute. I also think it’s completely understandable to form ideas about what matters to developers by looking at what’s being discussed on Twitter, what’s being starred on Github, what’s being spoken about at conferences, and what’s being written about on Ev’s blog. But it worries me when I see browser devrel teams focusing their efforts on what appears to be the needs of typical developers based on the amount of ink spilled and breath expelled.
I have a suspicion that there’s a silent majority of developers who are working with “boring” technologies on “boring” products in “boring” industries …you know, healthcare, government, education, and other facets of everyday life that any other industry would value more highly than Uber for dogs.
Trys wrote a great blog post called City life, where he compares his experience of doing CMS-driven agency work with his experience working at a startup in Shoreditch:
I was chatting to one of the team about my previous role. “I built two websites a month in WordPress”.
They laughed… “WordPress! Who uses that anymore?!”
Nearly a third of the web as it turns out - but maybe not on the Silicon Roundabout.
I’m not necessarily suggesting that there should be more articles and talks about older, more established technologies. Conferences in particular are supposed to give audiences a taste of what’s coming—they can be a great way of quickly finding out what’s exciting in the world of development. But we shouldn’t feel bad if those topics don’t match our day-to-day reality.
Ultimately what matters is building something—a website, a web app, whatever—that best serves end users. If that requires a new and exciting technology, that’s great. But if it requires an old and boring technology, that’s also great. What matters here is appropriateness.
When we’re evaluating technologies for appropriateness, I hope that we will do so through the lens of what’s best for users, not what we feel compelled to use based on a gnawing sense of irrelevancy driven by the perceived popularity of newer technologies.
Monday, March 25th, 2019
Let’s take a meandering waltz through what other people have to say about simplicity.
Friday, March 22nd, 2019
Steven Pemberton’s presentation on the printing press, the internet, Moore’s Law, and exponential growth.
Wednesday, March 6th, 2019
Are many of the modern frontend tools and practices just technical debt in disguise?
Ooh, good question!
Unsolved Problems by Beth Dean
An Event Apart in Seattle continues. It’s the afternoon of day two and Beth Dean is here to give a talk called Unsolved Problems:
Technology products are being adapted faster than ever. We’ve spent a lot of time adopting new technology, but not as much time considering the social impact of doing so. This talk looks at large scale system design in the offline world, and takes lessons from them to our online work. You’ll learn how to expand your design approach from self-contained products, to considering the broader systems in which they exist.
Fun fact: An Event Apart was the first conference that Beth attended over ten years ago.
Who recognises this guy on screen? It’s Robert Stack, the creepy host of Unsolved Mysteries. It was kind of like the X-Files. The X-Files taught Beth to be a sceptic. Imagine Beth’s surprise when her job at Facebook led her to actual conspiracies. It’s been a hard year, what with Cambridge Analytica and all.
Beth’s team is focused on how people experience ads, while the whole rest of the company is focused on ads from the opposite end. She’s the Fox Mulder of the company.
Technology today has incredible reach. In recent years, we’ve seen 1:1 harm. That’s when a product negatively effects someone directly. In their book, Eric and Sara point out that Facebook is often the first company to solve these problems.
1:many harm is another use of technology. Designing in isolation isn’t new to tech. We’ve seen 1:many harm in urban planning. Brasilia is a beautiful city that nobody wants to live in. You need messy, mixed-use spaces, not a space designed for cars. Niemeier planned for efficiency, not reality.
Eichler buildings were supposed to be egalitarian. But everything that makes these single-story homes great places to live also makes them great targets for criminals. Isolation by intentional design leads to a less safe place to live.
One of Frank Gehry’s buildings turned into a deathtrap when it was covered with snow. And in summer, the reflective material makes it impossible to sit on side of it. His Facebook office building has some “interesting” restroom allocation, which was planned last.
Ohio had a deer overpopulation problem. So the solution they settled on was to introduce coyotes. Now there’s a coyote problem. When coyotes breed with stray dogs, they start to get aggressive and they hunt in packs. This is the cobra effect: when the solution to your problem makes the problem worse. The British government offered a bounty for cobras in India. So people bred snakes for the bounty. So they got rid of the bounty …and then all those snakes were released into the wild.
