Where we went wrong, or, The one thing Philip Greenspun got right (in 1997)

Cast your mind back, if you will, to the heady days of the “Web 1.0” bubble. A fellow by the name of Philip Greenspun was a Ph.D. student at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science. He was also a serial entrepreneur, a one-percenter, and a very opinionated photographer. (It may be more difficult for some of you to remember those days than others; I know some of my audience here was not even 10 years old then, and doesn’t really remember the days Before Google.) In the year I started my current job at MIT. Greenspun published a book, written in his typically bombastic style: Philip Greenspun’s Database Backed Web Sites: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Web Publishing (ZD Press, 1997). Most of what was in that book has since been overtaken by events, to say the least, but one particular claim, early on in the introductory chapters, bears revisiting. (You young’uns will have to remember that, in the days Before Google, many reference works and databases were published as CD-ROMs that required proprietary, vendor-specific software to browse and search.)

When you use a set of traditional Web sites, you don’t have to learn anything new. Every CD-ROM, on the other hand, has a sui generis user interface. Somebody thought it would be cute to put a little navigation cube at the bottom right of the screen. Somebody else thought it would be neat if you clicked on the righthand page of an open book to take you to the next page. Meanwhile, you sit there for 15 seconds feeling frustrated, with no clue that you are supposed to do anything with that book graphic on the screen. The CD-ROM goes back on the shelf.

The beauty of Netscape 2.0 and more recent browsers is that they allow the graphic designers behind Web sites to make their sites just as opaque and hard to use as CD-ROMs. Graphic designers are not user interface designers. If you read a book like the Macintosh Human Interface Guidelines (Apple Computer, Inc.; Addison-Wesley, 1993), you will appreciate what kind of thought goes into a well-designed user interface. Most of it has nothing to do with graphics and appearance. Pull-down menus are not better than pop-up menus because they look prettier; they are better because you always know exactly where to find the Print command.

Some of the bad things a graphic designer can do with a page were possible even way back in the days of Netscape 1.1. A graphic designer might note that most of the text on a page was hyperlinks and decide to just make all of the text black (text=#000000, link=#000000, vlink=#000000). Alternatively, he may choose a funky color for a background and then three more funky colors for text, links, and visited links. Either way, users have no way of knowing what is a hyperlink and what isn’t. Often designers get bored and change the colors even for different pages on the same site.

— pp. 40–41

I’m not sure if Greenspun even still believes this; I haven’t heard from philg in many years. But in today’s “Web 3.0” world, we have this problem to an even greater extreme, because we have allowed Web sites to completely take control over our computers. We think nothing of executing random binaries (and make no mistake, most of the JavaScript out there qualifies as a “binary”) downloaded from Ghu-knows-where and giving them the ability to open windows, capture keystrokes, disable mouse commands, and oh, by the way, present novel user interface elements that have no apparent meaning or interaction model. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but in practice it means we, or rather, the Web browser makers acting on our behalf, have given control of our experience over to a group of people whose interests are not aligned with ours (if not entirely adverse) and who do not want us to have control over our computing experience. Sometimes what they do is merely to make up for a relatively impoverished user interface that traditional HTML provides for, but in most cases this results in a hundred non-standard interactions which, although they may have commonalities, are never quite the same in any two pages, have many widely varying and buggy, independent implementations, and look out of place with whatever user interface the rest of the applications on our computer use. Many times, little or no thought is put into making things accessible (to people with a broad variety of visual, cognitive, or mobility impairments), never mind meaningfully archivable (I’m looking at you, GWT!) or even linkable (and wasn’t that the whole purpose of this Web thing in the first place?) simply because those are not revenue-generating uses.

I’ll close with one more quote from Phil Greenspun:

Remember, the Web is not there so that you can impose what you think is cool on readers.

— p. 42

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