Web dev as we know it is deprecated. We just haven’t downloaded the latest version yet. What comes next is a metamorphosis, a paradigm shift, a revolution changing how we work, how the web works, and everything we know.
“I’m not saying coding is a dying craft; I’m saying the craft of actually writing code on a keyboard to be input into a coding environment for further processing will become a narrow specialty. Most people who write code today will not be writing code in the near future. Many of them don’t need to and shouldn’t have to write code today! Writing code instructing computers to do things when we have software that writes better code for us makes no sense, and this whole notion of everyone learning how to code feels more and more like telling highschool students their future employment hinges on their ability to master T9 texting.”
Me, in an email dated November 2021
Web development stands on the precipice of an AI-driven metamorphosis. In front of us, the demarcation line between two paradigms: The old world of human-written code aided by machines, and the new world of AI-generated code aided by humans.
For the web, AI is the Jacquard loom.
For most developers, this means transitioning from writing and debugging code to directing AI what to build and checking its work. AI represents a Jacquard loom moment for web development, transitioning our work from hand-coding the fabric of the web to using that fabric as material for building new experiences.
The implications are enormous, not just for our work but the web’s future. As AI becomes part of our practice, our role shifts from writing standards-based, accessible, progressively-enhanced code to ensuring AIs use the latest, most advanced standards to build the future. If we don’t embrace this new role, progress will stall as AI biases established standards and ignores new tools and best practices..
Here’s what I see:
Very soon the public will access AI services that create websites in minutes from prompts, sketches and assets. Wix teased this, and competitors aren’t far behind.
I’d be shocked if Canva and Figma don’t unveil full “draw it, AI builds it” services by year’s end. Soon there will be ChatGPT plugins that build websites for you from scratch. This is inevitable.
When I say this out loud, the immediate response is usually some version of “AI can’t write good code” or “AI doesn’t understand users” or “AI makes constant mistakes.” All true, and all irrelevant. This isn’t about AI writing code or autocorrecting our code. AI will instead use the well-documented and well-established frameworks, templates, build processes, and automation we’ve created to make our work easier to weave together the websites and apps we ask for.
For walled gardens like Wix, this is straightforward: their back-ends, systems, and design languages allow AI to rapidly wire sites to user specifications. And that’s just the start. We’ll soon see new semi-agentive tools supporting various stacks, so you (with the help of an AI) can select frameworks, design systems, ecommerce platforms, etc. based on project needs without writing or knowing how to write code.
Look at what the people over at Builder are doing, then add an agentive AI on top and you start getting the idea:
What People Want, What Automation Provides
Two massive waves of progress are converging:
Developers have spent a decade building automation tools, frameworks, and systems to improve dev experience. You can now spin up a Next.js site in GitHub Codespaces in minutes without writing a single line of code. Component-based frameworks provide code consistency and add LEGO-like block assembly to web development. Design systems, component libraries, style guides, and tokens enable rapid prototyping and consistent UX/UI. Linting, optimization, accessibility, testing, CI/CD are largely automated. Bridging layout and code is reality. Often, we just connect these pieces. AI serves well as an automated and intelligent loom weaving these pieces together into workable materials.
On the user side, people want friction-free, no-maintenance, always-on experiences. Faced with the choice between the DIY bazaar of the open web and the shiny mall of app-based walled gardens, they pick the moving sidewalk of least resistance. And they are willing to pay for that convenience; with money and by giving up their data and privacy to surveillance capitalism. Where publishing on the web used to mean standing up a WordPress site (or paying someone else to do it), today bloggers, creators, influencers, and small businesses opt for TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, Medium, Substack, Shopify, and Linktree.
The web we lost is a bygone web a larger and larger portion of the public never experienced, and concepts like self-hosting seem archaic and inefficient to the masses. Counterintuitively AI may help bridge this gap and reignite the interest in carving out your own space on the web by lowering the barriers to entry down to describing what you want and watching it manifest.
What is pushed down as these waves converge and elevate the capabilities of the web-using public is the need for traditional developers. When the options are either an AI site from Wix built from a prompt in minutes or a complex and expensive custom build that takes months to complete, there’s no choice for most people and businesses. When the Jacquard machine automated weaving, hand-woven textiles transitioned from an essential commodity to a luxury art form, and the expertise of manual weaving morphed from a commodity skill into an artistic pursuit. Weavers still exist, and bespoke fabrics are still made, but the vast majority of textile products were made by machines guided by humans who spent their time designing the products instead of making the materials. That’s what comes next for the web.
AI Creates Opportunity Space
This may sound like AI replacing humans. It’s not. Instead it’s a fundamental shift and refocusing of the role of the developer: From writing code to auditing AI-written code. From knowing how to wire together different frameworks to architecting the system that serves up the website. From fighting with CSS to fine-tuning AI-powered user experiences.
The people currently working as coders will take a step up the ladder to focus on higher-order capabilities, using their expertise in languages and frameworks to help AIs produce the best output instead of doing the grunt work of writing the code.
Web dev as we know it is dead. What comes next is a metamorphosis, a paradigm shift, a revolution changing everything we know.
Our new human focus as we move into this future together is to ease the persistent tensions found in the intersection between technology and humanity. AI can’t conduct UX research, design novel experiences, innovate standards and best practices. That was always and will remain our territory. As AI takes over the work of weaving the fabric of the web, we do the work of making new things with those materials while improving their quality and inventing new ones.
In the short term, we’ll become AI managers – customizing, configuring, ensuring user flows and information architectures make sense, monitoring the generated code to ensure the latest standards are in use, and counteracting the inherent bias of AI to repeat prevalent patterns even when they are outdated. We’ll shift from writing code to deciding what the code should accomplish. To do that, we must all become experts at the bleeding edge of code, and invest our time in innovating new standards, patterns, and frameworks for the AIs to use. It’s a whole different job needing a whole new version of the skills we’ve always had.
This transformation is happening now. For consumers and SMBs, it will be lightning fast. For institutions and large enterprises it will be slower, hindered by legacy systems, institutional inertia, and resistance to change. But it’s coming.
The future of the web belongs to those who strategically apply AI to meet user needs. With proper guidance, AI can supercharge our work, provided we put ethics, accessibility, user experience, and innovation front and center.
We build the future with every decision we make. How we decide to work with AI decides what future we get to live in.
Emblematic of the fractured nature of social media, the first semi-official statement from the new self-described “Chief Twit” was three photos of dense text, without the necessary alt text to provide accessibility.
Pretty Hate Machine
Twitter has served an outsized role in my personal and professional lives. On the app I’ve made great new friendships and ruined old ones; created professional networks and burned bridges; helped people through difficult personal and professional times and offended others; been misunderstood and misquoted while myself misunderstanding and misquoting; blocked people and had people block me; found new limits for the highest heights of elation and the deepest depths of despair.
On Twitter I watched one friend livetweet their first child’s birth and another livetweet the bombing of his home. I watched people find their tribes and people falling into the gravity wells of hateful conspiracy theories. I watched new technologies emerge that will make the world a better place and technologies emerge that are destroying the very fabric of our society.
To say I’ve had a fraught relationship with the bird app is an understatement. When asked to describe Twitter, the first phrase that comes to mind for me is “Pretty Hate Machine,” but “Petty Hate Machine” might be equally apt. Open Twitter on any day and you’re two clicks away from whatever rage bait the “Explore” algorithm is currently selling. Political conspiracy theories, medical conspiracy theories, climate conspiracy theories, celebrity conspiracy theories, social media conspiracy theories, whatever flavor of rage you want to fill up on, the blue bird is fully stocked and eager to deliver.
On the news of Musk’s intent to buy Twitter back in the spring of 2022, right-wing pundits and their loyal followers celebrated the “end of censorship” and “return of free speech,” and in the two days since the Sinking In, the platform has become a testing ground for online extremists, trolls, and bots wanting to see how far they can take things before whatever moderation tools and staff are still in place step in:
Remember: when free speech absolutist and Silicon Valley techno libertarians talk about “the extreme left” they are talking about anyone who thinks you should be able to be online without being subjected to constant harassment and death threats because of who you are.
The vast majority of content moderation is there to prevent platforms from overflowing with spam. The rest is there to prevent platforms from being used to share criminal harassment, assault, terrorism, and CSAM content.
The right-wingers who claim they are being “#shaddowbanned” or “censored” have no reality to back them up. Studies show political bans fall evenly on the left and the right. The main diff is people on the right build their enormous platforms on the story of being censored.
People should be free to speak their minds on social media. People should also be protected from having those freedoms removed by hateful mobs. Organized online extremists have made sport of driving women, LGBTQIA2+, PoCs, and other historically harmed people off platforms.
If Twitter has any serious aspirations of becoming a “common digital town square” like Elon said, it has to be managed like a town square. If you show up at a town square screaming rape and death threats at the other people there, you will be removed, and likely arrested.
There is no civil discourse without moderation. That’s why debates have moderators. The people who claim they want to end “censorship” on social media are really saying they don’t want to be held accountable for what they say and do on social media.
In spite of what Musk and the techno-utopians of Silicon Valley want to believe, Twitter and its ilk are not “common digital town squares.” Twitter is a firehose, a deluge, an all-encompassing flood of every aspect of the human condition, pouring into your eyes the moment you open them. And like Alex DeLarge strapped to a chair with our eyes pried open, we stare down the torrent of hope and misery and joy and pain and love and hate and everything in between hoping to be cured of our own boredom, or disconnection, or unmet promises, or hope, or whatever the algorithm tells us ails us.
To Kill a Bluebird
When Musk says “highly relevant ads are actual content!” he simultaneously reduces the term “content” to its most basic meaning (under which spam must also be defined as “content”) and says the quiet part out loud: The only content that matters it the content that makes Elon money.
Musk is out $44 billion. He needs to make that back. Cutting 75% of staff won’t make a dent (though deep cuts are inevitable). The only meaningful revenue stream Twitter has at the moment is advertising. For advertisers to want to be on the platform, content moderation is necessary. Thus his other promise in the aforementioned inaccessible-text-in-pictures tweet directed at advertisers: “Twitter obviously cannot become a free-for-all hellscape, where anything can be said with no consequences!”
The free speech absolutists on the far right are unlikely to see their unmoderated dream app; not because Musk doesn’t want it, but because the only thing that matters to Elon is Elon making his money back. Instead I predict we’ll see a Twitter leaning harder than ever into Surveillance Capitalism, a doomed subscription model (leaks from internal meetings claim Musk “wants subs to be 50% of revenue at some point”), and creator-based advertising spec work, aka “the Creator Economy.”
