A fanciful history of web design might start with scribes in an ancient Near East civilization, all of them dutifully impressing their clay tablets deeply enough to make the characters easily legible. One day, either intentionally or because of laziness or weariness, one scribe made shallow impressions for his characters, and instead of his fellow scribes rebuking him, they hailed his genius. They were probably hipsters, who seek conformity in their nonconformity, and for whom a new look is all the more appealing if it befuddles the masses. “I can barely read it,” exclaimed one hipster scribe, “and that’s what makes it brilliant!” “It hurts my eyes,” said another who was slow to catch the new wave. After noting the disapproving looks from the other scribes, he added “I mean, it hurt my eyes until I got used to it. Now I see it’s absolutely great!”
Like the fashion world it parallels, typography must endlessly reinvent itself around a practical matter. People need to wear clothes, and when they read, they need to be able to decipher characters, whether they are impressed on clay tablets, printed on a page, or delineated by tiny dots on a backlit screen. The reasons for reinvention have much to do with evolving tastes and the need for turnover in sales, and sometimes little to do with practicality. The trend of low contrast typography in web design is a case in point. Some designers and technology companies decided about ten years ago it would be nice to have gray text on a white or gray background, and soon the nonconformists were jumping on the bandwagon and conforming. Readers seeking information from grayed out websites have been straining their eyes in frustration ever since.
There is a difference in strain on a reader’s eyes between the black on white of a printed page and the black on white of a backlit screen, with the latter being harder to take. Most books were never printed on absolutely pure white paper, and the black ink, when reflecting light, was never utterly black. Backlit screens can achieve greater contrast than print, but it’s best that they don’t because staring at very high contrast type can be a strain. The solution for screens is to lower the tone of the background, as can be seen by adjusting screen brightness or by using an application to reduce eye strain (the applications available on the market typically also change the color temperature).
A scene from The Invisible Man, a 1933 film based on a novel by H.G. Wells, directed by James Whale, with Claude Rains in the title role.
Computer users adjusting the brightness of their screens or using web applications for reducing eye strain took web designers out of the picture, however, and it appears they would have none of that. To support their design trend of using varying shades of gray text, they claimed they were enhancing legibility and reducing eye strain. There’s no evidence it does, and common sense and feedback from readers who don’t care about trends points to the opposite result. Low contrast web design is too low, and it ignores the real solution, which is not to tone down the font, but to tone down the background. Go ahead and use gray fonts on a gray background if it seems cool, silly as that is, but don’t reel off nonsensical mumbo jumbo to support that decision, and don’t expect all readers to drop to their knees and kiss the hem of those faded fonts.
Recently the news and commentary website Saloninstituted a policy of not allowing visitors using advertisement blockers to access their website without either or turning the blockers off or allowing Salon to use the visitors’ computers to mine the cryptocurrency Monero. In other words, when a visitor with an active ad blocker arrives at the Salon website, Salon detects the ad blocker and immediately pops up a notice about its new policy, giving the visitor the options of turning off the ad blocker and continuing to the rest of the site and viewing it for free, but with ads, or, for a visitor who chooses not to turn off the ad blocker, then that visitor must grant Salon permission to use their computer to mine Monero, which replaces the revenue Salon would otherwise lose to that visitor who wants to read articles without viewing any ads. The third option for the visitor is to leave the website.
It remains to be seen how well visitors to the Salon website will accept the new policy and whether Salon will see a return to revenue levels they had before ad blockers became much more widely used in the past few years. It’s commendable that the owner of Salon is being open about taking this step and giving visitors options. Some websites use the computers of visitors to mine cryptocurrency without notifying them, a practice known as cryptojacking. Sometimes the website owner is not aware this is happening because their website has been hacked, and in that case it is the hacker who gets the revenue, and both the website owner and the visitor lose out. What the owner of Salon is doing is not cryptojacking, a sneaky and disreputable practice.
Image of television personality Garry Moore and Kellogg’s cereal character Tony the Tiger taken from a 1955 Kellogg’s advertisement. There have always been tacky ads for products of dubious worth.
There are other ways for website owners to cope with replacing revenue lost to ad blockers. The website for The Atlantic magazine stops a visitor at the door when it detects an ad blocker and advises the visitor to turn it off, or whitelist The Atlantic in the ad blocker, or leave. Simple and straightforward. Other websites, such as the one for The New York Times, give a visitor a certain number of free articles each month before the visitor reaches a paywall that requires the visitor buy a subscription to read more articles. More lenient on the front end, but with a harder line on the back end. These models work reasonably well for very popular websites that can afford to lose a small percentage of visitors who absolutely refuse either to not use an ad blocker or to pay for content on the internet. The owners of less well known websites would have a harder time adopting those models without alienating visitors they can ill afford to lose.
