A Clear Vision for the Web

“A clear romantic vision has the marvellous ability to focus thought & will.”
— Alan Kay

The web is here to stay because it allows us to solve many problems relatively easily. A disproportionate amount of time will continue to be spent on the creation of new sites and the maintenance of existing ones. Considering how much work goes into the web it is important for developers & designers to have a grand vision to guide decision making.

In this essay I clarify and amplify the webs romantic ideal. I am not the first to do so. Others have mentioned the importance of what I am about to explain. I am throwing my weight in because I want the best set of ideas to win.

This vision has the benefit of being desirable. Working towards a beautiful vision makes it easier to remove barriers, make technological progress in the appropriate places and limit time spent chasing dead ends.

Three of the most important figures leading up to the flourishing of the web are Vannevar Bush, Douglas Engelbart & Tim Berners Lee. Each one was vital in bringing the world closer to using the internet. The last invented the web itself.

Vannevar envisioned a better way to share scientific information in his essay As We May Think published in 1945. Douglas Engelbart was influenced by Bush’s essay and went on to give The Mother of All Demos twenty-three years later. In his presentation he demonstrated networked computing, hypertext and a graphical user interface. Tim Berners Lee invented the World Wide Web (WWW) and sent the first successful message between an HTTP client and the internet. He did so with the idea in mind of sharing scientific papers.

These three visionaries wanted to make it easy for the world’s information to be accessed. Accessibility relates to what can be accessed. Accessibility is what unifies their thinking.

Bush, Engelbart & Berners Lee had in mind the sharing of scientific information but the web ended up getting used for applications far beyond this. No one expected email apps, social networks, games and Photoshop clones.

There is certainly a wide range of applications on the web now, but this doesn’t change the original vision behind the internet. We shouldn’t discard our three visionaries just because we can now do more with the web then what was originally expected of it. Furthermore all of these new applications have a few things in common. All web sites are delivered with the HTTP protocol, run in a browser and employ the use of HTML, CSS & JavaScript. This means that it is possible for all these new applications to be accessible.

When I say accessible what I mean is a site that can be read and controlled by an agent with limited access capabilities. This includes but is not limited to Google’s crawler, screen readers, braille displays, feature phones, and so on. Some sites deliver an inaccessible Flash application. This is not a proper website and neither is a site which writes everything to canvas while providing no way for a screen reader to access its contents. There are exceptions of course. No one expects 3D games that make heavy use of the canvas element to be accessible to the blind. That being said the vast majority of applications can be made accessible to a majority of people and we should make every attempt to do so. Doing otherwise limits the audience of the content being served.

The web is made up of navigation and document elements. Navigation elements control where you go and what you see. Document elements are the materials that make up web pages themselves. The hyperlink occupies both realms.

The elements of web navigation are the Uniform Resource Locator (URL), scrolling, hyperlinks, and the back button. With these elements one can traverse the web.

Documents have four elements: HyperText Markup Language (HTML), Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), JavaScript (JS) and embedded objects. HTML is used to markup text & objects, CSS dictates how things appear, JS is for programming and embedded objects are for outputting sound, images & animation. With these elements one can construct anything from a simple flat HTML site to a complex application.

The web has all the right elements to make applications that can be accessed by almost everyone. It has the potential to bring the accessibility as a guiding vision idea to fruition like no other medium that has gone before it. Although layout on the web can be painful HTML, CSS, and JavaScript are just the right set of ingredients to build what Vannevar could only dream of.

All navigation elements on the web can be accessed by severely disabled individuals. A properly marked up document can be heard by a blind person using a screen reader. It can also be felt by a blind and deaf person using a braille display.

A diagram showing a web document being accessed by a robot, human, screen reader and braille display

All of the worlds information should be able to be accessed by any web enabled device and addressed to URLs. This is the dream. This is the vision that must ground our work on the web.

Accessibility has been given a back seat for a while now as workers have forged ahead with the construction of complex web applications. Witness the lack of conversation surrounding it. To date A Book Apart, Rosenfeld Media and The Pragmatic Bookshelf have yet to publish a book on the topic. To be fair responsive web design falls under the broader category of access and it has been given a lot of attention over the last few years, but this is only because of the surge in popularity of mobile phones and tablets.

It is time to return to the thing that made and continues to make the web awesome: accessibility. Accessibility should be the grand vision that guides decision making on the web. When you build on the web this question should be in the back of your mind: is what I am making accessible to as many agents as possible?

Scott Burkun was correct when he said that “software is not epic”. The web is not epic. It is in need of a higher ideal. Films inspire the creation of amazing camera and editing equipment. Video games have been the major driving force behind increases in GPU & CPU speeds in the last three decades. Great art inspires people because it is filled with that romantic vision that we need to achieve something great. The web’s is accessibility.