Considering Twitter was already struggling to catch up with the new social media giant TikTok before he had an itch to scratch and randomly said he’d buy the platform, Musk and Twitter now have to weigh the need for an active user base agains the need for quick and large revenues.
As I write this, my Explore page shows terms including “CEO of Twitter,” “free speech,” “mastodon,” and “delete” trending. On the app as in the real world the app presides, the takeover of one of the biggest global communication platforms by an ultra-rich oligarch whose modus operandi seems to be playing troll to the masses to make a profit is the rage inducing trend du jour. Journalists, scientists, and creators are setting up new accounts on other apps including TikTok, figuring out how to migrate their followers to the federalized Twitter alternative Mastodon, and screaming their Medium and Substack and WordPress links into the void hoping the world will continue to hear them should they be kicked out of the bluebird’s nest.
So is this the end for Twitter? Should we all delete our accounts and move our oversharing elsewhere? As I’ve explained before in relation to the ever resurgent #DeleteFacebook trend, until we’ve built suitable alternatives, being able to step away from these commercial apps turned critical infrastructure is a sign of extreme privilege.
For better or worse, Twitter is the place people turn to for news and information in a crisis. TikTok is too video-heavy for quick communication. Facebook is too … Facebook. When protesters flood the streets in Iran or Berlin or Hong Kong or Minneapolis, Twitter is their platform of choice for rapid dissemination of information. When a hurricane, or earthquake, or war, or insurrection or coup strikes, Twitter is the first place for immediate breaking news from citizen and professional journalists. When researchers want to know how disinformation spreads and transforms the populace from people who are in it together to people who will rather let you die than have to wear a mask, they turn to Twitter’s robust APIs and data discovery tools.
Take it from journalist and author Sarah Kendzior: “Twitter is a hellsite that also houses a vital time-stamped chronology of state corruption. It shows who know what and when, and gives some insight into why. Chronology is an enemy of autocracy. Altering Twitter is altering history, and that’s the appeal to autocratic minds.“
I am not leaving Twitter (yet), but I am preparing for a future where Twitter no longer plays a meaningful (if destructive) role in my life, making sure all my eggs are not in the bluebird’s nest if you will (and yes, I’ve taken this whole bluebird metaphor thing way too far at this point. I’m tired, ok?)
I joined Twitter in May of 2008 to explore its APIs as a possible example for a web development book I was writing. The tweets from those early days are as mundane as they are prescient of what my relationship to the Bird App would become. I’ll leave my first Tweet as my last word for now:
Twenty years ago today I arrived at Vancouver International Airport, embarking on what my father calls a “life project.” At 24 I did what my ancestors had done before me, what millions of people do every year: I became an immigrant.
I could tell you my story of the past 20 years. It would be moderately interesting to my family and friends, and profoundly mundane to everyone else. I held jobs. I built a career. I have a wife. We bought a house and a car. We have a 5-year-old son. You get the idea.
What I want to talk about instead is my immigrant experience, because my experience differs in significant ways from that of a large portion of my immigrant brothers and sisters all over the world.
In my 20 years in Canada nobody has ever, not even once, questioned my status in the country. Nobody has told me to “go back where I came from.” Nobody has complained I’m “taking jobs away from real Canadians.” Nobody has mocked me for my culture, my appearance, my politics, my religion, my accent, my ethnicity, or any other part of who I am or my status as an immigrant. When people discover I’m not from Canada, they say “Oh cool! Do you like cross-country skiing?” Until recently when they discovered I had not yet applied for Canadian citizenship, they asked what was causing me to delay the process. From day one, at the airport, talking to an immigration officer thoroughly unimpressed with my lack of planning at entering the country, I’ve been treated as someone who belongs.
My experience stands in sharp contrast to that of the many 1st, 2nd, 3rd, even 4th generation immigrants I know whose existence in this country is questioned every day. It stands in even sharper contrast to the experience of the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples whose ancestral land I’ve lived on these past 20 years whose basic rights are trampled on and whose requests for clean water, control of what little land has been left to them, and protection of their ancestral lands are met with empty land acknowledgements and militarized police.
For many immigrants and first peoples, the sense of belonging extended to me as I started my “new” life in a foreign land is never offered. Instead they are met every day with challenges to their very existence.
“Go back where you came from and stop ruining our housing market!” a random person screamed at one of my friends. We were having a meal at a mall food court. Her family has been in Canada for 4 generations, likely longer than the person yelling. Yet her physical presentation as a person of Asian decent was enough for this loud-mouthed bigot to consider her an other, an interloper, a ruiner of things for “real” Canadians. When I pointed out that I was the only immigrant at our table, that I was the one “taking jobs away from real Canadians” and helping to inflate the housing market he scoffed. “That’s different” he said. “You’re not Chinese.” At least he was open about his racism.
I only became consciously aware of my privilege when I became an immigrant. Growing up in Norway with an ancestral tree of Norwegians, Danes, and Dutch dating back as long as we’ve been able to trace it, I was the default. Tall, lanky, blonde, blue eyed, pink skinned, I am the prototype of what people think of when they think of Scandinavians.
Moving to Canada these features suddenly took on a whole new meaning. Doors opened. Barriers lowered. Red tape was cut. Questions were not asked. From my original entry through my application for permanent residency to my application for citizenship, the only friction I experienced was the slow pace of bureaucracy and the postal system.
Meanwhile my friends told me of years of interviews, investigations, failed applications, of thousands of dollars spent on lawyers and consulate visits and document retrieval. And even when they became permanent residents or citizens, their existence in the country continued to be questioned. “You need to improve your English.” “You can’t wear those clothes at work.” “Your hair is unprofessional.” “Your name is unpronounceable.” All these statements are true for me, yet nobody has ever levelled them at me. Instead they are directed, often and consistency, at people who has more of a rightful claim to call themselves Canadian than I will ever have, including people whose ancestry on Turtle Island date back millennia.
I am an immigrant. I am also the personification of privilege. And as such it is my job to use that privilege to move us all forward to a future where the privileges I have been afforded become privileges afforded to everyone.
Pluralistic Identity Crisis
Ask our son what he is and he’ll tell you “I’m Canadian and Norwegian and Chinese because I live in Canada and my pappa is Norwegian and my mamma is Chinese.” He understands the words, and I doubt he understands what they mean. I’m not sure I will ever understand what they mean myself.
In four years I’ll cross a line in time where the days and months and years I’ve lived in Canada becomes greater than the days and months and years I’ve lived in Norway. At that point I will, in a purely mathematical sense, be more Canadian than I am Norwegian. But as many immigrants will tell you, I still feel like I am more Norwegian than I am Canadian. And I think I will feel like that for the rest of my life.
I have a friend whose family fled to Canada from former Yugoslavia right before the war broke out in the early 1990s. He was a child at the time, and has only been back to his homeland a handful of times since then. Even so, he feels Serbian as long as he’s in Canada. But when he goes to Serbia to visit relatives, he feels like he doesn’t belong there, that he’s an impostor. That’s a feeling I can relate to more and more.
While in my mind I am a Norwegian living in Canada, and while I follow news from “home” and keep in close contact with family and friends, when I travel to the places I grew up it’s less and less like going home, more and more like traveling to a foreign country. A lot changes in 20 years. Culture, language, community, even roads and buildings. My school was razed and a new municipal building erected. Entire new districts have been created in Oslo. The Norway I feel like I belong to is no more. It only exists in my mind. It makes me, a person who left one fully functioning and democratic country for another, feel unmoored, impermanent, stuck in a liminal space between identities. I cannot begin to imagine how this feels for someone who fled a country in conflict, often in duress, and who may never be able to return, or will return to an entirely different country.
Together, the future
I look at our son and realize the world I grew up in is not the world he lives in. As a child I thought I might visit the USA once in my life. In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic I crossed our southern border dozens of times a year. As a child, making a phone call from Norway to my relatives in Denmark was prohibitively expensive. Today, my son has video chats with his grandparents on the other side of the planet with no meaningful lag and at no cost to any of us. When I went to school, all the kids looked like versions of me. In our son’s kindergarten, every child is the child of first or second-generation immigrants. Between these 20 kids, 8 languages are spoken. Most of them are bi- or tri-lingual. Their parents are from different cultures, ethnicities, religions, and regions, and about half the families are multi-cultural like ours.
When my Norwegian family and friends ask me to describe what Canada is like, the first word that comes to mind is multicultural. Living in Burnaby, a part of the Greater Vancouver Regional District in British Columbia, I am surrounded by a tapestry of cultures. Our neighbours to one side are Italian, on the other Taiwanese. Across the street is a family from India. A quick walk from our house we can get authentic Taiwanese Boba, Korean BBQ, Chinese Hot Pot, Hong Kong style Dim Sum, Vietnamese Ph?, Italian pasta, Turkish halal kebabs, Indian curries, Japanese Teppanyaki, even Chinese/Indian fusion. My friends hail from every corner of the globe, and bring all variants of their ancestral cultures to the table when we meet. We discover and laugh at our cultural differences, our misunderstandings and discoveries, trials and tribulations, and gather around this common knowledge that we all came from somewhere to be together and build a future for our kids and for ourselves.
When our son is a few years older I will ask him what it means to be “Canadian and Norwegian and Chinese” and I look forward to his answer. Because whatever it is, it will be a description of the future he and his friends create together. I can already see it today: He is a plurality of cultures, and so are his friends. After two years of pandemic lockdowns, they find privilege in being together and sharing time and space with one another. And I hope for… no. I will actively help build a future for these kids where the privileges afforded to me as an immigrant presenting as a white heterosexual English-speaking man are extended to all people, wherever they find themselves and wherever they are going in the world.
tl;dr: The dangers of facial recognition far outweigh its benefits. If we don’t severely limit or outright ban the development of this technology today, we run the risk of eroding privacy to the point it ceases to exist.
On Saturday, I got an email from Facebook asking if I could verify whether a bunch of pictures it had uncovered were indeed of me. Among those photos were a series taken during 17th of May celebrations on Nesodden, Norway, in 1997 where I am seen in the crowd of a youth orchestra playing the big drum. The picture is blurry, and I’m wearing a weird hat over my long hair. Even so, Facebook’s facial recognition algorithm had correctly identified me.
In April, a woman posted a video on TikTok explaining how Google Photos had inadvertently sent an adult-themed video of her to her mother. The video had been taken in the kitchen with the fridge in clear view. On the fridge was a picture of the woman’s child. She had set Google Photos up to automatically share photos of her child with her mother. Thus Google used facial recognition to identify the child in the photo on the fridge and send the video to the woman’s mother. (I’m not going to link the story here because it appears the original TikTok has been set to private, but a simple search will surface it for you if you’re interested.)