Long before Joe DiMaggio plugged coffee makers, he did advertisements for cigarettes, as did many celebrities, including athletes like him.
The shame of it all is that ad blockers have increased in popularity because of the bad behavior of a few bad actors on the internet who push out ads that hide malware and trackers, or video ads that use autoplay, or ads with Flash Player code that makes them highly distracting, and because of that kind of activity internet users have quite reasonably installed ad blockers to avoid all that, and the effect has been to punish the good along with the bad. Unfortunately there are also too many internet users who think everything on the internet should be free, conveniently ignoring the obvious point that the producers of internet content have to eat and pay the rent just like anybody else.
Imagine picking up a newspaper from a kiosk, a newspaper from which someone has helpfully cut out every single advertisement, leaving only the articles. This would be a great boon to the reader, obviously, but how is the publisher supposed to pay the bills? The reader picked up the newspaper without paying for it, which is not a big deal because the selling price of a newspaper typically takes care of a small percentage of the cost of publishing it. Print newspapers, and now internet newspapers and other publications have always relied on the selling of advertising space for the greater part of their revenue. If readers can’t see the ads, why would advertisers continue to buy ad space?
In this early scene from the 1963 Stanley Kramer filmIt’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Jonathan Winters as Lennie Pike, third from the left, has some choice words for those who want something for free.
There’s plenty of blame to go around for the state of internet advertising, from publishers and ad producers who put out obnoxious ads that distract from the visitor’s experience, to visitors who seem to think that internet publishers should make their content available free, and even better as far as they are concerned would be free without any visible means of support in the form of advertisements. That’s the “Big Rock Candy Mountain” pipe dream. More reasonable would be a compromise among publishers, advertisers, and visitors that would ask advertisers and publishers to show respect to visitors by not pushing obnoxious ads on them, and visitors to acknowledge the need for publishers to eat and pay the rent like anybody else, and to satisfy those needs by showing ads to visitors. Simple really, particularly considering the alternatives of working in the mines or paying for what you get.
After the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) five member board voted along party lines to roll back Net Neutrality regulations last month, it wasn’t surprising to see some major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) trot out rate increases soon afterward. The new regulatory structure doesn’t take effect until 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register, which may take a few more weeks while the FCC completes final edits to the paperwork, but companies like Comcast just couldn’t wait. Meanwhile, in another predictable outcome of the end of Net Neutrality, over 20 states have started instituting their own rules in an effort to adhere to the old guidelines, while also suing the FCC to prevent it from trying to impose its new rules within each state.
This comes down to regulating interstate commerce in the form of communications companies, which is the only reason for federal agencies such as the FCC to exist. It will all have to be sorted out in the courts, and that could take years and many millions of taxpayer dollars, all because FCC Chairman Ajit Pai turned a deaf ear to the majority of Americans while he listened very closely to his corporate masters, such as at Verizon, where he worked as a corporate lawyer before being appointed to the FCC by President Barack Obama, at the behest of Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
“Reinstate Net Neutrality” sign at the January 20, 2018, Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles, California. Photo by Cory Doctorow.
There have been noises from Congress about legislating Net Neutrality, or a semblance of it, once and for all, thereby stripping the FCC of its bouncing ball regulations. Even if one of these measures manages to squeak by with enough votes in Congress, it will then cross the whistle-clean desk of Supreme Leader, who after all is the one who elevated Ajit Pai from FCC board member to chairman, most likely with the express purpose of encouraging him to gut Net Neutrality for the benefit of corporate giants. Supreme Leader will veto any legislation that undercuts his man at the FCC, and there will not be enough votes in Congress to override his veto, since that would require the votes of two thirds of the members.
In that case, it appears everyone will have to get used to paying through the nose for broadband internet service in areas of the country where there are only one or two providers, which is to say most areas. Consumers could pay less in a tiered system for service at the speed of dial-up, which is what the FCC has opened the door to now. Instead of being regulated like utilities, which must provide similar service to all consumers universally, the ISPs will be regulated like cable television companies, a business some of them have also been in for years.
The problem vexing consumers is that they usually have few choices for providers of these services, although they have slightly more choices than they do when it comes to their electric service. Still, in a market with limited competition, the advantage lies entirely with the unregulated company that is unfettered to charge whatever it can squeeze from captive consumers. Take it or leave it.
“Wildflowers”, the title song of Tom Petty’s (1950-2017) solo album from 1994.
The last area where ISP giants are working to complete their cornering of the market is in the contest over municipal broadband services, which are usually public/private partnerships between municipalities and smaller ISPs, where the municipality provides some infrastructure and subsidies, and the private company provides the hardware, operations, and maintenance. Municipal broadband often provides better service and better rates to consumers than they can get from the big companies, and is likely to provide service to poor and rural consumers who otherwise would have no service options. No wonder the big companies are intensively lobbying state and local officials to choke off municipal broadband. It appears their greed compels them to throttle competition and now, at their discretion, some services to their customers.
