Mark: Let’s save people a visit to Wikipedia. Give it to us straight. Who is Jason Scott?
Jason: I’m many things to many people, but these days I’m mostly living the high life as an Idea. The Idea is simple: computer history is important, and online data generated by people has weight and meaning. I run a number of projects, including the TEXTFILES.COM family of sites, a number of documentaries both in production and finished (BBS, GET LAMP, with ARCADE, 6502, and TAPE on the horizon), and working full time as an archivist for the Internet Archive.
Mark: Let’s chat about your job. To me, it looks like one of the coolest jobs in the world. Reading awesome stuff, playing old games, meeting the people who literarily changed the world, browsing GeoCities and a seemingly unlimited supply of hard drive space. Is it really is cool as it looks? What’s the biggest challenge it brings for you?
Jason: It is humbling and amazing to spend every single waking moment doing something I want to do. Yes, it really is as cool as it looks, assuming that doing unbelievably involved classification, investigation, and compilation of data is what sends your motorboat humming. For me, the fact that I help people around the world get access to so much culture and help give hope that possibly-lost history can be found again, is about as good as it gets. It’s kind of amazing to live un-ironically well for a change.
My inbox, however, looks like something that crashed the Yellow Submarine movie into Wargames.
Mark: New Zealand isn’t just a hop and a skip away for you. In fact, it’s a long fucking distance to travel. What do you hope to achieve the most from this visit?
Jason: I had the opportunity to visit New Zealand last year, and I celebrated it by landing there and being sick as a dog for the whole time. I also saw a single city, and my hosts were kind enough to guide my dizzy carcass, like some sort of meandering videogame character, through the streets of Auckland. What I saw was great, so the opportunity to travel and see more of New Zealand is a welcome chance to get it right the second time.
I’m not bothered by the distance – the destination is great! However, the last time I came by, I spent the return flight awake watching movie after movie, and 9 feature films later, I got off the plane stumbling like the creatures from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. So call that a lesson learned.
Mark: You once said : “The computer industry is 50 years of over promise and under deliver”. Is that changing yet?
Jason: We have a LONG way to go before THAT changes – with endless new people signing on every day, promising them that their phones will turn tears into gold or will rescue orphans from burning buildings is still quite profitable, and with a few notable exceptions, it’s considered the way computers are marketed.
Normally, that’s not a big deal, but when the promises drift into longevity, access, and shutdown times, then my amusement turns to anger.
Mark: One of the things that shines through out the subjects of your work, is an in-depth understanding of the technology stacks some of your interviewees used. They knew how it worked and what the limitations were (and how to push them). There seems to be an increasing number of people that believe such in-depth stack knowledge is becoming a lost art. What are your thoughts? Are we understanding the technology less?
Jason: I think that there’s still access to much of the deep knowledge of how things work but as we spread the reach wider for who can use computers, the motivations of these folks to learn the really hard developer-level stuff just isn’t there. If this handheld computer that makes phone calls does more processing while showing you a map than a building’s worth of home computers did in the 1980s, your first thought might not be “I can’t wait to get into the device layer” and is likely more to be “Oh come on, that road’s been closed for weeks.”
I definitely think there’s a trend towards there being virtue in being unaware of the undercarriage of technology, and that means a lot of people are in the same position they are for their energy or their food – something goes wrong, anything at all, and we’re just completely frozen, with no solution coming forward and nothing to do but wait for the lights to come back on or for the vegetables to stop having whatever took them off the shelves in the first place. It can’t be great to be that disconnected from what keeps you alive and healthy.
Mark: As a sysop growing up, one of the things that was really clear to me at the time was the importance of staying local. Whether it was phone verification for new users or a social BBQ to talk tech over, BBS’s were largely a local community thing. Are such local communities getting lost now days with all the fan dangled new web tech? If so, can it be saved?
Jason: When things started to really move over to the internet, we definitely lost that feeling of locality and geography. Since websites were few and far between in the world, there might be one big online forum or one large news site that everyone around the world posted on at the same time. But over the years, we’re starting to see that locality come back, be it in the manner of mobile apps, attaching geography to social media, or even how people can set up something like a subreddit that services just their college or smaller town. It’s all cyclical, I guess, and things are looking up again.
Mark: You and the team at Archive Team, mirrored Geocities. An impressive undertaking in anyones book. I get lost in there randomly browsing the old neighborhoods from time to time. During the archive process you must have seen some classic stuff. Could you share a favourite you stumbled on during that mirroring work?
Jason: To be honest, what really made me happiest was not individual webpages (although I did find lots of interesting ones), but using this mass of webpages to look for similar items and then group them all together. For example, I really liked tracking down Under Construction GIFs, those animated promises of future work on a website, and putting them all on one large web page. Same for Netscape logos and mail icons. When you do this sweep across the entire collection like that, you start to see trends, artistry, and a perspective unheard of a mere 10 years earlier. To be able to go “now show me what people thought was a good way to promote their browser” or “how many different ways can you say ‘click here to mail me'” is pretty amazing.