Governments are eyeing facial recognition for everything from immigration screenings to access to public services.
Meanwhile, errors in facial recognition are leading to people, predominantly racialized and otherwise marginalized, being denied loans, services, even being arrested and put in jail.
Facial Recognition Considered Harmful
If we know one thing about facial recognition it is this: The technology is flawed, inaccurate, and often downright racist. Technologists will counter that over time, the technology and the algorithms underlying it will improve to the point it will be virtually infallible. I don’t disagree; The pursuit of all technology is to endlessly converge on perfection, and thanks to machine learning and AI supported by ever-present and ever more advanced cameras, the future of “perfect” facial recognition is a foregone conclusion.
Here’s the thing though: The question isn’t whether facial recognition technology will be able to deliver on its promise; it’s whether the use of the technology will change our society in ways that are harmful. I firmly believe the answer to that question is yes. Facial recognition is already harmful, and those harms will only get worse.
Supporters of facial recognition will immediately respond with the many useful applications of the technology: It makes it easier to log into your phone! You can use it to open your front door! Imagine not having to carry a clunky ID card around! It can help fight crime, prevent fraud, and abuse, and terrorism! If you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear from facial recognition!
Deontologists, and Edward Snowden, disagree. From his book “Permanent Record:”
“Because a citizenry’s freedoms are interdependent, to surrender your own privacy is really to surrender everyone’s.”
“saying that you don’t need or want privacy because you have nothing to hide is to assume that no-one should have or could have to hide anything.”
While on the surface, facial recognition appears to be a tool of convenience, in reality it is a tool of surveillance, manipulation, and oppression.
The value of facial recognition lies in how it automates wholesale omnipresent surveillance for commercial, law enforcement, and political oppression purposes.
In the 2002 movie “Minority Report” there’s a scene where the protagonist walks through a mall and is targeted by personalized advertising. In the movie, this targeting is done using retinal scans. Today, 20 years later, that exact same targeting already exists, thanks to facial recognition.
Facial recognition is a prime example of a constant struggle within science and technology: Does the fact we can do something mean we ought to do it? From a purely scientific technologist perspective, the answer will always be “yes” because that’s how we evolve our technology. From an ethical perspective, the answer is more nuanced. Rather than judge the merit of a technology solely based on its advancement, we look at what the technology does to us, if it promotes human flourishing, and if it causes harm to people, communities, and society.
The technology for cloning humans has been around for decades, yet we don’t clone humans. Why? Because the further development of human cloning technology has severe and irreparable negative consequences for the human race. We can do it, but we don’t, because we know better.
This is the determination we need to make, today, about facial recognition technology: We can do it, but is this technology promoting human flourishing, and will its harms be outweighed by its benefits?
I’ve spent years grappling with this question and talking to people in the industry about it. After much deliberation, my conclusion is crystal clear: This technology is too dangerous for further development. We need a global ban on deployment and further development of facial recognition technologies, and we need it now. Failure to act will result in the destruction of privacy and immeasurable harms to individuals, groups, and society as a whole.
Think of it this way: Right now you can buy a drone with a high definition camera, buy access to one of the many facial recognition platforms available on the web, fly that drone to a public place, find and identify any person within that space, and have the drone track that person wherever they choose to go. That’s not science fiction. That’s current reality.
Oh, and once you find out who the person is, you can also stalk them on social media, find out where they work, who their friends are, what they like to eat, where they like to hang out, etc etc. Which is all harmful to privacy. But the truly dangerous part here here is the facial recognition: it gives anyone the capability of identifying anyone else, based on a single photo or a crappy video clip, and from there proceed to find all the other information. As long as facial recognition exists, we cannot control who can identify us.
And if you think you can opt out, the answer is no. Facial recognition companies have already scraped the internet clean of any and all photos of you and your face has been catalogued. John Oliver did a great bit on this last year. And yes, it will make you want to throw your phone away and go live in a cave in the forest:
Technology is not inevitable.
“But Morten, these technologies already exist. The cat’s out of the bag so to speak.”
True. Which is why a global ban on the deployment, use, and further development of this technology is something we have to do right now. We cannot afford to wait.
Here’s the bottom line: There is no such thing as inevitable technology. We, as a society, can choose to not develop technologies. We can determine a technology to be too harmful and stop developing it. We can assist those already heavily invested in those technologies to pursue other less harmful technologies, and we can impose penalties on those who use or develop the technology in spite of its ban. It won’t be perfect, but it is absolutely possible.
I could go on, but you get the point: We are trading our privacy and the security of our fellow people for the convenience of logging onto our phones by just looking at them. That’s not a trade I’m comfortable width, and I hope you agree.
On the proverbial slippery slope, we are rapidly nearing the bottom, and once we’re there it will be very difficult to get ourselves back up. As the man on the TV says, avoid disappointment and future regret: act now! Your privacy and our collective future depends on it!
A tweet caught my eye earlier this week. It featured a series of images of white text on a black background originally posted on Instagram. In these images, the author, a woman from Istanbul, Turkey, describes how a hashtag and social movement created to draw attention to the murder of women in her country has been co-opted by people who don’t know the meaning of the #ChallengeAccepted hashtag. (You can read more about this story in reports from KQED and The Guardian.)
I think it’s time to say out loud what many of us have been discussing in private for years: Blogging as we knew it is dead. We, the people who built and promoted blogging tools, failed at convincing people that owning their blog and controlling their content is important. We failed at providing the publishers of the world with the tools they needed. And, most crucially, we failed at keeping pace with the changing behaviors and attitudes of our users. People don’t want a permanent web log; they want an ephemeral lifestream – there, and then gone again. And they want absolute control over the appearance and curation of that stream.
An image of an image of text
At the height of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, my social media feeds (in particular Instagram) overflowed with excellent information about the issues of racial inequality and inequity, hidden biases and how to overcome them, white privilege, nationalism, supremacy, how to be an ally, how to support BIPoC, etc. Almost all this information, crucial to the forward momentum of the civil rights struggle of our time, was shared as meticulously designed and entirely inaccessible images of text.
What do I mean by “entirely inaccessible?” The web is built to transmit text from author to reader, and web browsers and tools are designed to parse that text in a way the reader can access: displayed on a screen; read out loud; printed on a braille display; or something else. For information to be accessible, it needs to be provided as plain text. An image of plain text contains no accessible information unless that information is appended in an alternative text attribute.
Worse still, Instagram in particular has no functional way of sharing a post with others outside the ephemeral Instagram Stories feature. As a result, much of this already inaccessible information is reshared as photos of the original post in stories, effectively a copy of an inaccessible image. In some cases, when the post is evocative enough, people will reshare it across other social media, by taking screenshots and posting them on Facebook or Twitter. And then people take screenshots of these posts and re-share them. A copy of a copy of a copy.
According to my students, I am “an old.” And they are right. I started blogging when blogging was a new thing. I spent 15 years of my life building and promoting blogging tools and telling anyone who would listen about the importance of owning your content and creating a permanent record of your shared ideas online. I surrounded myself with likeminded people, and for a good while, we ruled the world. Then last year a series of events forced me to take a critical look at my understanding of the evolving landscape. What I found all around me were the walls of an indie-web adjacent echo chamber. It had become my comfort zone, and everything I believed was echoed right back at me. But outside, the world had moved on, and I had somehow not noticed, or at least not accepted what I was seeing.
A pivotal moment came when I discussed social media sharing with some younger relatives. I told them about how I publish content online and they looked at me in incredulity. “Why would you bother posting something on your blog?” they asked. “Nobody is going to see that!” I tried to explain that yes, people do see it and they shrugged. “Sure, when you post tutorials and stuff, people see it. But that’s not blogging. That’s … publishing. When I post stuff, it’s for my friends, for my followers. And it’s not forever. It’s for right now. If they see it, great. If not, their loss.”
In that moment I realized what I value – the permanence of my published information – is the opposite of what they value – the impermanent ephemerality of sharing moments from their lives.
“And seriously Morten,” one of them said, “the blogging tools are really not good.” I tried not to take this too personally and asked them to continue. “I can post text and images and other stuff, but I can’t control how it looks. When I post something on Insta or Snap, I want what I see on my screen to be what people see on their screen.” They went on to show me examples of posts and gave me a walk-through of the tools they used to make their posts just right.
I was floored. When I post to Instagram, it’s mainly either photos straight off my phone or straight off my camera. When they post to “Insta”, it’s often a design process involving two or three different apps. A photo may pass through a Snap filter and other editing tools before landing on the Instagram feed. And before it does, other photos may be culled to ensure the “wall” (the grid of photos you see when you go to the user profile) is curated and looks just right. There are even tools for previewing what your wall will look like once you’ve posted a new photo!
And when it comes to images of text and Instagram stories, the process is essentially a mobile version of a full design sprint with iterations, advanced tools, typography experiments, filters, the works.
What these users want is true WYSIWYG – What You See Is What You Get – which is what we’ve always wanted on the web but never got because the web can never fully be WYSIWYG.
Photos of text on social media give the new generation of web creators what Flash gave my generation: Absolute control, well beyond what the web platform can offer.
What is lost is the future
Some of my friends have become successful influencers today, the same way some of my friends became successful bloggers 10 years ago. They post content online, they get sponsorship deals, they make serious money. And just like 10 years ago, I know many more who pour hours of their day into reaching that influencer status. To me, today’s influencers are yesterday’s successful bloggers. Same deal, new wrapping. And to be quite honest with you, for all the talk of influencers posting bad content and being bad … influencers, the bloggers of my time were no better. As with the bloggers of my generation, I take issue with the commercialization and marketing aspects of modern-day influencers. But I also understand why they do it and why it’s so effective. Getting a peek into the curated life of someone you look up to will always be appealing, and I gladly spend time out of my day looking at what people post on all social media channels for this exact reason.
What saddens me is how we lost the battle of publishing to the commercial platforms, in large part because we trapped ourselves in an echo chamber: the anachronism that is the blogosphere.
It saddens me because the shiny surface and WYSIWYG-ness of the walled commercial gardens people use today is built on a graveyard of dead information. These platforms are not built for sharing, they are built for user retention and engagement. Link in bio is not a moderation tool to avoid link spam, it’s a slow knife to kill the open web. And text in images is the least accessible, most ephemeral way to put important information into the world. It exists, for a brief moment, only for those who happen to see it, and then it’s lost, forever. Informational entropy at its most extreme. This is how we lose our history in real-time.
