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Sunday, October 30, 2016

A guide to unresponsive web design

Over time, every communications medium becomes increasingly screwed up until it becomes useless and must be replaced with something else.

L last week our email started bouncing like one of those little synthetic rubber superballs. It turned out that our IT guys forgot to renew our domain name and it was snapped up by some advertising company. We had to pay big bucks to get it back.

What's significant is that nobody thought it was unusual. Our local beancounters do stuff like this all the time. They think they're saving money by not paying for frivolities like domain names or pencils or Kleenex. We finally emerged from our brush with BYOP and BYOK*, but everyone still assumed the beancounters were just cutting corners again and resigned themselves to not being able to get much communicating done.

Email was designed to be a reliable means of communication over an unreliable network. Now the network is (sort of) reliable, but email has been turned into a tool of corporate revenge. Coproate bosses use their control of email the same way they use all their power: to screw their enemies. Which, since they are evil, means pretty much everybody.

We had one guy who relied heavily on email so he was told it would continue for one year after he left. The next day he called me: it had stopped working, could I check it. I discovered the boss had cut him off. But, the boss assured me, he could continue to use his other address. So he moved all his contacts to the new one, and a week later the boss shut that one off without warning as well.

Communications media are extremely vulnerable to this sort of thing. Those who do political polling tell us that only one in ten people answer the phone these days. It's not just because of telemarketers. It's also the fault of those who take a perfectly good communications medium and screw with it until it becomes unusable.

The American Indians discovered this centuries ago. A smoke signal going halfway up the hill meant all was well. If it was at the top it meant danger. If they tried that today, chaos would ensue: the chief would force them to add a 200-word confidentiality notice with a warning that if they are not the intended recipient they must destroy all copies of the original message. I've always wondered how the Great Plains became deforested.

Unresponsive web design

But people are innovative. They crave communication with their fellow humans. Now they use their telephones to browse the Internet. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up. So I had to redesign this website to make it readable on cell phones, which in practice means going back to the way we used to do it B.C. (before CSS).

The first step is to put this line on every page:
<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width, initial-scale=1.0">
and deal with the consequences: taking images out of tables, putting soft hyphens everywhere, and scaling pages in terms of percentage instead of by pixel. It's a lot of trouble, which is why you see so many pages these days with a giant image across the top and a big block of text underneath: why do a fancy multi-column page when most viewers will only see a single column? The only way to keep a sophisticated print-like design is to use Javascript, which makes the page look weird, and by weird I mean a blank white rectangle, when users turn it off to avoid your animated ads.

HTML was originally designed to be a quick and easy to combine text and images. But writing in HTML is strange: you don't specify where anything goes. You have to trick it into displaying the way you want. In that respect it's like interacting with people. And by people I mean women.

If a device loses information, or if it's unreliable or responds the wrong way, you stop using it. The same is true for people. They're too willing to take what you say the wrong way. Some groups of people are so easily offended it's not worth the trouble of talking to them. I can't say who they are, because they'll get offended.

Allowing comments on your web page is useless too: all we get these days is people telling us what a terrible, stupid person we are. Of course, we already know this. It says nothing new about us and it's not intended to. When they call you names like racist or sexist, it's not about you; it's about them. It's a way of excusing their own failures and demanding a safe space for their increasingly flimsy egos.

Thus face-to-face speech is rapidly becoming as screwed up as the telephone. At its current rate English will have devolved into five words (not counting swear words) within a few decades: ‘racist’, ‘misogynist’, ‘homophobe’, ‘islamophobe’, and ‘totally’. At that point speech will have become pointless and we're back to clubs.

But the best way to make your site unresponsive is to avoid creating thoughtful content. That can be done by filling it with boring trivialities (I'm getting quite adept at that, as you can see), filling every page with predictable diatribes, or by drowning the viewer in ads and popups.

If there's no reliable way for humans to communicate intelligently, either electronically or in person, sooner or later we decide it's too much trouble to try, and we become a bit more solipsistic. We're social animals; if we can't share information, nothing seems real to us. And in some sense it's not: if you discover something but tell no one, is it really a discovery?

Now, I'm not going to get all Elon Musky and say the universe is just a computer simulation. But I can understand how Elon Musk and his fellow siliconers, like the Facebook and Twitter emperors, the ones who build huge empires based on communicating blindly instead of with face-to-face human contact, might want you to think so.

* It got messy after a while. We've already been bringing in our own Band-Aids. With no pencils, we were that close to writing memos in our own blood.

last updated nov 25, 2016

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