Leftover Thoughts From 2017

I’ve never been much of a fan of the ‘What I learned in this year doing X, Y, and Z’ tradition of many bloggers.

Not because the posts are uninteresting but because tallying the latest additions to your finite set of skill atoms should be done more regularly than just once a year.

Although, I guess if you only blog once a year, that topic is as good as any other.

I have a stronger tendency to use the opportunity to look back over the various ‘idée fixe’ of the year and, instead of picking out individual lessons I’ve learned, go over what topics it is that I have been thinking about regularly over the past few months. Some years only a single topic feels important enough to write about at the start of the new year. Other years it’s a smorgasbord of cluttered ideas and half-baked concepts.

Given how much has been going on, it’s no surprise that this year leans more towards the smorgasbord side of the spectrum.

The following are the non-political, work-related topics that have been plaguing me this year—following me around and hanging off the edges of my mind like a kitten on new jeans. They are by their very nature half-baked as they are all ideas I’ll be digesting for a long while (some have been following me for almost 20 years) so they don’t warrant blog posts of their own.

Hypertext is still the fundamental model of the web

Related to most of the below topics is the fact that the web has, at its heart, a pretty simple and flexible architecture.

24 years in and the web’s basic conceptual model still seems remarkably robust.

It is:

Even with all of the changes over the past few years, this is still the basic model of the web. Even the new JS module system eschews the function call structure of CommonJS modules. The new ‘ES6’ module system is basically just a mechanism where each module script lists the code fragments it exports and which code fragments it imports from a set of URLs. All done over HTTP.

In short, it’s a hypertext system for code.

Given that, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people are contemplating extending the JS module hypertext system to HTML, making the two hypertexts more interoperable. HTML links to modules which in turn can link to and use not just HTML files but specific fragments of those files.

As a fan of hypertext in general, I’m in favour of this idea.

JS modules aren’t the only place where hypertextuality is centred as a basic operating principle:

Now, hypertext isn’t used in content as much as I’d like but it’s also easy to forget just how much it is used because it all feels so natural today.

Remote work is a completely different beast

Three things I've (re)learned as a designer working in an office after being remote in 2017:

  1. Problem solving is 10x better when everyone sketches in the same room
  2. Serendipity is hard to recreate digitally
  3. Non-verbal cues are seriously underrated as design feedback
Tweet by Brendan Kearns, 3 January 2018

Traditional ways of collaborating in the workplace aren’t translating well to remote work. Most of the tactics you’d apply when everybody is in the same room just don’t work when the team is distributed.

I can’t help but think that trying to leverage more and more technology to make remote work function better with locally-oriented methodologies is a mistake.

One thought that has been sticking to my mind over the past few months is that remote work has a much stronger resemblance to academic and professional discourse than to traditional teamwork. If that’s the case then more literate methods of communications and collaboration would work better than recreating in-office staples using software:

I really do think that Amazon is onto something with their heavy reliance on the six-page memo as a recurring form of communication, debate, and argument. Structuring an argument using non-conversational text is a tactic that works equally well remotely as it does locally.

The downside is that a lot of people really can’t handle text well, neither as readers or writers, and many people (especially managers) don’t seem to have the discipline to even habitually read a one-pager before a meeting.

Current methods just don’t work that well for the workplace reality we’re facing: most of our workplaces are mixed local and remote now and our current methods regularly exclude one group or another of our colleagues.

Collaboration as discourse, as the exchange of written arguments, is the most promising approach to this problem I can think of at the moment.

(Also have to say that all of the current trends and fashions in collaboration, teamwork, and organisation completely lose sight of the value of human relationships, which has to be the starting point before you apply anything else.)

