Today in Tedium: Yesterday, one heckuva story drew seemingly everyone’s attention on Twitter, and I can’t stop thinking about it. Basically, a sitting governor of a relatively large state decided, when given the option of celebrating someone who uncovered a major data breach involving the Social Security numbers of teachers, to shoot the messenger—a journalist who acted responsibly, based on accepted standards, to report and withhold information about the breach until it was fixed—instead. I guess it has to be asked: Were there no nerds on Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s staff to tell him that HTML is incredibly easy to parse? In that spirit, today I’d like to ponder the democratizing power of HTML, web browsing, and why, if you’ve never done it, you should build a website. Especially if you’re a politician. Better late than never. — Ernie @ Tedium
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Why HTML is such a good language for self-learning: A personal anecdote
For many people, their first programming experience involved an HTML editor of some kind. Maybe it was something they bought that kind of worked like a graphical word processor, like Frontpage or Netscape Composer, or maybe they just used Notepad or Wordpad.
But eventually, they found themselves front and center with the raw text of their creation, and they had to figure out how they were going to translate their big idea from that text box to a website.
The thing that was always great about learning to build HTML in the early days of the internet was that it was something that lots of other people were trying to figure out at the same time. So if I had a question, I just had to look online, and someone else always had an answer.
In 1995, when I first coded my first website (a GeoCities page that, for better or worse, was lost to history; for digital sleuths, I believe I used an Animaniacs-inspired screen name back then), nobody knew what they were doing. But I do remember the excitement of coding my first website, and It felt like my space before MySpace ever existed.
Over the years, websites took different forms. I had a blog in 1999 before anyone really called it blogging; I called it a journal, and it was edited using raw HTML. You will never see it because I was a chronic oversharer and I deserve to have a little mystery around myself, but it existed on a website I built by myself, using HTML. I wrote about girls. I posted lyrics I had written, and music I was obsessed with. I created my own graphics. I was totally goofy, and my dumb jokes were three times dumber when I was 18.
Like a lot of teens, I went through different phases, and many of them rotated around building different web endeavors. I had aspirations to start web publications even when I was a teenager—one that was shared with me by a pal of mine during the early emulation era was literally called Everything.
But I would often work on these ideas by myself, learning ways to express myself through HTML code and graphics that I built myself through Paint Shop Pro, and later, Photoshop.
I remember that, when I was in college, I programmed a site, called Parody of Life, that was a “dating site” that encouraged people could only communicate with one another via ranty messages and their writing capabilities, instead of images. It lasted a week, but a very similar idea was a major plot line in the recent season of Ted Lasso, so maybe I was onto something.
During the era of Flash, I actually found myself turned off by designing for the web, in part because I couldn’t wrap my head around it as a programming tool. (Was much more comfortable with PHP.) I was a static guy in an interactive world, and Flash (while still something mortals could learn) had a higher learning curve. For a while, during the early part of my professional career, I leaned really hard on print.
But eventually, I found my way back to websites once again, and I think the thing that got me interested again was CSS, which by the late 2000s, was starting to get pretty robust and interesting. Cascading style sheets made it possible to create things and tweak them to the point of perfection—and as a graphic designer, this really appealed to me. It was something I could keep working at until I actually found skill in it.
I didn’t think about it this way back then—really, I was just trying to find ways to express myself more than anything else—but I was learning. And it was learning largely outside of a classroom; I think I had maybe one class that focused on web design during my entire time in college. Lots of other people were learning HTML around the same time, but it offered me my own journey, and by the time I started my first real website, ShortFormBlog, I was an old pro at it.
As a society, we don’t encourage enough self-learning. HTML is an excellent sandbox to play with, because it plays in a lot of areas—light programming, light design, light writing—that help exercise creative muscles.
It’s a great way to highlight your most curious aspects.
The late ’90s, a period when HTML-literate people could lord their knowledge over the HTML-illiterate
Now, one benefit of the fact that I knew HTML and the people around me hadn’t spent much time messing around with it was that I could use those skills—those were sellable skills.
When I was in high school, for example, I had gotten out of an art class I wasn’t particularly interested in by making a case that I should design the school’s website. And I did; I worked in the school’s library, designing a website at a time when nobody else was really all that focused on the web. It was my thing!
(I later regretted not embracing the art class, but on the plus side I became a pretty good digital designer.)
People who put the time in to learn this brave new environment could find new ways to express themselves, while helping other people who didn’t want to put in the time to learn any of these things.
It should not be lost how the gap in technical literacy was such that the people who took the time to learn this stuff had a huge leg up over their colleagues and classmates, a gap that might have taken years to close in some cases.
This leads to freelance work helping the less HTML-savvy, to new opportunities to learn, to the ability to teach others. I imagine more than a few startups came to life in the mid-2000s because some kid who spent a lot of time messing around with HTML in high school suddenly found an opportunity to translate those skills to a business.
When I asked above, “Were there no nerds on Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s staff,” these are the people who I think of, the people who spent time learning HTML on their own just because it was fun, and who then shared those skills with others. Not everyone was like this to be clear—in fact, this world likely has more people who aren’t like this than who are.
