W3C home > Mailing lists > Public > w3c-wai-ig@w3.org > January to March 2002

Steal this post

From: Charles F. Munat <chas@munat.com>
Date: Wed, 09 Jan 2002 23:20:08 -0800
Message-ID: <3C3D40A8.40509@munat.com>
To: W3C WAI IG <w3c-wai-ig@w3.org>

gian@stanleymilford.com.au wrote (on another list):

"I think you will find that graphics designers still don't believe that 
CSS etc could provide the kind of artistic expression they are used to, 
and even if it does, it will take a lot to convince them. I understand 
that a lot of pages are data-driven, but this doesn't mean that their 
navigation is data-driven- one would hope, actually, that the navigation 
remains static to ensure rational [consistent] presentation!"


What does consistency have to do with rationality?

The problem is that such designers are dinosaurs, though they don't know 
it. They were trained on one (or both) of two types of media:

1. Fixed passive media, such as print media. The designer's canvas is 
fixed in size, material, and (to some extent) time. The designer has 
control over color, position, size, etc. to the limit of the available 

2. Relative passive media, such as television. The designer's canvas is 
fixed in proportion but not size. It is variable over time, but the 
designer has control over this. The designer also has some control over 
color (although black and white TVs do exist and colors vary from one 
set to another) and fairly good control over position.

In both instances, designers believe that they have total control over 
the user's experience of their "art" (more often, commerce). This is 
easily seen to be false.

Take a magazine ad, for example. The designer knows the exact size of 
the ad, and this does not vary. The designer can choose the colors and 
the layout of the ad with a high degree of accuracy. Type faces and 
sizes are fixed as well.

But this is the smallest part of my "experience." The designer cannot 
control the lighting in which I see this ad, the angle at which I see 
it, the ads or articles next to it (usually), or the stink emanating 
from a mixture of blown in perfume cards.

I might first see the ad *after* it has been torn out of the magazine, 
or I might see a photocopy of the ad, or part of the ad might be 
missing, or a previous viewer might have drawn an ink moustache on the 
sexy female model, or written comments in the margin.

The designer cannot control my mood at the time I first see her "art." 
She has no idea what worldly experience I will bring to my encounter 
with her art, what I will read into it (or fail to read from it). She 
does not know how her art will look ten, fifty, or one hundred years in 
the future (think of how we view magazine ads from the 1960s today).

The same can be said for television. What size is my TV? Is it color? Am 
I watching on cable or using a bad antenna? How far am I from the set? 
Is the sound loud, soft, or off? Do I see the commercial from beginning 
to end, or just part of it? What other commercials surround this one (or 
what commercials interrupt the program)? Am I alone, or in a crowded bar?

And what of other media?

Books come in different sizes. Users dog-ear pages, highlight passages, 
write comments in the margins, tear out pages. The books themselves 
yellow and fall apart. Reviewers and critics excerpt passages. Readers 
repeat lines from faulty memories.

Movies are possibly the most controlled situation, but the artist still 
has no control over the size or quality of the theater, what shorts or 
ads are shown before or after, what interruptions might occur, who or 
how many are in the audience, or changing cultural values over time not 
to mention wear and tear on the film stock itself.

Museums are also controlled, but the artist often has no control over 
lighting or position. Crowds may be light or heavy. Viewing angles vary 
and may be obstructed. I went to an Annie Liebowitz show at the Seattle 
Art Museum last week and it was so crowded that I didn't get the chance 
to really "experience" even one photo.

When a musician's songs are played on the radio, he has no control over 
context. What songs are played before and after? Does the dj talk over 
the song? Are the neighboring songs overlapped? And where am I? In the 
car? In the bathroom? What am I doing? Sleeping? Eating? Making love? Dying?

So the illusion of control is simply that: an illusion. But don't tell 
designers that!

More importantly, note the key word in the above two types of media: 
passive. From the comments above, it should be clear that neither is 
truly passive. In fact, users don't like to be passive, so they are 
almost always active to the greatest extent possible. A moustache drawn 
on a model is just one example. My brother likes to cut out ads to form 
collages. Adbusters often mimics other designers ads to make fun of 
them. I highlight passages I like in books. My parents mute all TV ads. 
My friend channel hops every time a commercial break occurs.

Web sites are relative *interactive* media. They are not print, although 
most designers think of "static" pages as print. They are not 
television, although many "big" corporate sites are trying hard to make 
them into TV (or radio). (For big corporate interests, passive viewers 
are best. The only activity they want from you is your hand reaching for 
your credit card. And if they can automate that and just suck the money 
out of your account as fast as you can make it, they will.)

Another thing to understand is that most designers, like most 
non-designers, are not very creative. Our societies do not encourage 
creativity. We are carefully schooled to eliminate creativity. Creative 
people are difficult to control. So most designers (like most 
non-designers) work within the orthodoxy. Changes to the orthodoxy come 
along only occasionally, when some truly creative individual discovers 
something new. The Web is no exception.

So what we need is a revolution in web site design. Or, more 
specifically, what we need are some revolutionary web site designers. 
Most of the so-called revolutionaries up until this point have actually 
been reactionaries. Take Dave Siegel, for example. While he had a 
significant effect on early web site design, most of what he did was 
reactionary: he tried to force web pages into the print model. We are 
still trying to recover from the damage he did.

We need real revolutionaries.