So-called “ride sharing” apps are about getting one person from point A to point B. They’re not about making getting around easier in general.
Google traffic directions don’t factor in the effect of Google giving everyone the same traffic directions.
AirBnB drives up rent …even though it started out as a way to help people who couldn’t make rent. Sounds like cobra farming.
Automating Inequality by Virgina Eubanks is an excellent book about being dropped by health insurance. An algorithm did it. By taking broken systems and automating them, we accelerate disenfranchisement.
Then there’s Facebook. Psychological warfare is not new. Radio and television have influenced elections long before the internet. Politicians changed their language to fit the medium of radio.
The internet has removed all friction that helps us behave cooperatively. Removing friction was once our goal, but it turns out that friction is sometimes useful. The internet has turned into an outrage machine.
Solving problems in the isolation of our own products ignores the broader context of society.
The Waze map reflects cities as they are, not the way someone wishes them to be.
—Noam Bardin, CEO of Waze
From bulletin boards to today’s web, the internet has always been toxic because human nature is toxic. Maybe that’s the bigger problem to solve.
We can look to other industries…
Ideo redesigned the hospital experience. People were introduced to their entire care staff on their first visit. Sloan Kettering took a similar approach. Artwork serves as wayfinding. Every room has its own bathroom. A Chicago hostpital included gardens because it improves recovery.
These hospital examples all:
- Designed for an intended outcome.
- Met people where they were.
- Strengthened existing support networks.
We’ve seen some bad examples from urban planning, but there are success stories too.
A person on a $30 bicycle is as important as someone in a $30,000 car, said Enrique Peñalosa.
Copenhagen once faced awful traffic congestion. Now people cycle everywhere. It’s the fastest way to get around. The city is designed for bicycles first. People rode more when it felt safer. It’s no coincidence that Copenhagen ranks as one of the most livable cities in the world.
Scandinavian prisons use a concept called restorative justice. The staff plays badminton with the inmates. They cook together. Treat people like dirt and they will act like dirt. Treat people like people and they will act like people. Recividism rates in Norway are now way low.
- Design for dignity and cooperation.
- Solve for everyone in a system.
- Policy should reflect intended outcomes.
The deHavilland Comet was made of metal. After a few blew apart at the seams, they switched from rivetted material. Airlines today develop a culture of crew resource management that encourages people to speak up.
- Plan for every point of failure.
- Empower everyone on a team to solve problems.
What can we do?
- Policies affect design. We need to work more closely with policy makers.
- Question access. Are all opinions equal? Where are computers making decisions that should involve people.
- Forget neutrality. Technology is not neutral. Neutrality allows us to abdicate responsibility.
- Stay a litte bit paranoid. Think about what the worst case scenario might be.
Make people better curators. How might we allow people to assess the veracity of information for themselves? What if we gave people better tools to affect their overall experience, not just small customisations?
We can use what we know about people to bring out their best behaviours. We can empower people to take action instead of just outrage.
What if we designed for the good of the community instead of the success of individuals. Like the Vauban in Freiburg! It was squatted, and the city gave control to the squatters to create an eco neighbourhood with affordable housing.
We need to think about what kind of worlds we want to create. What if we made the web less like a mall and more like a public park?
These are hard problems. But we solve hard technology problems every day. We could be the first generation of builders to solve technology’s hard problems.
Thursday, February 21st, 2019
Over on the Failed Architecture site, there’s a piece about Kevin Lynch’s 1960 book The Image Of The City. It’s kind of fun to look back at a work like that, from today’s vantage point of ubiquitous GPS and smartphones with maps that bestow God-like wayfinding. How much did Lynch—or any other futurist from the past—get right about our present?
Quite a bit, as it turns out.
Lynch invented the term ‘imageability’ to describe the degree to which the urban environment can be perceived as a clear and coherent mental image. Reshaping the city is one way to increase imageability. But what if the cognitive map were complemented by some external device? Lynch proposed that this too could strengthen the mental image and effectively support navigation.
Past visions of the future can be a lot of fun. Matt Novak’s Paleofuture blog is testament to that. Present visions of the future are rarely as enjoyable. But every so often, one comes along…
Kevin Kelly has a new piece in Wired magazine about Augmented Reality. He suggests we don’t call it AR. Sounds good to me. Instead, he proposes we use David Gelernter’s term “the mirrorworld”.
