On the future

12 June 2015

A couple of weeks ago, Jeffrey Zeldman’s website turned twenty years old. If you’re a person of a certain age with certain interests, chances are this news made you at least pause to think, as I did. Twenty years ago, I was just about to turn fourteen. I lived in rural Ohio, owned an electric typewriter and had barely even heard of the internet. I wouldn’t have home internet access for six more years, and that was via AOL and a 56k dial-up modem.

While I wasn’t there when Zeldman began his website, I was there a few years later when the movement he helped lead, a brave new world of web standards and designers who knew how to code them, formed the first idea of what I might be able to do for a viable career. I went to websites like his and right-clicked to “View Source” and reverse-engineered my way into learning HTML, CSS and JavaScript, which I all typed up in plain text in Windows Notepad files. I made websites to express and celebrate the things I liked: movies, books, my short stories. I joined web rings to chain together my websites with other websites people made to express and celebrate the things they liked. I learned how to use my skills for those who didn’t know how to make websites but still had something to communicate: businesses, nonprofits, artists. For someone who had grown up withdrawn and isolated, the prospect of a world where finding and connecting with the people who wanted what you had to offer was easier than ever before was fascinating and energizing.

I used to believe wholeheartedly in the web and making things for it to connect people. I still do, but now I’m not so sure anyone wants that anymore.

I have often thought about the fact that the job I’ve mostly done in my adult life didn’t exist when I was a kid, but I’ve realized that it doesn’t exist now, either. There was a brief period of time when web design as a creative technological pursuit flourished right after its inception, and now it’s already been submerged under the demands of complexity and being bigger and better and never being enough. Everything and everyone is now a product. There isn’t much novelty anymore in the internet’s value as a means of simple, sincere communication and connection. Which is what those of us who learned how to design and build web pages in the nineties and early aughts prioritized. It was a golden age for an unique mix of talents—artistic, technical, expressive—that flowed effortlessly together, and now we’ve taken all of it apart, like a machine with secrets we have to discover and optimize and compartmentalize, and I fear no one knows how to put it back together any more.

I admit there’s a tinge of bitter nostalgia and grumpy reactionary nature here. Opportunities pass quickly. Things change. It’s inevitable and, probably, in the long run, just fine, if not truly good. But, when I look forward now, I don’t see a place for me like I used to. I don’t see roles for people who know how to synthesize the technical with the creative and do a little bit of everything. I only see roles for those who specialize in one aspect of the machine or another. I don’t see a space where the machine works for us, rather than the other way around. I see a lot of people who came from the same time as I did wandering around, trying to make connections, trying to figure out how to navigate the future.

So if anyone wants to join my web ring, I’m open to requests.

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