My daughter’s got a smartphone, because, well, everyone has. It has GPS on it, because, well, every one does. What this means is that she will never understand the concept of being lost.
Think about that for a second. She won’t ever even know what it means to be lost.
Every argument I have in the pub now goes for about ten minutes before someone says, right, we’ve spent long enough arguing now, someone look up the correct answer on Wikipedia. My daughter won’t ever understand the concept of not having a bit of information available, of being confused about a matter of fact.
A while back, it was decreed that telephone directories are not subject to copyright, that a list of phone numbers is “information alone without a minimum of original creativity” and therefore held no right of ownership.
What instant access to information has provided us is a world where all the simple matters of fact are now yours; free for the asking. Putting data on the internet is not a skill; it is drudgery, a mechanical task for robots. Ask yourself: why do you buy technical books? It’s not for the information inside: there is no tech book anywhere which actually reveals something which isn’t on the web already. It’s about the voice; about the way it’s written; about how interesting it is. And that is a skill. Matters of fact are not interesting — they’re useful, right enough, but not interesting. Making those facts available to everyone frees up authors, creators, makers to do authorial creative things. You don’t have to spend all your time collating stuff any more: now you can be Leonardo da Vinci all the time. Be beautiful. Appreciate the people who do things well, rather than just those who manage to do things at all. Prefer those people who make you laugh, or make you think, or make you throw your laptop out of a window with annoyance: who give you a strong reaction to their writing, or their speaking, or their work. Because information wanting to be free is what creates a world of creators. Next time someone wants to build a wall around their little garden, ask yourself: is what you’re paying for, with your time or your money or your personal information, something creative and wonderful? Or are they just mechanically collating information? I hope to spend 2013 enjoying the work of people who do something more than that.
Not everyone who works with technology loves technology. No, really, it’s true! Most of the people out there building stuff with web tech don’t attend conferences, don’t talk about WebGL in the pub, don’t write a blog with CSS3 “experiments” in it, don’t like what they do. It’s a job: come in at 9, go home at 5, don’t think about HTML outside those hours. Apparently 90% of the stuff in the universe is “dark matter”: undetectable, doesn’t interact with other matter, can’t be seen even with a really big telescope. Our “dark matter developers”, who aren’t part of the community, who barely even know that the community exists… how are we to help them? You can write all the A List Apart articles you like but dark matter developers don’t read it. And so everyone’s intranet is horrid and Internet-Explorer-specific and so the IE team have to maintain backwards compatibility with that and that hurts the web. What can we do to reach this huge group of people? Everyone’s written a book about web technologies, and books help, but books are dying. We want to get the word out about all the amazing things that are now possible to everyone: do we know how? Do we even have to care? The theory is that this stuff will “trickle down”, but that doesn’t work for economics: I’m not sure it works for
The web moves really fast. How many times have you googled for a tutorial on or an example of something and found that the results, written six months or a year or two years ago, no longer work? The syntax has changed, or there’s a better way now, or it never worked right to begin with. You’ll hear people bemoaning this: trying to stop the web moving so quickly in order that knowledge about it doesn’t go out of date. But that ship’s sailed. This is the world we’ve built: it moves fast, and we have to just hat up and deal with it. So, how? How can we make sure that old and wrong advice doesn’t get found? It’s a difficult question, and I don’t think anyone’s seriously trying to answer it. We should try and think of a way.
Software isn’t always a solution to problems. If you’re a developer, everything generally looks like a nail: a nail which is solved by making a new bit of code. I’ve got half-finished mobile apps done for tracking my running with GPS, for telling me when to switch between running and walking, and… I’m still fat, because I’m writing software instead of going running. One of the big ideas behind computers was to automate repetitive and boring tasks, certainly, which means that it should work like this: identify a thing that needs doing, do it for a while, think “hm, a computer could do this more easily”, write a bit of software to do it. However, there’s too much premature optimisation going on, so it actually looks like this: identify a thing that needs doing, think “hm, I’m sure a computer would be able to do this more easily”, write a bit of software to do it. See the difference? If the software never gets finished, then in the first approach the thing still gets done. Don’t always reach for the keyboard: sometimes it’s better to reach for Post-It notes, or your running shoes.
