Letters to a Young Technologist is a collection of essays addressed to young technologists, written by a group of young technologists.
Tuesday, August 17th, 2021
Tuesday, August 10th, 2021
A superb piece of writing by Debbie Chachra on infrastructure, fairness, and the future.
Alone in my apartment, when I reach out my hand to flip a switch or turn on a tap, I am a continent-spanning colossus, tapping into vast systems that span thousands of miles to bring energy, atoms, and information to my household. But I’m only the slenderest tranche of these collective systems, constituting the whole with all the other members of our federated infrastructural cyborg bodies.
Tuesday, August 3rd, 2021
Tuesday, July 27th, 2021
This sounds like an interesting long-term storage project, but colour me extremely sceptical of their hand-wavey vagueness around their supposedly flawless technical solution:
This technology will be revealed to the world in the near future.
Also, they keep hyping up the Svalbard location as though it were purpose-built for this project, rather than the global seed bank (which they don’t even mention).
This might be a good way to do marketing, but it’s a shitty way to go about digital preservation.
Saturday, July 24th, 2021
The World Wide Web at its best is a mechanism for people to share what they know, almost always for free, and to find one’s community no matter where you are in the world.
Thursday, July 22nd, 2021
When we find remains of beavers, we assume they built beaver dams, even if we don’t immediately find remnants of such dams. The beaver dams are part of what biologists would call the animal’s extended phenotype, an unavoidable necessity of the ecological niche that the beaver occupies. When we find Homo sapiens skeletons, however, we instead imagine the people naked, feasting on berries, without shelter, and without social differentiation.
Saturday, July 3rd, 2021
A terrific piece by Jonathan Zittrain on bitrot and online digital preservation:
Too much has been lost already. The glue that holds humanity’s knowledge together is coming undone.
Tuesday, June 29th, 2021
Progressive enhancement in meatspace:
IRL progressive enhancement is quite common when you think of it. You can board planes with paper boarding cards, but also with technology like QR codes and digital wallets. You can pay for a coffee with cash, card or phone. The variety serves diverse sets of people. Just like in web development, not dismissing the baseline lets us cover use cases we didn’t know existed. It is fragile, though: some manager somewhere probably has a fantasy about replacing everything with fancy tech and fancy tech only.
Saturday, June 19th, 2021
Wait a minute. There is no real difference between the dataome—our externalized world of books and computers and machines and robots and cloud servers—and us. That means the dataome is a genuine alternative living system here on the planet. It’s dependent on us, but we’re dependent on it too. And for me that was nerve-wracking. You get to the point of looking at it and going, Wow, the alien world is here, and it’s right under our nose, and we’re interacting with it constantly.
I like this Long Now view of our dataome:
We are constantly exchanging information that enables us to build a library for survival on this planet. It’s proven an incredibly successful approach to survival. If I can remember what happened 1,000 years ago, that may inform me for success today.
Saturday, May 15th, 2021
I subscribe to Peter Gasston’s newsletter, The Tech Landscape. It’s good. Peter’s a smart guy with his finger on the pulse of many technologies that are beyond my ken. I recommend subscribing.
But I was very taken aback by what he wrote in issue 202. It was to do with algorithmic recommendation engines.
This week I want to take a little dump on a tweet I read. I’m not going to link to it (I’m not that person), but it basically said something like: “I’m afraid to Google something because I don’t want the algorithm to think I like it, and I’m afraid to click a link because I don’t want the algorithm to show me more like it… what a cage.”
- GET requests shouldn’t have side effects. Adding to a dossier on someone’s browsing habits definitely counts as a side effect.
- It is literally a fundamental principle of the web platform that it should be safe to visit a web page.
But Peter describes ubiquitous surveillance as a feature, not a bug:
It’s observing what someone likes or does, then trying to make recommendations for more things like it—whether that’s books, TV shows, clothes, advertising, or whatever. It works on probability, so it’s going to make better guesses the more it knows you; if you like ten things of type A, then liking one thing of type B shouldn’t be enough to completely change its recommendations. The problem is, we don’t like “the algorithm” if it doesn’t work, and we don’t like it if works too well (“creepy!”). But it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage.
He would be correct if the balance of power were tipped towards the person actively looking for recommendations. As I said in my earlier post:
Don’t get me wrong: building a profile of someone based on their actions isn’t inherently wrong. If a user taps on “like” or “favourite” or “bookmark”, they are actively telling the server to perform an update (and so those actions should be POST requests). But do you see the difference in where the power lies?
When Peter says “it’s not sinister, and it’s not a cage” that may be true for him, but that is not a shared feeling, as the original tweet demonstrates. I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss someone else’s psychological pain because you don’t think they “get it”. I’m pretty sure everyone “gets” how recommendation engines are supposed to work. That’s not the issue. Trying to provide relevant content isn’t the problem. It’s the unbelievably heavy-handed methods that make it feel like a cage.
Peter uses the metaphor of a record shop:
“The algorithm” is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice; imagine you went to a record shop (remember them?) which had every recording ever released; how would you find new music? You’d either buy music by bands you know you already liked, or you’d take a pure gamble on something—which most of the time would be a miss. So you’d ask a store worker, and they’d recommend the music they liked—but that’s no guarantee you’d like it. A good worker would ask what type of music you like, and recommend music based on that—you might not like all the recommendations, but there’s more of a chance you’d like some. That’s just what “the algorithm” does.
But that’s not true. You don’t ask “the algorithm” for a recommendation—it foists them on you whether you want them or not. A more apt metaphor would be that you walked by a record shop once and the store worker came out and followed you down the street, into your home, and watched your every move for the rest of your life.
What Peter describes sounds great—a helpful knowledgable software agent that you ask for recommendations. But that’s not what “the algorithm” is. And that’s why it feels like a cage. That’s why it is a cage.
The original tweet was an open, honest, and vulnerable insight into what online recommendation engines feel like. That’s a valuable insight that should be taken on board, not dismissed.
And what a lack of imagination to look at an existing broken system—that doesn’t even provide good recommendations while making people afraid to click on links—and shrug and say that this is the best we can do. If this really is “is the best way to navigate a world of infinite choice” then it’s no wonder that people feel like they need to go on a digital detox and get away from their devices in order to feel normal. It’s like saying that decapitation is the best way of solving headaches.
Imagine living in a surveillance state like East Germany, and saying “Well, how else is the government supposed to make informed decisions without constantly monitoring its citizens?” I think it’s more likely that you’d feel like you’re in a cage.
Apples to oranges? Kind of. But whether it’s surveillance communism or surveillance capitalism, there’s a shared methodology at work. They’re both systems that disempower people for the supposedly greater good of amassing data. Both are built on the false premise that problems can be solved by getting more and more data. If that results in collateral damage to people’s privacy and mental health, well …it’s all for the greater good, right?
It’s fucking bullshit. I don’t want to live in that cage and I don’t want anyone else to have to live in it either. I’m going to do everything I can to tear it down.
Tuesday, April 27th, 2021
The 1960s idea of “appropriate technology” feels like an early version of the principle of least power.
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
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