“The World-Wide Work.”

Ethan Marcotte has published a home for his talk “The World-Wide Work.”, which he describes with typical understatement as “a very different kind of talk for me”. I hope you’ll take the time to watch it.

I admired its construction almost as much as its content — it starts with an invitation to consider starlings — first as individual creatures, then as parts of a murmuration1. Then, a segue to drop caps and design systems. So far, so comfortable — it’s our friends CSS and design patterns, with a featured guest, accessibility. At this point Ethan could have easily coasted into any number of safe, apolitical directions.

Except he doesn’t, and what follows connects a line that runs through the power of design, the biases we’ve built into our technology, and our collective opportunity to act in an ethical manner2.

I was reminded of Christopher Priest’s description of magic in his novel, The Prestige:

Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called “The Pledge.” The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course…it probably isn’t. The second act is called “The Turn.” The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret…but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back. That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige.”

I’m not suggesting that this talk is a magic trick — the final act is quite sober, like shielding a fluttering flame while looking out at an approaching rainstorm. But there is something spellbinding about the way Ethan welcomes us in through a group of familiar objects, then asks us to weigh how the intersections of greed, power, and oppression are magnified by some of the very technology we build — before finally reminding us that we cannot push back against these global forces individually. “We need to unionize, my loves.” is a gentle, but urgent, call to solidarity.

Some stray thoughts:

  • I love the care with which Ethan translated his talk into essay form: the images breaking outside the text column, the section numerals, the bold declarative pauses — it all works beautifully.
  • I can’t help but think back to Mandy Brown’s talk at dConstruct 2014, “Hypertext as an Agent of Change”. Mandy’s talk isn’t about automation and unionization, but it does boldly name power and ethics as a collective responsibility. Her declaration, “There is no neutral ground” still gives me chills. Seeing this discourse evolve in the public sphere over time feels quite right.
  • I’m finally listening to Ursula Franklin’s lectures from The Real World of Technology (they’re not available as a podcast but if you’re handy with curl or wget it’s possible to assemble your own playlist for offline listening). Franklin’s observations are making me realize that our collective wrestling match with technology may feature new masks but it is truly old in origin.
  • Ethan had previously published a reading list for his talk.

  1. This list of bird flocks is fascinating. A parliament of owls feels so very appropriate. 
  2. I wonder what it was like to be in the audience. Was it like hearing a band play some old favorites, only to go hurtling in an unexpected direction? Were folks thinking, “JUST PLAY THE HITS!” or were they captivated, like I was?