We failed because while booting up space on a shared server, setting up WordPress, publishing an article, and meticulously sharing it out to the world was revolutionary 15 years ago, today it is an onerous task reserved for people who live in the past (at least according to my aforementioned younger relatives). To them, time is better spent designing a nice looking image with some text and putting it in their Insta Story, or on Snap, shared only with the people they choose, for a day or two, before being lost to our memories and the occasional copy of a copy of a copy.
I began a journaling project on March 13, 2020 as the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic started hitting us full-force. It was for me, to put down my thoughts at the end of each day, and for our son Leo, so he has a day-by-day account of events as they unfolded when he gets curious about everything that happened in 2020 or writes a school paper about this period a decade from now. Here’s my entry from Sunday June 21st, at the 100 day mark, submitted for the record.
The worst part is the uncertainty. In March I told one of my co-workers it felt like we were all trapped on a train heading for a cliff knowing at some point the tracks would drop away and we’d drop with it, but not knowing when that would happen. At 100 days, that analogy doesn’t cut it. I struggle to find a relatable comparison to fully encapsulate the anxiety, the exhaustion, the tedium, the frustration, the endlessly dragged out slow burn eating its way through the fabric of everything.
You broke your leg two weeks before the lockdown. 9 weeks of first a cast, then a brace, and somehow that was just one small part of the madness of the past 100 days.
As the lockdown descended on British Columbia in March, I went on my every-other-day evening runs through the neighbourhood. Each day the number of people on the streets would drop while the number of parked cars grew and grew. Driveways overflowed, then streetside parking. It struck me how many cars belonged to each household. Then people started washing them. Nothing better to do. Slowly my runs turned into a car show of sorts.
Two weeks in and I was all by myself in the world. 6 kilometers of usually buzzing neighborhurhoods, main arterial roads, busy playgrounds and parks now devoid of people. Play structures surrounded by yellow warning tape and covered in orange plastic nets, roads without cars, sidewalks without people. At one point I stopped on Kingsway, took my earbuds out, and heard only two crows harking at each other a block away. The constant background hiss of traffic was gone, leaving only nature as the bed track for my voyage through the world.
We were scared. Everyone was scared. The virus occupied our minds every minute of every day. The stores were stripped bare of first hand sanitizer, then rubbing alcohol and aloe vera gel, then cold medications and bleach. Stores at the mall started closing. The province closed the restaurants, then the community centres and gyms. Then the oil price tanked and suddenly gas in Burnaby was going at $0.92/l – lower than I’d ever seen it in my 17 years in Canada. The parking lot at the mall became a sprawling emptiness populated by discarded surgical masks and rubber gloves slowly migrating toward drains.
Businesses closed. People lost their jobs. A lot of people lost their jobs. Our friends lost their jobs. I talked to my co-workers about job survivor guilt. What at first felt like a slow-moving train was starting to feel like an avalanche driving us towards a tsunami.
Your preschool closed and you didn’t understand why. We tried to explain but it made no sense to a 3-year-old. You asked to hang out with your friends and we said no. You thought you’d done something wrong and we told you “no, it’s because of COVID-19.” You asked when you’d be allowed to play with your friends again and we said we didn’t know. Eventually you started talking about all the things you’d do once COVID-19 was over. “We’re going to have a big party with all my friends,” you said. “We will visit bestemor and bestefar in Norway,” you said. “Can we have a party with all my friends this weekend?” you asked and we again explained that no, we can’t, because of COVID-19. Yesterday you looked me square in the face and said “I’m so angry at COVID-19. I don’t think COVID-19 will ever end.” I hope I hid the pain well.
100 days later and you’re back in preschool, at reduced capacity, with fewer kids, less freedom to roam, and a lot of outdoor time. Hand sanitizer is back on the shelves and available right at the counter, in new varieties and strengths and fragrances and consistencies and brands. The mall has re-opened, at reduced capacity. There are direction signs for walking, lines outside every store, plexiglass shields on every counter, plastic coverings over the chairs at the food court. People are back on the streets at night, and I am once again back to leaving the sidewalk to get around unyielding pedestrians, only now I go on the outside of the parked cars to keep proper social distancing. We wear masks when we go to crowded places, though most of the people around us have stopped wearing masks. There is hand sanitizer in the car, at our front door, and in our bags.
100 days later the world has also changed in another way. In May, in response to yet another violent and unlawful police killing of yet another black man, people first in the US and then all over the world braved the pandemic risk and flooded the streets to make one thing clear: Black Lives Matter. In the midst of a pandemic lockdown, maybe even because of the pandemic lockdown, people let the pent-up frustration of racial injustice manifest itself in public action. What started as scattered protests turned into a world-wide movement. More than a month later, the protests are still happening and the world is finally listening. When you look back on this time I hope it is described not only as an unprecedented pandemic, but also a transformative moment for racial justice in the USA and around the world. For the first time in my lifetime it feels like we as a society are moving in the right direction on this issue. Incrementally, slowly, painfully, but we are moving. As bestefar’s aunt said, life comes in lumps; long durations of flat normality interrupted by sudden lumps of everything happening at once. That’s certainly what it feels like. Everything happening, all at once.
100 days later, COVID-19 is very much part of our life, still infecting millions of people, still making some sick, still killing some. They say to form a habit you need to do something for around 21 days straight. 100 days of looking at ever-climbing numbers of infected, sick, and dying and what was at the beginning a claxon pointed directly at our faces reminding us of our own mortality has become the new normal.
On March 13, when I started writing this, the global death toll was 4,718 and everyone was in fear for their life. Today, the global death toll is 470,000, and every day more people are putting away their masks, going back to work, dining out, and demanding restrictions be lifted.
The pandemic is not over. By many estimates, we are still in the first wave, and we will have to ride it for months if not years and hope it doesn’t engulf us. 100 days of COVID-19 has exposed deep fractures in our societal fabric, and how we deal with these fractures over the next 100 days will determine not only what the immediate future looks like for us, but what your future will look like decades from now. When I grew up people talked about my generation as the first in a long time that would not be better off than the last. I fear your generation will look at this analysis as a cruel joke. Unless we, the adults living through this right now, make all the right decisions, the world you grow up in will be nothing like what it should or could be. The virus amplifies every mistake made, and the uncertainty makes it hard to recognize mistakes even after they happen.
Some say the best we can do when faced with uncertainty is to embrace it. I strive every day to embody this philosophy: Change the things I can, let the things I can’t change play themselves out without allowing them to frustrate me. That’s not easy knowing the things I can’t change are the things that will most directly impact your future.
One evening in August 2017 I went for a run. The sun was still up, the sky was bright and blue and without a single cloud. The next morning I could hardly breathe. We had left the window open and our house was filled with smoke. A forest fire hundreds of kilometers away had dumped its cloud directly on us. For two weeks the brown sky trapped the heat of the sun making the air unbreathable and our house an insufficient refuge. “Imagine if that fire was here,” I said to your mom and we rested assured that would never happen. A year later a forest fire, the biggest in the US to that date, surrounded our head office, displacing many of my co-workers and putting things in limbo for months. The fragility of everything screamed in our faces: Even when you think everything is fine, things can happen!
That’s what it feels like now. We are in a vast, all-encompassing forest fire. Some places, like BC and Norway and Denmark and Taiwan where our family is, have been relatively unscathed, dealing mostly with smoke and the occasional spot fires. In other places, the fire burned through towns leaving immense destruction and death tolls so high they are impossible to process. In yet other places, the fire is slowly creeping through the landscape and seems impossible to stop, either for practical, political, or societal reasons. And even though right now, where we sit, the sky is clear, I don’t think this fire is over. I’m not even sure it has fully begun.
That’s the uncertainty, and that’s why it’s the worst part: We know the fire is still burning, we know it could be burning under our feet right now, and we don’t know how or when it will end. Yet somehow we must embrace this uncertainty and move forward, together.
In many ways I am glad you’re not old enough right now to fully understand what is happening; to see how the uncertainty is wearing on your mamma and me and everyone around us; to see our modern society desperately try to stop a fire we don’t fully understand, to see people refuse to accept reality and cling to conspiracy theories to explain the unexplainable while putting everyone else at risk. And I hope by the time you read this this will all be a strange memory of a year when things were somehow different. Though I fear it will instead be the moment that defines your generation.
100 days and we are still here, in our house playing with your toys, going on walks in the forest, talking to our family in Norway over the internet, doing everything to make this new normal as normal as possible to give you the best chance at being able to build a future you will find meaningful. That’s the thing about trains and waves and avalanches and forest fires: they eventually end. And when they do we pick up our lives and what was destroyed, put things back together again, and build the future together.
We are together, today, and the day after this day, and we will be together for the next 100 days, and the hundred days after that. And when all of this is over, we will have that party, with all your friends, and we will do the things and go to the places that suddenly became impossible. COVID-19 will end, or we will find a way to live with it. That is my promise to you. We will get through this, together.
A daily mantra rings out from government officials around the world: The call to visit official websites to get the latest information on the COVID-19 pandemic and to access essential services. Yet to many constituents accessing the internet is not an option because internet access is still considered a luxury available only to those who can afford it. This has to change.
Over the past two months, everything from education to work to ordering and delivery of essential goods to basic communication has moved online. COVID-19 has made one thing very clear: Internet access is a necessary condition for the ongoing functioning of our society, and every person should have access to fast, reliable, and unfiltered internet at a price they can afford.
The internet is an essential service. It is time we take political action to ensure every person has access to it.
For many, this was their first introduction to what’s been labeled the “Homework Gap,” a sub-segment of the Digital Divide. Millions of students around the world do not have access to the internet and are therefore not able to access the full educational resources made available to them.
Flash forward a few months to today, and that electronics shop is closed, as is the school, the library, the coffee shop, and any other place that 10-year-old boy relied on to access essential online services. And he is joined by millions of others, young and old, in cities and in rural areas, all over the world, at home, without the ability to access the websites their elected representatives so urgently point them to.
Inequity is the norm
Almost half the world’s population has no access to the internet. At all. Those most affected are, as seems to be the case for most things, women, the poor, and the disenfranchised. Why? Because internet access is considered a luxury, and its availability is contingent on large media companies deeming your particular region of the world worthy of investment, and your ability to pay often excessive fees to get access to it. Somehow, in our relentless pursuit of faster connections and devices giving access to vital (and entertaining) online services, we have glossed over this inequity. COVID-19 took a steel brush to that veneer, forcing upon us the reality of how vital a fast, stable, and unfiltered internet connection has become to our lives. We have gone from tweeting about how nice that store was for letting that kid do his homework on a display device to realizing our home internet is our lifeline to information, income, connection, and entertainment. The internet has become essential to our lives, yet we treat it as a privilege afforded those fortunate enough to live where a connection can be established and wealthy enough to pay the excessive fees for access.
