Back in September 2014, Maciej Ceglowski gave a talk at the HOW Interactive Design conference in Washington, DC. The talk was called Web Design: The First 100 Years but it really didn’t have much to do with design. In fact, web design hasn’t even been around for 100 years yet, so there’s a bit of humor to this title of a talk addressed to professional designers that are able to afford a $1,545 conference.
Pronounced “MAH-tchay”, Maciej was born in Poland, but accidentally immigrated to the United States when he was six years old. With a double major in Russian and Studio Art from Middlebury College, he went on to a career in programming (naturally!). He runs several websites, including The Bedbug Registry, a website to give travelers and renters a reliable and neutral platform for reporting their encounters with obnoxious insects. If you are interested in finding out more about bedbugs, there’s a great resource available at Jen Reviews
Web Design: The First 100 Years begins with a description of air travel and the construction of two airplanes designed at the same time by Boeing, the 747 and the 2707 supersonic transport. As it turns out, the best engineers were employed to design the 2707 while the lesser ones were assigned to the 747. As everyone knows, the 747 is one of the best designed aircraft in history, while the 2707 was never completed.
The people designing the advanced 2707 supersonic transport got so caught up in the technology that they forgot to ask the very important question, “What are we building this for?” This obviously compares to what has happened with computer technology. We have so completely lost sight of the past that we don’t know what we are doing here.
This is because technology has built into it a phenomenon called Exponential Growth. This means that computing power and processes double every year. Essentially, it makes people believe strange things, such as interstellar travel by the year 2010 and how technology can solve all the world’s problems. Instead, it has created something Maciej calls Exponential Angst. This is caused by the physical and economic barriers that everyone forgot about when they looked at Exponential Growth, and the social costs this has created.
What really happens is that people become very happy with things that function correctly. However, the idea that something works fine the way it is has no place in tech culture. For instance, Microsoft published Windows XP then patched it up until it worked quite well. Then they released other versions that didn’t work at all. This pattern is repeated again and again with technology. It leads to a feeling of Exponential Despair.
Exponential Despair is the feeling of putting real effort into something that is going to disappear or transform in just a few months. The restless sense of excitement we feel that something new may be around the corner brings with it a hopelessness about whatever we are working on now, and a dread that we are missing out on the next big thing.
The cult of Exponential Growth has led us to a sterile, centralized web. And having burned through all the easy ideas within our industry, we’re convinced that it’s our manifest destiny to start disrupting everything else. Everyone has had it with overcomplicated, constantly redesigned interfaces. What people want from computers now is better displays, better battery life and above all, better WiFi connections.
The talk closes with various visions of the internet, some of which are so insane that it’s hard to believe billions of dollars are poured into them annually. Maciej campaigns that the web we have right now is beautiful, shatters the tyranny of distance, opens the libraries of the world, and is full of cat images and videos. Rather than waiting for technology to change the world, let’s see how much we can do with what we already have.