Just business logic

Today, to accomplish this, developers are forced to write complicated infrastructure that typically involves message queues and databases along with complex logic to synchronize them. All this ‘plumbing’ is extraneous to business logic and makes the application code unnecessarily complicated and hard to maintain.
Expanding the Cloud by Werner Vogels, 2012

It’s increasingly obvious that coding as a profession is diverging into a number of specialised roles with little in common. You have the infrastructure programmers who work for a big tech company and are responsible for keeping the ‘cloud’ infrastructure running. And, more and more, you have business logic coders who are responsible for very little of the actual application code.

Web server? All of that’s done by the API Gateway and CDN front end.

Authentication? Cloud-provided, just plug it into your Lambda/Cloud function.

Image processing? Just use a service.

Machine learning? Plug the APIs into your cloud function.

Service coordination? Just use Step Functions and other cloud-provided coordination services.

We aren’t there yet but it’s getting very close. Already, you can easily think of individual businesses where the vast majority of the code you write is just what you’d call business logic.

The key feature that enable more structured and strategic use of all of these cloud services isn’t technical but financial: most of these services have pricing models that are based on invocations or actual use. This makes many varieties of organisational and strategic issues financially transparent and therefore organisationally visible.

What’s less clear to me is how this will play out in front end web development. My main concern is that single-page-apps, which currently dominate the web development community, suck from a business perspective. They have a much greater number of things that can go wrong, which absolutely results in a much higher frequency of bugs, many of them are harder to solve than their RESTful HTML equivalent. They open up the possibility of a host of new classes of XSS bugs that won’t appear in your logs. Calling their state management requirements non-trivial is an understatement. And, finally, even though they are often used to integrate micro-services, they are by their very nature extremely monolithic which has substantial implications on development and deployment.

SPAs have high ongoing costs and are harder to fix when they break. But, more importantly, they make it harder to separate out concerns into individual layers that can then be outsourced into services. Instead they are the pinnacle of Conway’s Law: an entire development methodology that is exclusively focused on building software architectures that replicate the organisational structure of the company making them.

Concerns are only separated on the component level where each team or department provides an opaque blob of code with no hope of discerning which code affects which individual concrete cross-departmental business problem.

This blocks off most (business) strategic approaches to front end development. The biggest impact is in reduced visibility into costs. Most companies vastly underestimate the costs of their Single-Page-App front ends. They don’t see the increased bug costs, the increased cost of accessibility compliance, the user churn resulting from accessibility non-compliance, the reduced awareness of XSS and similar security bugs, or the increased developer load due to state management.

So, for purely financial reasons, I’m not convinced that this particular web development architecture can survive beyond the current tech startup micro-bubble or outside of the U.S. west coast tech mega-corporation enclave.

It’s not the frameworks that are a problem but the architectural model of the applications we use them to make. Maybe frameworks will come up with some revolutionary solution that solves or makes up for the downsides.

Maybe I’m just not seeing the awesome.

(RESTful server-rendered HTML that uses JS for behaviour and CSS for design is a comparatively inexpensive web front end architecture, by the way. Especially when you look at long term costs.)

Percentages, scale, and forgotten spaces

According to data from comScore, for example, the overall time spent online with desktop devices in the U.S. has remained relatively stable for the past two years. Time spent with mobile devices has grown rapidly in that time, but the numbers suggest mobile use is adding to desktop use, not subtracting from it.
Mobile Isn’t Killing the Desktop Internet by Jack Marshall

Tech and media obsess over percentages and pay no attention to the underlying values. They regularly bleat headlines like ‘new thing totally dominates old thing!’ and most of us don’t notice that the old thing has actually grown in use, value, and reliability. Too often we assume that all new pieces of tech are replacing the old when they are just as often additive.

Desktop versus mobile is just one example. There are many more.

Listen to pundits, developers and journalists and you’d think that nobody uses forums anymore or that not one email has been sent since 2010.

But email, forums, and even blogs are still roughly as big as they were ten years ago, modulo an unsustainable VC-subsidised blip or two.