A public good
Late last year, a boy in an electronics store caught the attention of the internet and people started talking about providing proper equipment and connections to students. When COVID-19 hit and school children were sent home and told to attend classes online, school districts booted up ad-hoc solutions like parking digitally equipped buses at community sites to provide access for students. That’s a dollar-store band-aid on a gaping 20-year-old wound.
The digital divide causes hardship to millions of people by depriving them of essential access to the internet. COVID-19 did not create this problem – it merely made it impossible to ignore. Banks, government services, education, shopping, news and information, much of what we consider necessary conditions for functioning in modern society had already migrated online prior to COVID-19. Today the internet has become the only means of access to many of these services. It can no longer be considered a luxury, and its availability can no longer be contingent on the whims and profits of large media corporations. That’s why the World Wide Web Foundation is working to label the open web a public good, and that’s why you and me and everyone else need to demand political action to make the internet available to all.
Let’s not beat around the bush any longer:
The internet is an essential service. As such, any limitation of access to a person or group based on their physical location, income level, or any other reason is effectively an act of discrimination.
To the elected representatives of the world I say this: Declare the internet an essential service. Guarantee equitable access to fast, reliable, and unfiltered internet for all. Put plans in place today to connect the world in a way that promotes human flourishing over corporate profits.
To the media corporations who have grown fat and complacent on profits from connecting people to the things they need I say this: You’ve had your fare share and more. You succeeded in making the internet an essential service. Now you must act like it: Do your civic duty and share that wealth with the world by building solutions that put human connection above shareholder profits.
We have awoken into a new and unfamiliar world where we all feel a bit more vulnerable. It is in times like these we find solace in solidarity with other people and with ourselves. Let’s do this small thing together to better the world for everyone
I was asked to close out WordCamp Vancouver with a short 20 minute keynote on something interesting. After some thought, I put together a list of 10 trends I see in the web community and where we are headed in the immediate future.
0. The Future Keeps Arriving
In my +15 years working on and with the web, the one major lesson I’ve learned is the future keeps arriving, sooner than you think, and often the future is already here. The web, the internet, and the technologies and communities powering them are evolving ever more rapidly, and what we consider future possibilities today often becomes practical realities the very next day. The future keeps arriving. Keep this in mind as you read on.
1. WordPress Themes are Dead. Long Live WordPress Themes.
If you’re of the WordPress persuasion, you’ll know about the Block Editor, nee “Gutenberg,” and how it’s changing everything. Even if you don’t work with WordPress, even if you don’t care about WordPress, this transition from the content blob to each piece of content being its own “block” with its own properties and attributes is changing everything about how we think of content on the web. Why? Because WordPress powers a full 34% of the web meaning what WordPress does impacts everyone, even those who don’t use it.
Why does this matter? The front-end of pretty much every WordPress site up until this moment is a template displaying content in a relatively rigid way. With the Block Editor, that paradigm is all but dead. Right now, blocks are confined to the “content area,” meaning the post or page content itself. That’s about to change. In the foreseeable future – probably within the next 12 months – the block concept will spill outside the content area to take over the whole view. This article and video from Matias Ventura gives us an early preview of this future:
Bottom line: What we think of as a “WordPress theme” is already an outdated concept. The future has arrived, we’re just waiting for the practical implementation.
2. Gatsbyfication of the CMS Ecosystem
What’s driving the Gatsbyfication of the CMS ecosystem? Several things:
The idea of the monolithic end-to-end CMS solution is old and outdated. We no longer consume data from single sources, and giant monolithic CMSes like WordPress, Drupal that try to do everything for everyone etc are becoming dinosaurs.
Performance is the new Black, and CMS-generated just-in-time server-rendered sites just don’t cut it. Static site generators pulling data from CMSes is the natural progression from caching server-rendered content.
Delivering content on the “Edge”: The web is global, yet CMS-based content delivery is most often confined to one server in one location. Content Delivery Networks (CDNs) have long been used to try to remedy this issue, with mixed results. Static site generators like Gatsby allow content to be computed and rendered on the “edge” – closer to the end-user, and in a more performant way.
Bottom line: I call this trend the “Gatsbyfication” because right now Gatsby has more wind in its sails than any competitor and money is pouring into the project. Does that mean Gatsby will reign supreme? I have no idea, but I think a Gastby-type solution will reign supreme in our immediate future.
3. With the APIfication of the Web, REST is ceding to GraphQL
REST APIs have been around since forever. I remember going to a web conference in 2009 where almost every talk was about RESTful APIs. REST gave us the tools and infrastructure to evolve the web beyond single-source-of-content solutions and paved the cowpaths leading to the client-side content rendering which is now the default for content rich sites including LinkedIn, YouTube, Facebook, and sites powered by static site generators like Gatsby (see above).
The problem is the REST concept is old, and it doesn’t provide the necessary tooling to do the things we want to do today.
Enter GraphQL, a new query language which approaches the same problem REST tried to solve in a new and more modern way. I won’t bore you with the details of how GraphQL works (we have courses for that at LinkedIn Learning if you’re interested!). Suffice it to say GraphQL allows developers to combine data from different API sources and make it available in ways that benefit them and make previously impossible or very hard things practically possible.
If you don’t believe me, look no further than the WordPress project: After an enormous undertaking of creating a proper REST API for WordPress, tools like Gatsby choose instead to use the custom WPGraphQL to query and consume data from the source.
Bottom line: The APIfication of the web has been happening for a while, and future web services will need to serve up comprehensive APIs to stay relevant. GraphQL-type query languages will replace REST as the standard interface, and as a result consuming content from single sources will become an anti-pattern (see below).
Sound familiar? If you have one of those talking thermos cans at home and asked it “Hey Corporate Surveillance Device, tell me about my day” you know that’s pretty much were we live today. Except the web hasn’t quite caught up to the trend yet.
The Content Mesh, if we choose to adopt this language, is the idea of building a front-end that consumes and interacts with data from multiple sources. So instead of having one monolithic WordPress site trying to do blogging and ecommerce and forums and forms and everything else, you have one unified front end that brings in blogging from WordPress, ecommerce from Shopify, pages from Contentful, forms from Google Forms, etc. Literally meshing together content.
Bottom line: The current idea of the content mesh is an evolution of the single-source website concept. That’s where we’re headed right this moment. In the slightly more distant future, the content mesh will be served by our personal assistants, configured by the individual user, and the website as we know it will be a quaint anachronistic thing some people choose to spend their time on.
5. The Rectangular Screen as Main Content Delivery Modality is Already Dead
Here’s the new trailer for the dystopian near-future sci-fi show Black Mirror:
Just kidding. This is an ad for Facebook Horizon – a virtual world reminiscent of the OASIS predicted in the book Ready Player One, except it’s run by IOI (you don’t need to read the book or see the movie btw. If you haven’t, just read on).
AR/MR/XR/VR/CR whatever we end up calling it, the idea of computers in some way augmenting our reality by introducing virtual layers in the form of visuals, audio, or other sensory inputs, is now a reality. All the major tech firms are fighting to be the first to inject their own ad-fuelled reality as a layer on top of our own. If you have one of those aforementioned talking orporate surveillance thermos cans, or a modern phone or computer or TV with a voice assistant, you are already living in this future.
The world in which our main tool for accessing information over the internet is a rectangular glass screen is already in the past. We are merely experiencing the late-stage residuals. The second the Fruit Company rolls out their first set of iGlass AR-powered glasses, and the Search Company follows suit with AR-powered contacts, the focus for web content delivery will shift from “how do we cram as many ads into the viewport of a mobile browser” to “how do we cram as many ads into the field of view and range of hearing of the human experience?”
Bottom line: The APIfication of the web, and the Content Mesh, will become more important than ever because we’ll need to design and deliver our content to new interfaces which don’t even exist yet in the immediate future. Also, unless we actively resist the urge to AR everything and put ads everywhere, our AR world will be an insufferable hellscape reminiscent of Keiichi Matsuda’s “HYPER-REALITY” for the next decade.
Sold as a visual browser development tool that makes your browser viewport work more like a design tool, I think this thing is a peek at what the future will bring in terms of web design: The browser itself being the design canvas, and server-powered tools like WordPress’ Gutenberg editor being old hat.
7. Open Source Ideology is D/Evolving
Open source rules the web world. Open source is also experiencing some long-overdue internal strife. Without going into too much detail, Richard Stallman, considered the originator of open source ideology, has stepped down from his various leadership roles in the open source and free software communities due to accusations of decades of problematic behavior. You can read more about this in various news outlets and opinion pieces (and you should, this stuff is important).
Here’s my abbreviated take: It’s high time problematic characters like Stallman are removed from their positions of power in the open source community because their influence has been detrimental to the participation in these communities for many marginalized groups. Moreover, it opens the door to a deeper conversation about the core ethos of open source ideology and whether the radical understandings of terms like “freedom” by a group of entitled white men is a sound foundation to build equitable and inclusive communities moving forward.
I’m going to write more about this in a separate post, but my long-held opinion on open source ideology (and I say this as an open source creator, contributor, and proponent) is open source in its present iteration is exclusionary and privileged. Why? Because it’s based on the assumption that those who have something worthwhile to contribute also have the time, money, and necessary tools and access to be able to contribute. From there follows that anyone who is not contributing, for whatever reason, does not have anything valuable to contribute (which is utter nonsense) and that those who contribute the most (usually because they are paid by corporations to do so – see below) are the best people to lead the project. “Decisions are made by those who show up” really means “decisions are made by those with enough privilege to show up” which is not an equitable nor inclusive base to rest an entire ideology on. Follow Christie Koehler for more on that story.
Then there’s the whole “open source is value neutral” and “open source licenses can’t have morality clauses” thin which deserves an entire article its own. Follow and support Coraline Ada Ehmke in their efforts to debunk that nonsense.
Bottom line: Open Source ideology is being redefined right now. Your participation in that conversation decides whether it’ll be an evolution or a devolution. Your voice matters, so use it! Forward the equitable and inclusive open source revolution!
8. Corporate Control of Open Source is the New Black
Guess what: Open Source is super valuable. No wonder large corporations want their piece of the pie. Actually, they want all the pieces of the pie and they want you to bake it, for free! Yes, yes, I work for LinkedIn which is part of Microsoft etc. But I’m believe in open source, and I’m deeply concerned about the corporatization of the open source space.