HTML offered a sense of curiosity in its early years, a sense of experimentation. And that curiosity and experimentation was too easily lost or ignored in the shuffle of just trying to get things done.
Here is this technology, so immensely easy to learn, that opened up a lot of new doors for creativity. It was a programming language, but barely. You could learn the basics in the span of a weekend or two, the perfect gateway drug. It wasn’t as hard as learning a new language, like French, and you could look up notes whenever you wanted on the internet.
Despite this, a lot of people never took the time. Imagine how much stronger our technical literacy would be if they had.
Sure, people like me might not have been able to lord our HTML knowledge over these people quite so effectively, but maybe we would have been in a better place as a society.
“Very few politicians get technology. Many actually seem proud that they don’t use the Internet or even email, like it’s some kind of badge of honor that they’ve kept their heads in the sand for so long. These are the same people who will vote on noxious legislation like SOPA, openly dismissing the concerns and facts presented by those who know the technology intimately.”
— Paul Venezia, a contributor to InfoWorld, writing in 2012 about the anti-tech sentiment that seems pervasive in politics. (On the other hand, the policy wonks think the tech people don’t get it, as this 2015 David Roberts piece in Vox posits.)
Understanding why people in positions of power don’t share this sense of curiosity
Will Mike Parson go down in internet history as the new Ted Stevens, with his comments on decoding HTML becoming the new “series of tubes”?
Perhaps it’s a little soon to tell, but it’s actually kind of scary that here we are, 15 years after a comment about the evolution of the internet by a politician was widely ridiculed, clear evidence that having your rhetorical pants down on the internet would lead to lasting embarrassment. (Al Gore could have warned Ted Stevens.)
Yet, despite all that, we have someone in a position of power, who can literally ruin someone’s life just by throwing law-enforcement resources at them, showing a lack of understanding of the basic mechanisms of our digital world.
Thinking about the internet in broader strokes, the early years of the net were highly technical, requiring researchers at high-end universities to essentially spend their lives managing it. One example that I’ve touched on a few times is the story of Jon Postel, who essentially managed so many basic elements of the structure of the ’net that, by the time he was replaced, his job essentially became a large nonprofit foundation. The work of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), a foundational nonprofit to the internet, used to be managed by one guy, with some additional help from a coworker. ICANN now has 388 employees. Again, Jon Postel was one man.
These technical parts eventually gave way to something digestible for regular users. Starting a website can be done without any technical knowledge, and HTML is so broadly understandable that basically everyone on Twitter was in a position to dunk on Parson.
Clearly, the knowledge to operate correctly on the internet has gone fully mainstream, so why don’t politicians get any of this? Did they not spend their 20s messing around with HTML like I did? They’d certainly understand a lot more about the digital world if they did.
These people make the policy, and they barely understand it, allowing for poorly performing content filters to take over and challenges to Section 230 to emerge—including from some of Parson’s counterparts in the Senate. (For those concerned about Section 230’s ability to allow moderation, there’s a wonderful opportunity on the internet’s frontier.)
When a somewhat reasonably written bill amending Section 230 appeared on Thursday, many of the enthusiasts for the bedrock legal passage spent hours tearing it down, which is understandable, because wouldn’t you be afraid of the “Finsta” folks screwing it up?
In this light, Parson attacking someone who used their knowledge to do something responsible is really scary. We have done a lot of work to do, and we need the people to actually do it. Actual hackers who deserve to be called hackers, like the Cult of the Dead Cow’s Mudge, have spent time working in the executive branch. The knowledge is out there, already within the government, and can be pulled in at any time. But instead, the people who actually can make the decisions are hearing these details at the very end of a long game of telephone, and making themselves look like idiots in the process.
If they’re not going to leverage these resources, can we at least convince them to spend a couple of weekends learning how to code their own website? It would help a lot, and it would make discussions around legislation a heckuva easier.
I see a lot of myself in the story of Josh Renaud, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter and data journalist who uncovered this horrible leak.
While I don’t know him personally, I have heard the name in my circles for years, in part because he also was a newspaper designer in the mid-2000s like I was, meaning his name came up in my friend circles of the era. Now, his clear skills as a programmer and writer are still being put to good use in a newsroom. He’s into old computers, bulletin boards, and retro gaming—we have never met, but our tastes clearly align on a lot.
He did the right thing, he acted responsibly, he got his employer involved. And what did he get for it? The man that represents his state in the governor’s office, acting as if the buck stops with the guy who saved the day, rather than within his office, in an abdication of responsibility.
Renaud took a sense of curiosity into a direction that helped uncover a really serious problem in Missouri. But the state’s governor, showing no curiosity whatsoever, threatened Renaud’s freedom … because Renaud tried to do the right thing!
I hope the backlash convinces Parson to back down. But if Parson does not, we should all be in Josh Renaud’s corner, because like Aaron Swartz before him (who he was fittingly compared to yesterday), we cannot let a poor understanding of technology and its impacts by the powerful endanger the curious.
The curious exist to help us figure this dang world out.
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