the y2k bug

or, hope for the internet

Recently my thoughts have been overly preoccupied with the year 2000 and the Y2K culture it birthed. For me the 2000s were an era of unbridled digital optimism, anything was possible with a computer. Digital art and music were brand new, and the internet culture of today was in its infancy. The aesthetics of this period clearly reflect these themes, from illegible typography to cheesy 3D renders and impractical user interfaces. We were dreaming the future into existence.

In many ways this optimism was naive, we know today that technology and the digital aspect of our existence come with plenty of downsides. Data harvesting, thought bubbles, info hazards, psyops and addiction to the information stream itself were difficult to see from the outset. 

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Y2K era and what we might have lost along the way. The cynical view of technology today is not undeserved, most software we interact with has little-to-no regard for our wellbeing or our humanity, despite the so called rise of UX and accessibility in industry. Our early social networks encouraged theming and customisation, today we’re lucky to get dark mode. Yes, simplicity is desirable but is sanding all the sharp corners off your user onboarding flow really about the user? Is lowest-common-denominator design actually ethical? Maybe, just maybe, this is about KPIs, OKRs, MAUs and ARR.

The alleged streamlining of design has come hand-in-hand with a war on personality in software design. There was a time where using a computer was fun, now I’ve got 400+ logins in my password vault and it’s difficult to even tell the applications apart. Just look at the current iterations of Instagram and Facebook, where is the feeling? The same pattern appears in the programming space, a small number of obviously flawed paradigms (see OOP) are used to build the vast majority of applications. 

In both cases my cynical take is that these choices proliferate specifically so that the personality of the designers and developers is minimised in the resulting work. Large businesses dream of easily replaceable employees who all design, program and think identically.

This isn’t exactly an original thought on my part, my Twitter feed frequently features people posting screenshots of WinAMP skins and asking where we went wrong. There was a time where video game design and application design were almost inseparable from one another, before we standardised on the same UI controls, layouts and patterns.

Well, I do have some ideas about how this happened. Yes, blah blah, big tech is bad but I think the more interesting insight is that the word “design” has seen a gradual change and narrowing in meaning within the technology industry. In the year 2000 “product design” was not a staple in the technologist’s vocabulary. Web designers were just beginning to differentiate themselves from graphic designers, but both schools were often dedicated to pushing the boundaries as artists

Contrast this with a modern UI/UX design role, where is the self-expression? These roles are focused on the business and engineering side of design. Which makes sense, ease of use and profitability are tightly linked. I agree that “how do we make it easy for the user?” is an important question, but “how do we make it interesting for the user?” is generally ignored.

Industrial design long pre-dates any of these digital specialties and has seen this dance of art vs. engineering play out in at least one cycle while I’ve been alive. We’ve seen cheap, mass-produced products surge in popularity and subsequently seen the demand for artisanal, exclusive/premium products return in rebellion.

I think we’re on the precipice of this same correction in software design. The web is entering a new era, one where we can run high-fidelity 3D graphics in the web browser on our phones. I believe there is more to the digital world than business optimisation. The web should be a space for unbridled creativity and expression, why not make a website purely because it’s fun? 

In my view, we still have much to learn from video games. We can use software to create a whole universe and invite people into it, we can tell powerful stories and we can connect with people on the other side of the globe. We quite literally have the world at our fingertips and all we can muster is another SaaS for social media analytics? Really? What happened to trying to make the world a better place? Oh well, at least my engagement is up 4.3%.

I urge you to join me in thinking about the platforms of tomorrow. There will come a day where Twitch, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Netflix, Google et al. will be long forgotten, what comes next? Mass-produced software isn’t going anywhere, but esoteric software is what gives me hope.

Make weird shit, make art. 

✌️ ben