Here’s the gist: The core idea of free libre open source software was to effectively flood the commons with free (as in you don’t pay) open source software so the large corporations who sold expensive licenses for proprietary software went out of business. Don’t believe me? Go read the GNU Manifesto (and keep in mind everything I said above). The idea was we would use open source software in the capitalist world to earn money, thereby keeping the software itself without value and only putting value to the services rendered with the software.
So what happened? Corporations figured since all the open source contributors didn’t derive value from their software, the corporations could do it instead! And without paying a dime for it. Literally get people to work for free and then make money from that work.
Sure, that’s an oversimplification, but it is also the reality on the ground. The corporatization of open source, in particular large projects like WordPress and Drupal and NPM, is a reality, and it’s only going to get bigger. If there is value in a project, a big corporation will be made to turn some of that value into cold hard cash. See the aforementioned Gatsby.
Some say this is a good thing. Some say it’s not. I think we need to start thinking more about where we want to go than how we can turn free contributors into cash cows.
Bottom line: The open source community has failed in its mission to change the status quo, choosing instead to double down on good old capitalism. If you don’t like it, do something about it. Also, go read Cory Doctorow’s “Walkaway“.
9. The Tech Ethics Reckoning
The Pope felt it necessary to invite Silicon Valley to the Vatican to talk to the tech industry about morals, ethics, and the common good:
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know #techethics is hot shit, and for good reason: Turns out moving fast and breaking things breaks people, communities, even our democracy.
Here’s the problem: The tech and design communities are largely autodidact. There is no board of ethics for tech or design, and everyone is allowed and encouraged to do whatever they want in the name of disruption, innovation, and creation. Put bluntly, we are working in a non-ethical industry.
Why does this matter? Because in lieu of the tech and design industries regulating themselves, or at the very least adopting and enforcing some basic form of ethics, governments will regulate us without our input. Which is what’s happening right now.
This is especially bad for open source because unlike large corporations and their walled gardens, who spend millions on lobbyists to sway politicians to lock everything down and hand the keys to the highest bidder, open source developers live in some reality dysfunction where they think politics and political involvement are irrelevant.
Trust me when I say they are not. They are the life blood of modern civil society, and choosing to stand aside and let things happen without your input is the same as letting other people carve out the path you need to follow into your future.
Bottom line: Unless we figure out the whole ethics thing for tech and design right now, we are going to be regulated into a walled garden of corporate surveillance of our own making.
10. The Next Generation
Looking around at my industry I see two things:
Old white men like myself wringing our hands and saying “man, we really messed this up, I wish we could roll back the clock and do some things differently.”
Young diverse community members trying to make make a living out of an industry emerging from its adolescence and realizing it now runs the world and needs to do a better job at it.
This gives me hope.
I believe in the next generation of creators on the web, and I believe they have what it takes to turn this chaotic mess we call “tech” into what it can be: A new path forward for a more equitable and diverse society with values rooted in the idea of common goods distributed through free and open commons.
Bottom line: The future keeps arriving. The future is already here. It is our job to ensure the next generation gets to experience the same freedom of creation and discovery on a free an open internet so they can build a robust and inclusive society for all of us.
Postscript: Your turn
This is what I see. I’m just one person, and I have strong opinions about things. To move forward, a discourse is required. We need to share our thoughts, ideas, hopes, and concerns, and figure out how to move forward together.
What do you think about all this? What trends are you seeing? Where are we headed next, and where do you think we should be headed?
Add your thoughts in the comments, or in your own posts, and let’s find paths into the future we design together!
2018 marked the completion of my 40th lap around the sun. I remember when my parents turned 40 years old, and I remember how old I thought they were back then. Yet last October, when I crossed this arbitrary temporal marker myself, I did not feel old. I felt tired and jaded.
As I entered the statistical last half of my life, a friend
commented in jest “What do you buy for your midlife crisis if you hate cars?”
(I hate cars, or rather, I have no interest in cars other than as a mode of
transport. The idea of owning a flashy red sports car is to me as foreign as that
of going swimming in a tuxedo: It can be done, but I don’t see any reason why.)
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “I guess maybe I should buy myself a
For future reference: that’s a great way of stopping a fun conversation dead in its tracks.
Melancholy and the Internet Sadness
Throughout my life, the people around me have sorted themselves into two very general groups: Those who think I’m happy and smiling all the time, and those who think I am a stern, serious, and brooding person. This seeming dichotomy is probably caused by my habit of compartmentalizing everything. Some people know me in contexts where I am happy and smiling, others know me in contexts where I am focused and ready to work. The latter often think of me as “stern” and “brooding” because I have what you could call “Angry Resting Face”: my neutral expression is rather stern. But I digress.
2018 was the year I realized those two perceived Mortens
were bleeding into each other and the stern version was taking over. But it was
more than that. Where before I was able to say “work is over, let’s have fun” I
now felt waves of melancholy wash over me to dampen the mood and bring the
darkness I felt all around me into every interaction.
It was during a conversation with Jeremy Felt at WordCamp Vancouver in late
summer I finally realized something was amiss. I can’t remember what the conversation
was about, but at some point Jeremy added a pinch of black humor to the mix and
I immediately converted it to a black hole, sucking everyone down with me.
Jeremy raised his eyebrows and said something to the effect of “Dude. That’s
darker than where I wanted to go.”
Months later I had a long chat with my wife in which I tried
to put my finger on where this darkness was coming from. “I don’t understand
how you don’t know,” she said. “It’s obvious! You are pouring all your emotional
energy into trying to fix the internet, but you can’t fix it on your own!”
And she was right, as she always is.
For more than fifteen years, I’ve spent a fair bit of my professional
and personal time thinking, writing, speaking, and teaching about how the
internet shapes us as people. I’ve taught hundreds of thousands of people all
over the world how to publish their thoughts, ideas, and creations on the web,
and spoken to anyone willing to listen about the importance of making ethics an
essential part of the design and development processes that build the web and
the internet. At the same time, I’ve seen the web and the internet weaponized
against its users, for money, for political power, for no other reason than to
hurt others and destroy their lives. And more and more I’m feeling like I am
part of the problem.
When asked about it, I used to say “the internet is a thin
veneer of amazing covering an infinite abyss of the worst of humanity.”
Five years ago, that comment was met with surprise,
confusion, and a lot of shaking of heads. A friend called me “The Doomsday Prophet
of the Web” and we all laughed.
Today, people just nod in resignation and walk away carrying
a small piece of the darkness I just dealt them. And every time, the hole left by
the darkness I hand to someone else doubles in volume and is re-filled. Because
in seeing the recognition of what I think we have become in others, I see verification
of my own worst fears for the future our son will have to live in.
I have become a catalyst.
That’s not good.
Everything, all the time
I used to joke I burnt my candle at all ends, and from the
middle. Turns out I was telling the truth, at least emotionally. If the past
year has taught me anything, it is that I need help learning how to walk away
Which is why in 2018 I nearly walked away from the WordPress
Open Source project.
Reading this, some will think it was because I disagreed
with the Gutenberg project. Not so. I am a firm believer in the idea of
block-based editing in WordPress, and the Gutenberg project has been long
overdue. I have been critical of the decision making and management processes around
the project and how it was rolled out, but that was not the reason for my near
Reading this, some will think it was because I disagreed
with how accessibility has been handled in WordPress in the past few years. Not
so. To me, bringing accessibility to WordPress is a long journey, one which has
yet to meet its final conclusion. Much has been done, much still needs to be
done, and I believe WordPress can become the benchmark for web accessibility in
the not-too-distant future.
Reading this, some will think it was because of responsive
images, or ImageFlow, or documentation, or LTS versions, or
internationalization, or any of the myriad of other issues I bring up and talk
about in various WordPress fora. Again, not so.
My reason for almost leaving WordPress was the realization my
participation in the project, or rather the way I chose to take part in the
project, was hurting me and by association those around me, most notably my
wife and our son.
I’m not going to try to describe or adjudicate the past year
of WordPress politics here. Suffice it to say the emotional weight of watching my
community turn on itself over poor communication, forced divisions, turf wars,
and misunderstandings inflating to gigantic problems became too much. And I
know I’m not alone.
At the end of my rope, I reached out to my coworker
Stephanie Evans. “You have to draw a line!” she said. “When you’ve done everything
within your power and it isn’t working, you can’t do anything more. You have to
step away.” And I tried to explain to her why I couldn’t; that this community
has become so much part of my personal and professional identity that I simply
cannot walk away. And as I said this I realized it was true, not just for WordPress,
but for the web.
I, the person who tells people their work does not define
them, that your work should support your life, not the other way around, have
defined myself by my work and become so involved I have trouble separating the emotional
weight of what happens in my community from the emotional weight I myself carry.
That’s not good. It is also not sustainable.
Moving into 2019, I have made some decisions.
Primarily, I will look out for number one, which in my case
is our son Leo who needs a father who is not lost in a black hole of melancholy.
I have to be better for Leo, and that means I have to be better for myself.
To get there, I am refocusing my work on what I do best: Finding ways of empowering people to use the web to improve their personal and professional lives. That’s what my job at LinkedIn Learning empowers me to do, and that’s why I am excited about what we will make together in the coming year.
2019 will see a significant shift in my focus away from
WordPress and toward web standards and emerging technologies. This has always
been where I thrive, and I am excited to immerse myself in where the web and
the internet is headed next.
What does this mean for my involvement in the WordPress community? I will focus my efforts on two projects: The WordPress Governance Project and the development of WP Rig. These are projects I have direct influence over where I believe I can do the most good for the open source project and the community. I will still attend WordCamps including WordCamp Europe and US, and continue creating courses and writing tutorials and opinion pieces about the software. What will change? My time invested in battles I can’t win. Interpret that as you like.
Underneath all this, I have work to do on myself. I cannot
be someone who doles out parcels of darkness to those around me. To get there,
I must rid myself of the darkness within. What form that process will take is
yet to be determined, but it will definitely include professional help.
Down on the Upside
Looking back at 2018, I see a year of significant professional achievements and personal experiences. I released some of my best courses on LinkedIn Learning, got to speak at both Smashing Conference Freiburg and WordCamp Europe in Belgrade, Serbia about ethics, the subject closest to my heart, and had the privilege of launching WP Rig, a new open source project to benefit WordPress. My wife and I watched Leo develop into an inquisitive and profoundly interesting 2-year-old, and together the three of us spent the year exploring the world and everything in it. Life, by any measurable standard, is good.
And that, I guess, is the lesson: When the darkness comes from inside, there is work to be done. That’s what 2019 will be for me: Better myself so I can be better to those around me. Because 2018 was a lot. And we can all do our part to make 2019 better, for everyone.
It might be time to retire 80/20 from the philosophy page, as it is seldom used as intended.
