In the town where I grew up it was completely natural for everyone to ignore the machines that hunched in the corner at school and at home, never seeing the potential in them to make interesting things or to learn how they really worked.
Computers were nothing more than loud, humming boxes, with wire tentacles that spread out across the room. Occassionally they would spit out a report or a spreadsheet.
Sure enough, I had some experiences of those computers; I was a fat little kid who was just the sort to hide at home on a summer’s day, blowing up aliens and conquering distant, pixelated lands. But that flicker of computational interest that charms so many children at a young age washed over me entirely, and so I also ignored the invisible gathering that was going on between these machines.
Creepy AOL chat rooms and message boards are the only memories I have of the early web, time has filtered out most of the cables and the noise. Somtimes I tend to remember things a whole lot cleaner and more wholesome than they really were, but the web is a year older than I am, and I barely even noticed its development.
I mention this because it’s immensely difficult not to look back and get angry at myself, or at those who had a lot of influence over me as a child. There were so many missed opportunities. How difficult would it have been to have a single class or even a conversation, a simple tutorial on the web, that explained what it was for? How much time would it have taken someone to show me the video game and then lift the curtain that revealed all the juicy functions and methods that gave it life?
It wasn’t until my late teens that I began to notice them, as well as the vast, sprawling network in between. What felt like limited access to the world at the time pushed me to explore those boxes that everyone relied upon so heavily and yet somehow managed to ignore so completely. I wanted to know what it felt like to be close to the machine.
So, like the beginning of many Internet love stories, my fondness for computers and the web coincided with my discomfort for my life in the meat space.
The first time I read Zeldman’s opus something began whizzing around in my mind uncontrollably. I wanted to make a website for my band where I could store remixes and fiddle with the innovative publishing models that I caught a passing glimpse of. But it wasn’t until I read about stylesheets however, and the float property specifically, that I truly began to understand the web. I remember talking to Zeldman through the book:
There was power in the float #
This small yet important layout hack could dramatically shape anything in the browser. For the first time I felt as if I could make a worthy contribution to a medium with it, as I could pop up the web inspector and push a website around as if its pieces were made of clay. Video games and other computer programs tried their hardest to lock me out of their innards, but with the web all of the tools bubbled on the surface. They were just sitting there, waiting for me to find them.
At a young age children are aware that there are doctors, stunt men, astronauts and teachers – they are conscious that these are the professions available to them. But how many are oblivious to the fact that every single word and flash of color on a screen has been placed there by a person? I don’t want to glorify web designers (there is more than enough nonsense spoken about craft) but I want others to be aware that this career that I love so dearly is available to them as well.
And so I ask my fellow web folk this important question: how do we make the tools, and the languages necessary for access, seem less like a hurdle and more like a jungle gym?
Perhaps all of this is more reflective of my own childhood, and the industry is, in fact, very public and accessible. I mean – an overwhelming proportion of us use websites every hour of every day, and so there must be some connection that kids make between the people and the pixels, right?