I like it! I feel like the term won’t age well, but that’s not the point. The term “cyberspace” hasn’t aged well either—it sounds positively retro now—but Gibson’s term served its purpose in prompting discussing and spurring excitement. I feel like Kelly’s “mirrorworld” could do the same.
Incidentally, the mirrorworld has already made an appearance in the William Gibson book Spook Country in the form of locative art:
Locative art, a melding of global positioning technology to virtual reality, is the new wrinkle in Gibson’s matrix. One locative artist, for example, plants a virtual image of F. Scott Fitzgerald dying at the very spot where, in fact, he had his Hollywood heart attack, and does the same for River Phoenix and his fatal overdose.
Yup, that sounds like the mirrorworld:
Time is a dimension in the mirrorworld that can be adjusted. Unlike the real world, but very much like the world of software apps, you will be able to scroll back.
Now look, normally I’m wary to the point of cynicism when it comes to breathless evocations of fantastical futures extropolated from a barely functioning technology of today, but damn, if Kevin Kelly’s enthusiasm isn’t infectious! He invokes Borges. He acknowledges the challenges. But mostly he pumps up the excitement by baldly stating possible outcomes as though they are inevitabilities:
We will hyperlink objects into a network of the physical, just as the web hyperlinked words, producing marvelous benefits and new products.
When he really gets going, we enter into some next-level science-fictional domains:
The mirrorworld will be a world governed by light rays zipping around, coming into cameras, leaving displays, entering eyes, a never-ending stream of photons painting forms that we walk through and visible ghosts that we touch. The laws of light will govern what is possible.
And then we get sentences like this:
History will be a verb.
I kind of love it. I mean, I’m sure we’ll look back on it one day and laugh, shaking our heads at its naivety, but for right now, it’s kind of refreshing to read something so unabashedly hopeful and so wildly optimistic.
Speculative fiction as a tool for change:
We need to think harder about the future and ask: What if our policies, institutions, and societies didn’t have to be organized as they are now? Good science fiction taps us into a rich seam of radical answers to this question.
Tuesday, February 19th, 2019
An Interview with Nick Harkaway: Algorithmic Futures, Literary Fractals, and Mimetic Immortality - Los Angeles Review of Books
Nick Harkaway on technology in fiction:
Humans without tools are not magically pure; they’re just unvaccinated, cold, and wet.
SF is how we get to know ourselves, either who we are or who we might be. In terms of what is authentically human, SF has a claim to be vastly more honest and important than a literary fiction that refuses to admit the existence of the modern and goes in search of a kind of essential humanness which exists by itself, rather than in the intersection of people, economics, culture, and science which is where we all inevitably live. It’s like saying you can only really understand a flame if you get rid of the candle. Good luck with that.
And on Borges:
He was a genius, and he left this cryptic, brilliant body of work that’s poetic, incomplete, astonishing. It’s like a tasting menu in a restaurant where they let you smell things that go to other tables and never arrive at yours.
Honestly, cryptocurrencies are useless. They’re only used by speculators looking for quick riches, people who don’t like government-backed currencies, and criminals who want a black-market way to exchange money.
Bruce Schneier on the blockchain:
What blockchain does is shift some of the trust in people and institutions to trust in technology. You need to trust the cryptography, the protocols, the software, the computers and the network. And you need to trust them absolutely, because they’re often single points of failure.
Friday, February 15th, 2019
Photos from earlier this week:
In a small room in CERN’s Data Center, an international group of nine developers is taking a plunge back in time to the beginnings of the World Wide Web. Their aim is to enable the whole world to experience what the web looked like viewed within the very first browser developed by Tim Berners-Lee.
Thursday, February 14th, 2019
On the 50th anniversary of Vannevar Bush’s As We May Think, Tim Berners-Lee delivered this address in 1995.
To a large part we have MEMEXes on our desks today. We have not yet seen the wide scale deployment of easy human interfaces for editing hypertext and making links. (I find this constantly frustrating, but always assume will be cured by cheap commercial products within the year.)