Below the surface of this short sentence lies a highly stressed fault line, and what Mullenweg seems to suggests is to deliberately trigger its release, causing a tectonic shift that will permanently change how WordPress is developed and as a consequence how content is published online.
For the record I do not know what Mullenweg thinks about the 80/20 rule beyond this single sentence. The following is my personal thoughts and reflections around the 80/20 rule. I am merely using his comment as a starting point for a discussion.
tl;dr: The 80/20 principle as applied in the context of current WordPress development is an ideal without a tether to reality. However much we say we develop the application for 80% of users, the reality is we know almost nothing about 99% of WordPress users. That means at best the rule is without consequence, at worst it is doing harm. The big question is how do we change our philosophy to solve this issue?
I have some thoughts, and I’d also like to hear yours. But first, a short primer:
The Pareto Principle is also sometimes used in reverse, as is the case in the WordPress Philosophy (my highlighting):
“The rule of thumb is that the core should provide features that 80% or more of end users will actually appreciate and use. If the next version of WordPress comes with a feature that the majority of users immediately want to turn off, or think they’ll never use, then we’ve blown it. If we stick to the 80% principle then this should never happen.”
This version of the 80/20 principle is a good one, both from a development and a business standpoint: Build solutions that work for 80% of the user base, and let the remaining 20% find or build extensions to meet their needs.
As WordPress continues to grow in popularity and user base, changes made to the application and related services like the WordPress.org website are met with tighter scrutiny and critique. Many WordPress users are expressing a feeling of disconnect between themselves and the people who build the application, and changes are often criticized for being imposed in a “top-down” fashion without taking end-users into consideration. This is what the post on which Mullenweg left his comment was about. There are many reasons for this (most of which I will not get into here), including how the 80/20 principle is used when decisions are made.
For the 80/20 principle as described in the WordPress Philosophy to work, the design and development team must have a firm fact-based understanding of the entire user base so they can identify the needs and abilities of the 80% and build solutions for them. That in turn requires data. The problem for WordPress is that data does not exist. As a result, any decision made under the banner of the 80/20 principle is actually a decision made based on the educated guesses of the development team and their immediate circle of contributors. This is even stipulated in the WordPress Philosophy (my highlighting):
“while we consider it really important to listen and respond to those who post feedback and voice their opinions on forums, they only represent a tiny fraction of our end users. When making decisions on how to move forward with future versions of WordPress, we look to engage more of those users who are not so vocal online.”
When Mullenweg says the 80/20 principle “is seldom used as intended” I am fairly certain this is what he’s referring to. Put bluntly, we can’t say we’re building solutions for the 80% because we don’t have the data to back that claim.
The Fork in the Road
When Mullenweg suggests removing the 80/20 principle from the WordPress Philosophy page, I think he is really suggesting replacing the 80/20 principle with something more practically feasible that moves the project forward. Lacking any further details, I’ll extrapolate the two possible paths I think this move could lead us down: a Contributor-centric approach and a User-centric approach.
If we simply remove the 80/20 principle from the philosophy page, we will effectively end up where we are right now, with a Contributor-centric approach: WordPress is designed and developed by the people who contribute to the project, and user testing is done primarily on contributors and active community participants. This is already stipulated in the WordPress Philosophy:
“We do this (engage more of those users who are not so vocal online) by meeting and talking to users at WordCamps across the globe, this gives us a better balance of understanding and ultimately allows us to make better decisions for everyone moving forward.”
This Contributor-centric approach is common in open source communities, and has its origins in how open source projects come about: A small group of contributors build a solution for the contributors and anyone else interested. Even when the actual users outnumber the contributors, this dynamic remains because it’s what made the project successful.
It is important to understand the Contributor-centric approach is not based on a “we know what’s best for the user” attitude, rather “we know the application better than anyone, and we do what’s best for the application because we want it to grow and succeed.”
The overarching principle here is one of meritocracy: decisions are made by those who showup, and those who contribute the most have the most sway when decisions are made. This stems from the reality that open source contributors typically volunteer their time and are more likely to work on things they care deeply about. Allowing them to choose their own focus, and keeping a flat/no management structure is thought to ensure they have a continued vested interest in the project. In the background of all this there is also a real concern that limiting the autonomy of contributors may lead them to move on to other less restricted projects.
The Contributor-centric approach leaves itself open to critique that it is rooted in privilege: to have influence and “show up” requires availability of free time and a fairly high level of technical expertise, neither of which we can reasonably expect or demand from the average user. When the barrier to entry, or even constructive feedback, is high (as is the case with WordPress), the only voices heard are from the experts. The Contributor-centric approach solidifies this development model, and if that’s the path we choose to take, it needs to be explicitly stated.
If we either commit to the spirit of the 80/20 principle or replace it with a similar principle, we are adopting a User-centric approach. User-centered design is a well-established method of iterative design based on extensive user testing and data gathering. From Wikipedia:
“user-centered design tries to optimize the product around how users can, want, or need to use the product, rather than forcing the users to change their behavior to accommodate the product”
The User-centric approach is what most major software and service vendors use to develop their products. It typically involves large-scale quantitative data gathering through telemetry, surveys, and other statistical methods as well as qualitative user testing on individuals and groups. A common argument against the user-centric approach is that it’s costly and slow, but in my experience the major challenge with it is that it tends to cause cognitive dissonance in stakeholders: User research often concludes that what designers and developers think is the best solution is not what the end-user prefers. This sometimes leads back to the “we know what’s best for the user” argument which is why some development teams cycle back and forth between the two approaches.
Another common critique of the User-centric approach is that the user does not always know what they want or need, and maybe more importantly, they don’t know what’s possible. The extreme version of this argument is Steve Jobs’ famous quote “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”
The User-centric approach requires rigorous discipline and careful management to work: Research and data gathering has to be unbiased and statistically sound and significant. At the same time, too much research and data, or research and data that has little value, can cause stagnation and confusion. And to top it all off, the User-centric approach will result in contributors having to work on projects they are not passionate about or even disagree with simply because they are not building solutions for themselves but the end-users.
In many ways the User-centric approach is a walk across a tightrope: Success is only achieved with training, planning, focus, and constant corrections. For the WordPress community, this would be a whole new way of doing things requiring a radical shift in attitudes.
The Duty of Care
Before we can make a decision about where to go next, we need to consider our Duty of Care: When we add, augment, or remove a feature in a tool used by someone else, we have a duty of care to that person to ensure your actions do not negatively impact them. The Decisions, Not Options principle comes into play here. From the WordPress Philosophy:
“Every time you give a user an option, you are asking them to make a decision. When a user doesn’t care or understand the option this ultimately leads to frustration.”
On the surface, the duty of care outlined here is to protect the user from confusion and frustration. Deeper down, we find the duty of care when making a decision on behalf of the user. The reasonable expectation from a user is that the application (and by extension its designers and developers), makes decisions that are in the best interest of the user.
Which begs maybe the most important question:
How do we, the people who build WordPress, best meet our duty of care to the people who rely on WordPress in their personal lives, their communities, and their businesses?
Where do we go from here?
Whatever decision is made, it will cause a tectonic shift in how WordPress moves forward. That’s why every voice needs to be heard.
It is no secret that I land firmly on the side of the User-centric approach. From my experience user research is an integral part of any successful project, and the larger the user-base, the more important this research gets. I agree with Mullenweg that the 80/20 principle is not working, and I believe the solution is to realign the WordPress project to a more user-centric approach. This is not a quick and easy pivot, and it will require fundamental changes to how WordPress development is done on all levels. For one, we will need to gather large volumes of data on the existing user base and implement statistically sound methods for large-scale user testing of redesigns and new features. The first step in that process is to implement telemetry for the core application, a proposal that has already been shelved by Mullenweg.
Now you know what my answer is, but I’m just one of thousands of contributors, one of tens of thousands of active community participants, one of millions of WordPress users. I want to know what you think. Everyone who uses, interacts with, or contributes to WordPress has a stake in the project, and this is a decision that needs your voice. So, speak up and share your thoughts. I am listening, and I guarantee I’m not the only one.
Earlier today I was asked to share with my team what accomplishments I was most proud of in 2016. Rolling back the tape and looking at everything that’s happened in this year, I realized I should do some sort of year in review / inventory to document what I’ve done and challenge myself to do better in the coming year. So, borrowing a page from fellow Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning author and person I aspire to be more like Carrie Dils’ blog, here is my 2016 Year In Review / Inventory / Reflection:
For 2017 I plan on continuing this trend, releasing advanced courses on WordPress development centered around the WP REST API, and broadening my base of courses on web standards and advanced development tools and techniques.
One of my major goals for 2016 was to become an active contributor to WordPress, and in particular WordPress core. I’ve been a “soft” contributor for some time, but rarely got any deeper than speaking at conferences, producing learning materials, and providing input to tickets and new features.
In the summer, I got a chance to speak at WordCamp Europe, a personal goal of mine since the conference was first announced, and I took the opportunity to bring the conversation about empathy and acceptance in design and communities to my own community. The talk was well received and I’d be honored if you watched it and read the accompanying article.
In 2017 I hope to continue, and ideally increase, my level of contribution to WordPress because I believe the application and the community are important contributors to the future development of a free and open web.
2016 started with the best of news: In January we confirmed my wife was expecting a baby boy. This meant a drastic restructuring of our lives, and we prepared for his arrival in late September. Little did we know nature had little regard for our plans. Right at the start of August, only two weeks after our return from WordCamp Europe in Vienna, our son Leo Roar decided to make his appearance 6 weeks early. And with that, whatever structure existed went out the window. We spent a total of 4 weeks in the hospital before brining home our amazing little baby, and it was only thanks to the support of my amazing team at Lynda.com/LinkedIn Learning and the equally amazing team at the hospital NICU that the Mortangela train didn’t totally derail.
Four months later and all I can say is we owe a life’s debt to modern medicine and socialized health care. Without them we would not have the pleasure of spending every day with what in my totally objective opinion is the cutest and most amazing little child ever to be born.
On a broader note, 2016 was the year that reawakened my long slumbering political self. Watching political schisms turn to impassable chasms and the civil discourse of our modern society give way to extreme partisanship and hate fueled anger left me despondent and fearing for the future. Once upon a time, I was an aspiring politician, but in a moment of deep self reflection I realized my energy was better spent outside parliamentary board rooms. For the next several years I willingly excluded myself from the political process, but now I realize that was suppressing a vital part of my being. So, in 2017 I will get involved once more, though in a much different manner than before.