Estelle: What is your background? What first got you interested in web development?
Chris: I was a computer nerd as a kid and that just rolled forward. I was into programming and art in high school. Then computer science and design in college. I would have loved to get a web design job right out of college but I didn’t have the chops. So I went into graphic design and the printing business for a few years. All the while I was building websites on the side. Some for fun. Some for bands I was in. Some personal sites. Some freelance. An opportunity for a web job came up, and with that sideboard of work, I was able to get it.
Estelle: What do you consider yourself? A designer? Front End Engineer?
Chris: That’s always tough to answer. That’s why I like joke titles. I was “Lead Hucklebucker” at Wufoo. Certainly Front End Engineer is a big part of it. I also do design but I’m self conscious about it.
Estelle: What are you most passionate about when it comes to front end engineering?
Chris: Decision-making is a big one for me. I really like talking through problems and making choices. Of course that could apply to any job but it’s particularly fun in front end because the days are like an endless series of little logic puzzles to solve.
What text makes the most sense here? What should happen if they click here? How does this grid behave at this size? Does this look button-y enough? Is this error message helpful enough? How could we have prevented that error in the first place?
I consider all those things front-end problems.
Things like “should this be a <div class="subtitle"> or does an <hgroup> with an <h2> make the most sense?” are front end engineering problems to be solved as well, but are less interesting to me lately.
Estelle: It sounds like you’re passionate about good user experience design. How important do you think it is for Front End Engineers to also be skilled in UX?
Chris: Fairly important. UX is everyone’s job. If you just mindlessly replicate designs I don’t think you get to be an “engineer”.
Estelle: What projects are you working on now?
I also podcast at ShopTalk (you’ve been on before!) and of course keep up CSS-Tricks, my long time blog and community site around all things web.
Estelle: For people considering entering our profession, what would you recommend them?
Chris: My general philosophy is “Just build websites.” What you need to know becomes clear when you build.
If you absolutely have no idea where to start, I think I’d suggest “Handcrafted CSS” by Dan Cederholm (the book) and read through it and follow the project.
Then pick a project of your own. Build a personal site. Find a business you can build a website for. Anything.
And just do it. You’ll have roadblocks. But now, you’ll have a motivation to do the research and learning you need to do to defeat the roadblock.
(Repeat 1,000 Times)
Estelle: What is your biggest obstacle in your career as a FEE, and what are you doing to overcome it?
Chris: There is fear and there is over-confidence. Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference.
For example, every since I started web design I sized all type on every site I’ve ever worked on in pixels. I’d read stuff about the downfalls of that and alternatives and yadda yadda and dismiss it all.
I’ve been building websites for a while now, I do it this way, it works fine.
That kind of confidence is sometimes super useful. This works for me so I’m not going to worry about it and focus my attention elsewhere.
But at some point I had to admit it was either 1) being fearful of admitting that what I’ve been doing all this time was wrong or 2) overconfidence that my was best without truly considering other options.
So I give sizing all fonts with ems on a project a proper try and it’s better. There are some clear benefits.
That kind of thing can be a constant obstacle. Your own mind can be awfully stubborn.
Estelle: Where do you think our profession is going? What do you think we’ll be focusing on in 3 years?
Chris: Three years is a great time frame to think about it because it’s both close and incredibly far away at the same time. Just one year ago there were a LOT more discussions around IE 6/7. I feel like that’s pretty much over now. There was an attitude like “Oh this HTML5 stuff is neat or whatever, 2030 will be sweet!” Now a year later we’re using a lot of it on live sites. Time passing is a part of it but the rate of change is going faster too.
I think layout is going to be a different ballgame in three years. Flexbox will be starting to be used in primetime in about a year and will totally oust floats-for-layout in two years.
Web components will be a big deal I think. Web apps will be created in a much more modular structure. It will be funny to think of CSS as this huge looming monster over websites like it is now. Instead it will be contained to smaller parts.
Education will catch up a bit, so young people entering the field will have actual web experience. Tools will get better. It’s a bright future. If you’re already involved in the web right now, you picked a good place to be.
Thanks to both Chris and Estelle for the interview!
In the first of our interviews with Webstock ’13 speakers, we talked with Clay Johnson. Clay has an impressive CV that touches on many aspects of 21st century life — our relationship to technology, our consumption of information and the way these relate to power and politics. He’s also giving what promises to be a unique and, yes, important workshop: How To Take Over Your Town.
Webstock: I want to focus on the workshop you’re giving at Webstock – ‘How to take over your town’. It’s an intriguing title!