When television first came along, programmers would simply set up a 
camera and then perform in front of it as if it were another audience 
member. The web is at an equivalent point in its history. To most web 
designers, a web site is a series of "pages" (print), sounds (passive 
audio), or moving pictures (passive video).

Actually, a web site is data, relationships among data, and 
transformations that may be applied to that data. These are all 
abstract. For us to interact with a web site, the 
data/relationships/transformations must become concrete. In an ideal 
world, the user would have complete control over how this process of um, 
reification, for want of a better word, occurs.

Already we can reify (make real) this data into text or spoken words or 
tactile symbols (e.g., Braille). Some very primitive forms of automated 
translation are already possible. And some data can be converted to 
graphic form on the fly as well. This is only the beginning.

Imagine an immersive environment ("virtual reality"). Techies can think 
of the holodeck on the Enterprise. Imagine that you interact in this 
immersive environment with your bank. Your bank is represented by a 
three dimensional image of a human, complete with facial expressions, 
gestures, vocal intonations, etc. You can choose a representative of 
your liking with the appropriate cultural attributes.

Or imagine a "telephone" in which the recipient of your call sees a 3D 
version of you (or of a substitute). Imagine that you could call someone 
in a foreign country -- say a professor of history in Tanzania -- and 
the "telephone" would translate not only your words, but your gestures, 
  facial expressions, dress, rate of speaking, tone, etc. into the 
closest equivalents in that language.

Imagine that you "wrote" a letter to the editor of the local web site. 
But you wrote it by speaking it to your computer. Your computer then 
asked you a series of questions about meta-information: What feelings 
were you attempting to convey? Are you angry? Sad? Did you mean this 
ironically? (Ideally, the computer would know you well enough after a 
while to extract most of this metadata automatically.)

Imagine that this data was stored with your "letter." Now a "reader" of 
this web site comes to it and chooses your letter. The computer might 
ask some questions of that reader (language, culture, age, etc.) and 
then render your letter in an entirely different manner, choosing the 
manner that is most likely to convey the same information (including 
meta-information) to that particular visitor.

Clearly, the Web is the stone age of real networking.

The first real step down this path to a "real" network -- a network of 
collaboration not control -- is the elimination of the illusion of 
author-control, and the introduction of a new idea: author-user 
collaboration. In truth, this is not so new an idea. Have a face-to-face 
conversation with someone else (or a group) and note how rapidly 
meta-information flows between participants. All speakers will make 
almost instantaneous changes in their delivery to accomodate new 
information from the recipients. And recipients give non-stop feedback 
while they are receiving. This, not the passive-user model, is the true 
model for the World Wide Web (and still more so for the Semantic Web to 

Problem: There will be (and already is) immense resistance to this 
change. Partly because people naturally resist change, but more 
importantly because of what this change augurs.

The world is controlled, not surprisingly, by people and institutions 
that seek to control. Those who have control seek not only to maintain 
control, but also to increase it.

The sort of web I have been describing is a truly democratic web, one in 
which users and providers are equals in a cooperative effort. But this 
model is terrifying to those who control, for obvious reasons.

Over the past few centuries, as the controllers have increased their 
control, we have been transformed from actors in the play, to 
spectators. The vast majority of our non-working hours (and much of our 
work time as well) is now devoted to passive observation. At any given 
time, hundreds of millions -- nay, billions -- sit passively in front of 
their television sets while images, sounds, ideas are beamed into their 

That people do not want to be spectators is evinced by the phenomenal 
growth of the World Wide Web. What attracted people to the Web was (and 
is) the interactive aspect of it. People *want* to participate. Think 
talk radio. Think "town hall" style meetings. Think letters to the 
editor. Think America's Funniest Home Videos (we're only allowed to 
participate if we make fools of ourselves).

The owners of the media (and other giant corporations) and governments 
want to restrict the participation of the user to the greatest extent 
possible. They don't want you to think, they want you to do what you're 
told. Period.

(Please don't barrage me with email about how this isn't true. It is 
true. Yes, there are individual persons with varying degrees of desire 
to control. But I am not talking about individual actors, I am talking 
about the SYSTEM. The system -- corporations and governments -- seeks 

These owners, governors, and their representatives are STRONGLY 
resisting efforts to increase participation. In fact, they are trying to 
undo the damage already done by the Web. For a description of how this 
is being done and why, read Lawrence Lessig's new book, "The Future of 
Ideas." It is not a comprehensive critique (no one book could contain 
one), but it covers many key actors and mechanisms.

The desire of designers to control the experience of users is rooted in 
this desire of the establishment to control the masses. Overcoming this 
desire is going to take a true revolution. True revolutions take 
revolutionaries, and there is always a steep price to pay for those who 
foment revolutions.

The idea of accessibility is a revolutionary idea. It is anarchistic, 
democratic. It is based on the idea that the individual has a right to 
control her environment and to adapt it to her own benefit. It is based 
on the idea that all of us have the right to decide what is done to us 
or for us and how it is done, regardless of our position in the 
hierarchy of society.

You don't get any more revolutionary than that.

Until we as a group grasp the revolutionary nature of our charter, our 
efforts will amount to no more than a band-aid or a crutch.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming...

Charles F. Munat
Seattle, Washington
Received on Thursday, 10 January 2002 02:19:05 UTC

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.4.0 : Friday, 17 January 2020 20:36:06 UTC