Does this mean I’ll join a political party or become a partisan? No. That will not help anyone. Moving forward I’ll use my experience in politics and web technologies in whatever way I can to help heal the divide and encourage more healthy discussions about politics and our society. What exactly that looks like I am not entirely clear on yet, but as one who evangelizes the powers and potential of the web, I must also be one who helps make it better and moves our society forward using this amazing technology. More to come on that front as our journey around the sun commences once more.
Final thoughts at the end of the year
We are at an amazing time in history. Information is available at our fingertips in a way and with an ease unlike anything we ever dared dream. With that comes great responsibility. I truly believe we are straddling a 10 year demarcation line in history – separating the time before the connected self to the time after. What we see on the web, the internet, and in the world today are the beginnings of a new society shaped first and foremost by our ability to connect to anyone, anywhere, at any time. This is an ability our species and our society was never built to handle, and much of the turmoil we see both online and off is a direct result of our infantile first steps in this new world mostly unexplored. As we cross fully into this new reality, we must take stock of ourselves and ask some important questions, questions well deserving of a late night conversation at the end of the year:
What impact does language, location, and culture have on individuals and our global connected culture?
Who are we building technologies for, and how do we know what they need?
How do we measure value in a world where content distribution is free and every person with a digital soap box can reach anyone on the globe in a matter of seconds?
How do we use our newfound connectedness to move the whole world forward?
Thank you for reading, for watching, for engaging, and for being you. Happy end of 2016, and I look forward to working with you to build amazing things that make the world a better place for all in 2017.
I am not going to discuss Palin, Facebook, or the PHP community. Instead I’ll share some of my thoughts on Freedom of Speech, Hate Speech, and the idea of speech as an act. It should be pointed out that I come at this from the perspective of a philosopher, not a constitutional scholar or one of international law.
I invite you to take part in this conversation. Keep it civil and on topic.
The Right to Speak
At an event late last year, I took part in a lively discussion among friends about Codes of Conduct and how to enforce them. One of the participants brought up a common argument: “I will always defend your right to offend me.” This is a variant of the standard argument against any type of moderation, control, or censorship of speech, and it stems from a fundamental belief that Freedom of Speech is an absolute freedom:
Freedom of Speech means you can say whatever you want without fear of repercussions.
This belief stems from the core idea that every person has the right to hold their own beliefs and express those beliefs. Thus follows the conclusion that any attempt at moderating, controlling, or censoring speech is in fact an attempt at moderating, controlling, or censoring opinion.
Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 18. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Article 19. Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Various countries also have their own, more specific, versions of these rights that grant further rights and freedoms.
Reading these definitions, in particular Article 19, it is easy to think that we do have the right to say whatever we want. And we do. However, that right neither trumps nor infringes upon other rights in the declaration. This, I think, is where the confusion arises and much of the current debate is stuck.
Article 3. Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Article 5. No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.
Article 12. No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Article 29. (2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.
What these rights lay out is a framework under which all humans are granted equal rights to protection; from challenges to their security; from mistreatment; from interference; and under which each human is responsible for protecting and upholding the rights of others.
There is an apparent juxtaposition here, between the rights to believe and say whatever you want, and the rights of the audience to be protected from acts that interfere with their security, which may result in mistreatment, etc.
I say “apparent,” because there is no conflict here. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a singular declaration, not a combination of individual articles. The right to expression is there as long as that expression does not interfere with any of the other rights granted the audience. Freedom of Speech is not the primary right; it is part of a larger whole that in totality provides us all with freedom.
This is where critics moor their concerns over the “Tyranny of Political Correctness”. An example of this argument would be something like “I’m not able to say what I think because you use your claim of being oppressed by my speech as a tool to silence my valid opinions.”
In my view, this is a severe and deliberate misinterpretation of the idea of rights and protections. It malforms a specific set of rules set out to protect humans from direct infringements on their rights to safety and protection, and portrays it as an arbitrary tool used to infringe on the freedoms of expression of others.
When we talk about harmful speech, we are not typically referring to general expressions of opinion. Harmful speech is highly contextual, and occurs when a speech act is directed towards the recipient and the recipient’s status is changed because their rights are infringed upon.
Take the following situation:
During the recording of a reality TV show, a host, reveling in the excellence of a dance performance by an amateur, exclaims: “Shut up! I’ll stab you in the eye!”
In the context of the conversation, there is no perceived threat, and although the statement is somewhat odd, it is not an infringement on the rights of the recipient to life, liberty, and the security of person. In fact, in the context this statement can be interpreted as a strong and sincere compliment.
Now change the situation:
An unknown person sends a message to a person over social media stating “Shut up! I’ll stab you in the eye!”
In this context, the recipient has no way of knowing whether this is a random statement, a poor attempt at a joke, or a genuine threat of violence. In this case, one could argue that the recipient’s rights to life, liberty, and the security of person have been infringed upon because their status has changed. In the conversation, they are no longer a participant, but a possible target of future violence.
Free speech supporters will immediately stop here and say “The recipient can’t assume they are under threat here. Words are just words.” I disagree.
If a call is made to a public building with a statement suggesting a bomb or other violent attack, that statement will be taken at face value and precautions will be put in place. Whether or not the statement reflects a genuine intent to commit a violent act is irrelevant. The status of the people in the building in question has changed from people going about their business to possible targets of future violence. And the person calling in the statement will be under scrutiny and quite possibly prosecuted and convicted of uttering a threat.
In this circumstance, words are not just words. They are actions. And there is no substantive difference between this threat and one against a single person, issued over social media.
To me, this all boils down to speech acts and their consequences. When we say or write words, we are not merely stringing syllables or letters together to form coherent meaningful sentences. We are enacting change on the world. When Romeo professes his love for Juliet, his words are not merely sounds, they are a tool used to project his feelings onto Juliet with the intent of changing her status from conversational partner or friend to romantic partner, and this can only happen if his words actively change the way she sees herself. This is an act in every sense of the word, as much as a promise, a commitment, a judgement, a command, is an act.
When we talk about speech and oppression, it is easy to fall into the “words are just words” trap because on the face of it, words seem harmless and can always be excused. In the end, only the speaker knows the true intent of their words, and any interpretation can be called a misinterpretation. This is a problem, but it is not an unsolvable one.
Where Is The Line?
When we look at situations in which a person claims words have infringed on their rights, we should start by looking at the speech act and its consequences. One way to do this is to ask questions:
What was said?
What was heard?
What was the reaction of the recipient?
What is the relationship between the speaker and the recipient?
What was the context in which the utterance occurred?
Can we objectively conclude that the recipient would be able to understand the intent of the speaker?
Was the status of the recipient changed in a negative or significant way due to the utterance?
The purpose of these questions is to unpack the situation and investigate both what happened (the saying / writing of the words), and what the consequences were (how did this change the status, or perceived status, of the recipient). A major part of this process is the acceptance of the recipient’s reaction and immediate response to ensure the person feels heard and respected, regardless of the eventual outcome. Likewise, the process must treat the speaker fairly and leave room for the reality that many conflicts are caused by misunderstandings or misinterpretations. It is important to defuse and de-escalate the situation to ensure any harm done is limited to the interaction in question and does not have secondary effects.
In the process of evaluating the situation, impartiality and objectivity are paramount qualities: Is the status change of the recipient objectively recognized, meaning if someone else in the same context and with the same relationship to the speaker was subjected to the same utterance, would their status change in the same way?
This last part is the most complex component, because it appears to be a challenge of empathy while in reality being a challenge of acceptance: When judging the consequences of a speech act, we cannot simply “put ourselves in the recipient’s shoes” because every person is unique, and we know little about their previous experiences and cannot see the world from their point of view. Instead we have to accept their disclosure as genuine, investigate what led to this reaction, and effort to generalize these prior experiences enough that we can make an impartial objective judgement.
For this to work, cool heads and a focus on de-escalation are paramount. As empathic creatures, we are programmed to react immediately and strongly to these types of situations, and we tend to make snap judgements based on our own personal experiences. To judge a situation objectively, we have to step outside ourselves and look at the situation from the outside, consulting with others in similar situations, and making every effort to map out how the group the recipient belongs to would react given a similar set of circumstances.
This in turn is a process with serious flaws. Objectors will argue that groups with specific agendas can hijack such processes to impose unjustifiable limitations on other groups. While this is true, it is also hard to pull off without everyone around seeing what is going on.
Take the example of harassment of women online through social media: An objective study of statements directed toward women online, which include threats of violence, sexual harassment, the publishing of personal information online, ongoing harassment of individuals, their friends, and their families, etc, will conclude these are direct violations of these women’s rights, including their rights to life, liberty, and the security of person. In spite of arguments from the speakers that it is their right to Freedom of Speech that is being infringed upon and that so-called “Social Justice Warriors” are conspiring against them, there is no question that the acts listed above are beyond the protections of “freedom of opinion”. These statements are not “just words”, they are deliberate acts with a deliberate desired consequence in mind: To change the status of the recipient from that of conversational partner to that of person in fear of their life and safety.
Freedom of Civilized Speech
Let me return to the statement from my friend:
“I will always defend your right to offend me.”
At this point I hope I’ve been able to explain why this statement is neither a challenge to the adoption of Codes of Conduct nor a necessary protection of Freedom of Speech. When we talk about moderating speech or eliminating hate speech online, we are not creating a proverbial “slippery slope” that will lead to outright censorship. We are codifying a framework under which a civil discourse can take place without participants having to fear attacks from others. I would argue Codes of Conduct are introduced to push us back up the slippery slope that brought us to a point where personal insults and threats of violence are considered an acceptable part of public discourse.
Most arguments against Codes of Conduct fly under the umbrella of protection of freedom of speech, but are in reality arguments stating that verbal attacks on discussion partners are not just expected, but required for a discourse to take place. Any attempt at keeping the conversation civil is thus branded as oppression and censorship in the name of “Political Correctness.” This is patently false. You do have the right to your own opinions, and you do have the right to voice those opinions in any way you want. You do not have the right to use attacks on other people or groups as a tool to silence them or put their opinions in a bad light. You do not have the right to infringe on other people’s right to partake in the discussion on an equal footing. You have a responsibility to ensure your speech does not turn into acts that change the status of your conversational partners, especially if that status change results in a removal of their rights.
If you have an argument you want to put forward, it has to be on topic, not an attack on another person or group of people. Discussions of matters of importance should be conducted in a civilized way that ensures every view is heard and the conversation is focussed on substance, not the subjects taking part.
Codes of Conduct are in place to protect everyone’s rights: They ensure a space in which a civil discourse can take place without anyone resorting to personal attacks and creating an environment that becomes inaccessible or actively hostile to participants or groups. Codes of Conduct ensure open spaces for freedom of expression.