So, firstly, what’s been your journey to get here. You’ve been involved in politics with the Howard Dean presidential campaign and with Blue State Digital. You’ve worked with the Sunlight Foundation on making government more transparent. And you’ve written a book, ‘The Information Diet’ about the (pretty poor) information we consume and how to improve that. How has all that lead to you wanting to take over the town?
Clay: I don’t want to take over the town. I want us to take over our towns. Or rather to take our towns from charged up political climates into friendly, innovative communities. All politics is famously local. Power, too, is local.
Our media environment, though, makes us pay attention to large, sexy, national or global issues — issues that we largely can’t do anything about. Here — I’ll ask you three questions. No Googling allowed:
1. Who is the president of the United States of America?
2. How has the child poverty rate in your city/town/community changed in the last year?
3. Which one of the outcomes of the above two questions are you most likely to have an impact on?
Now some may say “That’s not fair! It’s very important to know who the president is!” and they’re right. These aren’t mutually exclusive. But what if I replaced the first question with “Name a Kardashian?”
We — the technology community — have to start paying attention to our communities. Two billion dollars just got spent in the United States presidential election, largely raised from concerned americans who wanted to participate in the election in some way. Thousands of people knocked on doors, made phone calls, and asked for votes. Can you imagine what would happen if that effort and participation went into improving public schools, or heck, street sweeping?
Webstock: The workshop description includes the following line, “The future of government isn’t in the code of law, it’s in the code of software.” What do you mean by that?
Clay: Right now the establishment profession of power is the lawyer. They write the laws, make the rules, determine who follows the rules and how best they get followed. But as technology is famously eating the world, isn’t the developer on the rise? After all, the software developers at Facebook are, through software, creating governing law on our interactions — they’re creating rules in the system about how we can communicate.
I think it’s time to start thinking about this critically. And I think it’s time for developers to start thinking “Perhaps I can make a big difference by making some changes in the way my community works!”
Developers have a skill like no other profession: they can rewire society without having to wait on government to change.
Webstock: Who should attend this workshop and what will they learn?
Clay: The developer who wants to learn how to organize people. Above all else, what I’m going to teach you isn’t a political skill, it’s a critical skill about how to move people. Hopefully, you’ll take this skill — combine it with what you already know how to do, and make amazing things happen for your community. But heck, if you just want to use the skills I teach you to learn how to leverage the ideas from US Political Campaigns in your business — that’s fine too.
That’s going to be the first half of my workshop. The second half of my workshop is going to be about having a healthy information diet so that you can stay focused on making great things happen for you. By the end of my workshop, you’re going to have a system for dealing with incoming crap, and you’re going to leave Webstock with more time. Anybody who wants more time on their hands should come to my workshop.
Also, Nat Torkington. And the lesson that he will learn is that he should have given my book a five star rating on goodreads. He will learn that lesson “the hard way.”
Webstock: Changing tack a little, one of your blog posts that I loved was ‘How to focus’ And I even went so far as to try the Pomodoro Technique mentioned there. How has the “focusing” gone for you? We all know it’s one thing to write or think about focusing better, it’s another to actually put things into practice over a sustained period of time.
Clay: I must confess. Focusing has gotten a lot harder for me since my wife and I brought our son Felix into the world in July. I still need to child-proof my How to Focus technique.
But honestly, I still use that technique a lot. It’s intended to be sort of a recovery program: when you find yourself lost in a rut of things that are asking for your attention, having the focus technique available is the thing that gets you out of that rut and back on track. It works every time.
Webstock: What the one single thing you’d recommend to someone wanting to improve their information diet?
Clay: Write 500 Words, every day, before 8AM. Make it the first thing you do every morning. That way, you’re starting your day as a producer, rather than a consumer. And your whole day will revolve around you making things rather than reacting to things.
Webstock: And finally, what are you most looking forward to at Webstock?
Clay: I’ve heard so much about Webstock that I can’t even begin to anticipate what I’m looking forward to the most.
Webstock: Thanks so much so Clay! We’re looking forward to having you here in February.
You may have heard that in the second half of 2013, Wellington’s century-old Town Hall – home to Webstock – will be out of action, whilst it receives the full earthquake strengthening treatment. It’s a two year project designed to lift the earthquake rating of the building to 140 percent of new building standard, making it safer than a super safe thing.
This means that Webstock ’13 may be the last, possibly forever, in the iconic Wellington Town Hall.
We believe that the Town Hall is an integral part of the Webstock experience. We are fussy customers and the right venue is paramount. The Town Hall allows us to accommodate the almost-1000 people who come to the event over the course of Webstock Week. It enables us to have workshops running simultaneously. It allows us the social table layout we prefer to aisle and row type seating.