The tech trends that do tend to die off are those that aren’t sustained by communities. The generic trendsetter blog phenomenon of fifteen years ago wasn’t particularly sustainable because each blog ‘island’ generally only had one inhabitant: the blogger. The ones that survived tend to have strong communities.

Any part of the web or internet that takes on the characteristics of a small township—a small community united around shared needs—is going to last, no matter what the overall percentages of the market look like.

The next evolution of the web

One of the common coping mechanisms is to fracture ourselves into different silos. We use Slack to talk to our coworkers, Discord to chat with our gamer buddies, LinkedIn for professional talk, Twitter for talking about the news, Facebook for talking with our family, and so on. Folks who follow this strategy may use a completely different voice in each platform and may not even reveal their real names.

With decentralized social networks, though, the situation gets more interesting. On platforms like Mastodon, Pleroma, GNU Social, postActiv, and others, you sign up for a particular “instance” representing a self-contained community. This community may have its own rules, its own culture, and even its own emojis and theme color.

However, each instance isn’t walled off from the outside world. Instead, it has tendrils that can reach into any other community it may be connected to. It’s less like the isolated silos of Facebook, Twitter, and Slack, and more like a cluster of small towns with some well-traveled roads between them.

Decentralized identity and decentralized social networks by Nolan Lawson

Strongly related to the above, I’m starting to think of the past ten years, starting with Facebook’s dominance, as a deviation from the natural evolution of the web.

One of the strongest features of Web 2.0 was interoperability and syndication. You interactions might be locked into a silo but the content you created wasn’t: it was syndicated via RSS to any other service that spoke the format. FriendFeed was probably the apotheosis of the Web 2.0 which was unlucky enough to launch in 2007 just as Facebook first began its transformation into the juggernaut it is today.

One of the key issues with Web 2.0 was the vulnerability of the phenomenon to being co-opted by silos. Syndication and interoperability let silos consume data from all of the other services without any form of reciprocation. Twitter especially benefited but managed to squander whatever advantage it had through mismanagement and strategic blunders.

For the longest time I just thought that Web 2.0 had lead us into an evolutionary dead end and that open services would have to survive by being small, nimble, and hard to notice—much like early mammals trying to survive the age of dinosaurs.

But Mastodon and the excitement surrounding ActivityPub has changed my mind. This is the true Web 3.0. It takes the focus on interoperability and syndication further by making the exchange bidirectional. It is the web growing to take on some of the characteristics of email and it is the natural evolution from the semi-cooperative services of Web 2.0.

The key aspect of federated communities like Mastodon, GNU Social, postActiv, and related is they are fundamentally built around communities. There’s no hint of the radical individualism that drove most of the blogging phenomenon. Instead we have many clusters of loosely connected communities, each of which is sustainable in their own right. They grow very slowly by the standards of VC-funded unicorns but that growth is actually sustainable and will continue with minimal investment.

It starts with Twitter-like communities and other social media but I think there’s a good chance that the model will end up working well across broad swathes of the web.

Writing tools and writing space

By ‘writing space’ I mean first of all the physical and visual field defined by a particular technology of writing. All forms of writing are spatial, for we can only see and understand written signs as extended in a space of at least two dimensions. Each technology gives us a different space. For early ancient writing, the space was the inner surface of a continuous roll, which the writer divided into columns. For medieval handwriting, and modern printing, the space is the white surface of the page, particularly in a bound volume. For electronic writing, the space is the computer’s videoscreen where text is displayed as well as the electronic memory in which text is stored. The computer’s writing space is animated, visually complex, and to a surprising extent malleable in the hands of both writer and reader.
Writing Space by Jay David Bolter

This is the one thing that I’ve been obsessing about over the past year that I hope to blog more about in the near future. So I hope you don’t mind if I just leave you with this quote from a book that blew my mind completely when I first read it 18 years ago.

2018

Not-even-half-baked thoughts that are lurking in the back of my mind at the moment and might hang on long enough to be running themes in 2018: