After a rush, aviation stopped "progressing" — the Web might be next

Maciej Cegłowski's "Web Design: The First 100 Years" is a characteristically provocative riff on the past and future of "progress" that asks the question, if aviation stopped producing faster, more powerful aircraft in the 1970s, will the IT industry do the same?

SSTs and other expensive aircraft fizzled because it seemed that there was no good, sustainable reason to build planes that could get from A to B in half a day, when much cheaper craft could do the same flight in a day.

Today, we're downsizing our IT, moving from blazing towers to speedy laptops to zippy phones to merely nimble watches. We can build computers that are much faster than the state of the art, but why? All the extra speed gets you is a platform for sloppy design and coding to take advantage of, resulting in no real speed gains for users (and sometimes slowdowns).

If the Web's platforms are stabilizing, that has huge implications for design, which has been buffeted by constant change. At best, it may mean that the idea that only "web scale" ideas are worth pursuing is over, and perhaps we're going to the promised days in which our networked devices open up niches for people to woo their odd muses and make connections that allow for communitarian, niche interests to flourish.

This exponential hangover leads to a feeling of exponential despair.

What's the point of pouring 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 also 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 other part of our exponential hangover is how we build our businesses. The cult of growth denies the idea that you can build anything useful or helpful unless you're prepared to bring it to so-called "Internet scale". There's no point in opening a lemonade stand unless you're prepared to take on PepsiCo.

I always thought that things should go the other way. Once you remove the barriers of distance, there's room for all sorts of crazy niche products to find a little market online. People can eke out a living that would not be possible in the physical world. Venture capital has its place, as a useful way to fund long-shot projects, but not everything fits in that mold.

The cult of 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 everyone else.

I think it's time to ask ourselves a very designy question: "What is the web actually for?"

I will argue that there are three competing visions of the web right now. The one we settle on will determine whether the idiosyncratic, fun Internet of today can survive.

Web Design: The First 100 Years [Maciej Cegłowski/Idlewords]

(via O'Reilly Radar)