With the Town Hall unavailable, we’re presented with a challenge:
Where do we hold Webstock in the future?
And how many people might we be able to accommodate?
And what impact does that have on the format?
These are just some of the big questions we’ll be considering over the next little while. Cos right now, we don’t know what the future holds for Webstock.
All we know is that it will be very different to the Webstocks that have gone before it. Changes are afoot for Webstocks 2014 onwards. It’ll be Webstock – but not as we know it!
All of which means that Webstock ’13 marks the end of an era. This is the last hurrah to the Webstock experience you’ll be familiar with. And we think that’s a cause for celebration and a right royal knees up! We’d love you to be there so we can make it one mighty send off. [This is where you now consider registering this instant so you don’t miss out!]
To remind ourselves of those special times we’ve had, here are the some photos from Webstocks past. They’re in the nature of our love letter to what’s been a wonderful venue and one that has helped define the very essence of Webstock.
PS – We should also say that we’re REALLY EXCITED about the possibilities for Webstock ’14. It’s a great chance for us to…ah hell, we’re not going to tip our hand this early! Let’s just say: Webstock ’14 is going to be something awesome – something different, but definitely awesome. But bottom line: Webstock ’13 is your last chance to experience Webstock “classic”. It’s gonna be big. It’s gonna be gigantic amounts of fun. It’s gonna be mighty memorable. And it’s gonna be very very exciting. It’s gonna RULE!
A lovely venue, which has accommodated many Webstockers over the years
The inaugural Webstock back in 2006 was opened by Sir Tim Berners Lee via video
Webstock aims to have a diverse mix of speakers
And a feeling of audience participation
The venue provides excellent facilities for the Speakers when they need to take some time out to prepare and relax
The Speakers’ presence on stage is often highly anticipated
VERY highly anticipated
The venue provides the room and freedom for a range of different presentation styles
It’s a venue that works well for workshops, streamed sessions and keynotes
And importantly, it works well for the much anticipated afterparty
The venue provides excellent hospitality staff and a wide range of beverages and tasty morsels suitable for the party environment
Said parties are a great opportunity to discuss issues raised over the course of the day eg the Andriod vs iOS debate raged last year:
As did debate over the HTML5 specs
Debates aside, the environment at Webstock is always a highly convivial and joyous one, bringing wonderful like-minded people together to celebrate their craft and the wonders of the web
#1 Wellington Town Hall interior. Original photographic prints and postcards from file print collection, Box 13. Ref: PAColl-6407-49. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22813146
#2 Visit of General Evangaline Booth, Salvation Army, Town Hall, Wellington. Crown Studios Ltd :Negatives and prints. Ref: 1/1-032721-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23244296
#4 Hypnotist, Miss Dormia Robson, with the audience at Wellington Town Hall http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22387489Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1958/1443-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
#5 Judges in New Zealand Brass Band Championships at the Town Hall, Wellington. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1959/0553-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23261700
#6 Police restraining fan during Rolling Stones concert, Wellington Town Hall. Dominion post (Newspaper) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1965/0521-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23132666
#7 Teenage fans at the Walker Brothers concert in the Wellington Town Hall. Dominion post (Newspaper) :Photographic negatives and prints of the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers. Ref: EP/1967/0398-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23033384
#11 Medicine department at Wellington Town Hall during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Ref: 1/2-C-016207-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22328319
#12 Don Beitelman vs. Ivan Kameroff, wrestling match at the Wellington Town Hall. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1956/1088-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22907669
#13 Amamus Theatre Group performing in Wellington Town Hall. Dennis, Jonathan Spencer, 1953-2002 :Photographs. Ref: PAColl-7413-13-1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/22483099
#14 Guests at Plunket Ball at the Town Hall, Wellington. Negatives of the Evening Post newspaper. Ref: EP/1956/1414b-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://beta.natlib.govt.nz/records/23128050
In continuing with our fine Webstock tradition of losing a speaker at the last moment, we’re really sad to announce the Garr Reynolds has had to cancel his trip to Webstock. He’s come down with a bad case of the flu, it’s very contagious and his Dr has advised no travel. Garr really really wanted to make it here, but:
a) he was so sick his wife had to write us and let us know he couldn’t make it;
b) we didn’t want to be known as the conference that infected the whole NZ web community and various web glitterati from around the world with highly infectious flu!
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that we’ve got a wonderful replacement for Garr at the conference. Amy Hoy, who’s spoken twice at Webstock before has agreed to step in at very late notice and deliver what we’re sure will be a wonderful presentation in Garr’s place. Thank you Amy, we’re extremely grateful!
Another option that was discussed rejected here at Webstock was having Webstock’s own Ben Lampard replace Garr with his own talk, entitled, ‘Presentation Ben’. We’re sure you’ll join with us in being glad Amy was in the country!