Changing the world is within your grasp.
This is not necessarily a good thing.
If you go around and talk to normal people, it becomes clear that, weirdly, they don’t ever imagine how to get ten million dollars. They don’t think about new ways to redesign a saucepan or the buttons in their car. They don’t contemplate why sending a parcel is slow and how it could be a slicker process. They don’t think about ways to change the world.
I find it hard to talk to someone who doesn’t think like that.
To an engineer, the world is a toy box full of sub-optimized and feature-poor toys, as Scott Adams once put it. To a designer, the world is full of bad design. And to both, it is not only possible but at a high level obvious how to (a) fix it (b) for everyone (c) and make a few million out of doing so.
At first, this seems a blessing: you can see how the world could be better! And make it happen!
Then it’s a curse. Those normal people I mentioned? Short of winning the lottery or Great Uncle Brewster dying, there’s no possibility of becoming a multi-millionaire, and so they’re not thinking about it. Doors that have a handle on them but say “Push” are not a source of distress. Wrong kerning in signs is not like sandpaper on their nerves.
The curse of being able to change the world is… the frustration that you have so far failed to do so.
Perhaps there is a Zen thing here. Some people have managed it. Maybe you have. So the world is better, and that’s a good thing all by itself, right?
The best systems are built by people who can accept that no-one will ever know how hard it was to do, and who therefore don’t seek validation by explaining to everyone how hard it was to do.
The most poisonous idea in the world is when you’re told that something which achieved success through lots of hard work actually got there just because it was excellent.
Ever notice how the things you slave over and work crushingly hard on get less attention, sometimes, than the amusing things you threw together in a couple of evenings?
I can't decide whether this is a good thing or not.
It's OK to not want to build websites for everybody and every browser. Making something which is super-dynamic in Chrome 18 and also works excellently in w3m is jolly hard work, and a lot of the time you might well be justified in thinking it's not worth it. If your site stats, or your belief, or your prediction of the market's direction, or your favourite pundit tell you that the best use of your time is to only support browsers with
Publish and be damned, said the Duke of Wellington; these days, in between starting wars in France and being sick of everyone repeating the jokes about his name from Blackadder, he’d probably say that we should publish or be damned. If you’re anything like me, you’ve got folders full of little experiments that you never got around to finishing or that didn’t pan out. Put ’em up somewhere. These things are useful.
Twitter, autobiographies, collections of letters from authors, all these have shown us that the minutiae can be as fascinating as carefully curated and sieved and measured writings, and who knows what you’ll inspire the next person to do from the germ of one of your ideas?
We've come a long way since:
<HEADER> <TITLE>The World Wide Web project</TITLE> <NEXTID N="55"> </HEADER> <BODY> <H1>World Wide Web</H1>The WorldWideWeb (W3) is a wide-area<A NAME=0 HREF="WhatIs.html"> hypermedia</A> information retrieval initiative aiming to give universal access to a large universe of documents.
Look at http://html5boilerplate.com/—a base level page which helps you to cover some (nowhere near all) of the above list of things to care about (and the rest of the things you need to care about too, which are the other 90% of the list). A year in development, 900 sets of changes and evolutions from the initial version, seven separate files. That's not over-engineering; that's what you need to know to build things these days.
The important point is: one of the skills in our game is knowing what you don't need to do right now but still leaving the door open for you to do it later. If you become the next Facebook then you will have to care about all these things; initially you may not. You don't have to build them all on day one: that is over-engineering. But you, designer, developer, translator, evangelist, web person, do have to understand what they all mean. And you do have to be able to layer them on later without having to tear everything up and start again. Feel guilty that you're not addressing all this stuff in the first release if necessary, but you should feel a lot guiltier if you didn't think of some of it.
Don't be creative. Be a creator. No one ever looks back and wishes that they'd given the world less stuff.