Maybe it’s just nostalgia. I was a computer jockey at a public library when the concept of the “Freenet” was a hot topic of discussion. A state grant would bring the Internet to our facility via Ethernet cabling and a network switch installed in the building. Along with this would be actual PCs at public desks and, eventually, most employee’s desks. Suddenly we had a connection to the rest of the world.
Not that there was a lot to find out there. in 1992, the Internet was mainly universities connected via a text-only tool called Gopher. Since there was very little in the way of visual presentation, load times were very fast- stunningly fast to anyone who had used dialup to access online bulletin boards, as I had. It was possible to bookmark sites, and after a time, I had a full list of Gophers I could reference if a patron in particualar needed up-to-date or seasonal agricultural or horticultual information for different regions. (there was a lot more than this, but that was the reference desk question I would always turn to Gopher for.)
Then the world wide web appeared the next year, and all bets were off. It didn’t feel like a game changer at that moment, but within five years it absolutely did.
HTML is an elegant language. A lot can be achieved with very little burden on memory or processors. But over time, many piggyback technologies have added functionality, making sites more interactive, more slick, and, over time, rather uniform. Sure, CNN looks nothing like The Guardian. There are surface details that make the sites look and feel different. But look at the page components one at a time, and there is a great deal of uniformity. Generally, the reason for this consistency is a set of tools plugged into to work together according to a set of standards in increasingly what the web is made of. This blog is no exception. If I want, all the style choices and usability decisions can be completely automated. I just choose a theme, and start typing.
That’s pretty great if you are strictly a content person. It’s a way to just get your words on the web with little fuss. The problem is when you multiply all of the technologies making it happen by the number of tabs open in your browser, or browsers- in the end it takes a lot of memory. Plus these kinds of sites are full of plugins phoning phone at all times- meaning the modern web uses a lot of bandwidth, too. The other problem is the multitude of noise messages that bombard you constantly while you’re trying to grasp the signal. Sites with lots of ads may have some usability decisions baked into the design, but they undermine that effort by littering their pages with unrelated content. The problem is even worse when accessibility is considered- sites are increasingly a fragmented experience via adaptive technologies thanks to all the functionality plugged into it. Add to this our 24/7 connected world, the thousands of ways to get information, entertainment, and infotainment- message fatigue is paralyzing our minds. The medium has become the message. The medium is no longer the journey: endless scrolling is the destination.
I say it’s time to fight this.
The way I’m approaching the fight is proposing a way to stay connected, but with a focus on the content, taking the spotlight off the medium that delivers it. I’ve been experimenting with replacing all of my usual online information sources with- ideally- text-only sources, at least radically simpler sources. I hope you take this journey with me. I hope in the end there is no sacrifice as far as content, except we’ll be filtering out an awful lot of superfluous junk and focusing on the info you sought to begin with. It will require loading some interesting tools. I’m hoping to make this a series that eventually goes to the desktop as well, letting you work locally on your computers with minimum distraction. Note the word “computers-” the focus of this series at first will be those of us using PCs. I would love to expand on the idea to including mobile devices.