Kevin Marks, software engineer
Sometimes I long for a parallel internet, not so I can post secret things or criminal things, so the Dark Net is not what I mean. I mean something simple and intelligible that has not been overwhelmed by the kudzu of commercialism and techie showing off. (Of course, they’re also trying to make sure there’s enough to do to keep them employed.) medium.com was supposed to provide a little relief and make itself worthy of fine writing, but it soon turned into Facebook with hooks and cliques. Techies added those while evidently never reading the content. Part of the problem is that techies are often young, still fascinated by how things work. They would rather have little button zig-zags to chase and make into neat tricks than to settle down to struggle with content.
Nevertheless, one of the subsidiaries/intermediaries of medium.com is called “backchannel” and this essay by Kevin Marks really nailed my problem, which is that sometimes I can’t see the damn screen. Here’s the link.
Kevin IS a techie from my point of view, though his field of expertise and source of work is design rather than coding. Here’s what he says:
“It’s been getting harder for me to read things on my phone and my laptop. I’ve caught myself squinting and holding the screen closer to my face. I’ve worried that my eyesight is starting to go.
“These hurdles have made me grumpier over time, but what pushed me over the edge was when Google’s App Engine console — a page that, as a developer, I use daily — changed its text from legible to illegible. Text that was once crisp and dark was suddenly lightened to a pallid gray. Though age has indeed taken its toll on my eyesight, it turns out that I was suffering from a design trend.
“There’s a widespread movement in design circles to reduce the contrast between text and background, making type harder to read. Apple is guilty. Google is, too. So is Twitter.”
I’ve been complaining about this for a while, but only to the cats, who do not care.
It’s not just that the contrast is reduced, also the font size is often reduced and pale blue fonts that used to be for clues not necessarily seen, like punctuation markers, now become crucial for actions. The effect is to eliminate or cripple anyone with bad eyesight, small screens, an aging capacity to grasp pattern. This is aggravated by the use of acronyms, slang, jargon, specialist contexts and so on. This is ageism — the skewing of access to the young and adept. It’s also elitism, fencing the Communion, and building treehouses for boys only. A basic human tendency that should be resisted.
I quote again: “One of the reasons the web has become the default way that we access information is that it makes that information broadly available to everyone. “The power of the Web is in its universality,” wrote Tim Berners-Lee, director of the World Wide Web consortium. “Access by everyone regardless of disability is an essential aspect.”
Of course, some of this imperceptibility is in service to “nudge,” to make it hard to see the “fine print” that makes loopholes and conditions so you'll do what the site operator wants. It is predatory, subtly pushing old people, squinty people, and the non-suspicious into the belief that they haven’t missed anything.
Getting access to a screen in the first place, learning how to use it in the second place, and simply figuring out the Big Picture is elusive for some. My cousin thought they could only find help by asking a smarter neighbor. It never occurred to them that there were books to check out of the library that would teach them to use computers — they kept books in an entirely different section of their thinking. An entity like PMUG or any of the many “forums” about programs, computers, and so on? They would be too shy to attend even if they knew such a thing existed.
Not everyone owns a computer or has access to a provider like a library or cyber-cafe, especially in thinly populated places. Not every librarian will take time to teach. Not everyone has learned to use screens, not even TV. And yet, more and more, the only way to get access to government services or information is through the computer. The library no longer carries tax forms because it is assumed you’ll download them. Of course, this is a slick way to get rid of certain kinds of people, like the poor. Also, people, esp. kids, who are trying to use the Internet to address their deficits, overcome difficulties, like using Spellchecks if you're dyslexic.
The great thing about Marks is that he understands the mathy things like the technical info for techies to use to meet a specific visibility standard and he publishes them in the article linked at the beginning. He’s able to analyze why so many “authorities” got committed to contrast as the issue and to offer suggestions for better strategies in the language of the people who need to change. But the same problem rears its head: it never occurs to the people who do this stuff that there’s a problem. It’s not a problem for THEM. It’s what “everyone” does.
People with heads that handle a lot of granular coding information tend to lose their grasp on the “big picture” or even their awareness that there is one. Cultural problems are often circular so that lack of comfortable access leads to the discard of attempts, which means that no one is motivated to pick up the niche market of those who prefer simplicity, dependability. It has disappeared from cultural consciousness, like the unemployed who no longer seek work. Everything is controlled by money and "trending", so exploring and venturing and experimenting are cut off by the drive to profit unless someone with vision has venture capital to spare. I believe there’s money to be made in the less trendy market of people who just want the basics.
Most techies are reaching for the market with money, which they take it will naturally be the big “hip” companies, so they go for the business platforms. Cloud, Siri. Humanities people, like writers, are brushed aside. There is an exception: “Scrivener” which is a program specifically for writers that has boxes for characters, schemes to help plot progression beats, and so on. BUT like all the others, it has grown in complexity until it’s hard to grasp. Instead of helping with the intricacies of novel-writing, it imposes another layer of things to learn, so once again there’s a secondary market of things to buy that promise to teach you without grief.
But the coup d’grace for me is that after I had begun to fill in the schema with ideas, Scrivener produced a “new, improved” version which meant that now my work had to start over because it was inaccessible, since it was written on the old version. This is the OS trick of always “improving” to force new purchases. I now keep an old computer so I can access my past work.
it’s not the same problem Marks complained about, but it goes to the same split between those so enamoured of tech that they obliterate the content. In fact, it is the same struggle in our democracy where we privilege elites, process, appearance and profit over content. The idea is not supposed to be pushing people OUT.