Recently one of the minority Democratic members of the five person board of the FCC took the unusual step of writing an article for distribution in the popular press urging the public to sit up and pay attention to what the majority Republican members of the board are attempting to do with a vote on December 14 to repeal net neutrality rules. Jessica Rosenworcel asked the public to make a fuss with the FCC and with Congress to try postponing the vote until after public hearings. The vote will likely still take place on the 14th, and the outcome is certain considering the three to two Republican majority on the Commission board. The next step will probably see the rule changes challenged in court, with litigation taking years.
Congress could change how a regulatory agency like the FCC goes about its business so that it is less swayed by the variable political winds, but it appears there is little will in the Republican Congress to overrule the agency and tie it down to enforcing a net neutrality law enacted by legislators. There is some discussion in technology circles that introduction of 5G wireless service in the next few years will change the competitive landscape since 5G speeds and bandwidth will challenge the monopoly of wired service providers for the crucial last mile of service to customers’ homes. Until now, wireless internet service providers like Verizon and AT&T could not compete with wired providers like Comcast and Charter because their service was slower and not capable of handling the bandwidth demands of home users piling up GigaBytes of usage every month, usually by streaming video.
5G may indeed change the competitive landscape between a few large internet service provider companies as it rolls out, but customers will still have to deal with fast lanes and slow lanes imposed by whichever gatekeeper they sign up with for service. The proposed FCC rule changes will allow ISPs to charge different content providers varying amounts based on tiers of service, rather than providing equal access to all as they are required to do now since they are regulated as public utilities.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who began service on the Commission in 2012 and was confirmed by the Senate for an additional term in 2017.
When FCC Chairman Ajit Pai first proposed rolling back net neutrality rules early this year, Comcast said essentially “Trust us, we would never take full advantage of the regulatory opening to charge a premium for faster internet service.” As if anyone would believe them, particularly anyone who had any experience at all as a Comcast customer! Lately Comcast has walked back their earlier statement with some linguistic mumbo-jumbo that’s supposed to make people think they won’t be doing what they intend on doing when the time comes and they can get away with it, which will be to charge a premium for faster internet service and, as a bonus, no data caps! Comcast’s duplicity surprises no one, and their pleas for trust are laughable.
The best thing that can be hoped for by people who wish to keep a relatively open and inexpensive internet beyond December 14 is that the rule changes will be tied up in the courts for several years, and to some extent that will tie the grasping hands of some internet service providers who are eager to take advantage of the new rules to gouge content providers and customers. Beyond that, the best hope for a decisive, long term answer to the problem will have to come from Congress, which in the current environment does not appear possible, but may be so after a change in party dominance in Congress as a result of the 2018 election. The FCC needs to be more an enforcer of rules Congress makes, and less its own rule maker.
When it comes to net neutrality analogies, many people opt for the internet superhighway one where there may be fast lanes and slow lanes or, on a content neutral internet, all lanes are equal. Since it’s hard to bring in the gatekeepers who set the rules for the internet on that kind of analogy, it might be easier to think of net neutrality or non-neutrality as related to a toll plaza, where the gatekeepers, such as AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast, charge different amounts and cause varying delays to the vehicles attempting to pass through their gates.
On a net neutral superhighway, the gatekeepers at the toll plaza charge roughly the same amount to every vehicle and pass them all through with equal alacrity. On an internet superhighway that is not neutral and grants wide discretion to the gatekeepers at the toll plaza, toll charges vary a great deal from vehicle to vehicle, and the gatekeepers might also hold up certain vehicles, making them late to their destination.
The Great Belt Fixed Link toll plaza in Denmark. Different colored lights indicate different payment methods. Photo by heb.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, after going through the motions of a public comment period through the summer on his proposed, Orwellian-named “Restoring Internet Freedom” gutting of the 2015 net neutrality rules, announced today that the FCC board of three Republicans and two Democrats will vote on rules changes on December 14. The fix is in, as it has been since early this year when Mr. Pai expressed his intention to overturn the 2015 rules, and there is little doubt how the majority will vote on December 14. It is still possible between now and then to bring enough public pressure to bear on Congress for that body to influence either the FCC board vote, which is not likely, or put in motion legislation to override FCC rules on rescinding net neutrality, which is the more likely outcome, if there is to be a positive one at all for neutrality advocates.
Regulation of internet access is too vital to leave up to the unelected five member board of a regulatory commission. The current FCC board has also recently demonstrated its irresponsibility to the country at large when it did away with rules preventing monopolization of local media markets by a single company, recklessly opening the gates to allow Sinclair Broadcasting to consolidate its control across the country.
In the 1974 film Blazing Saddles, directed by Mel Brooks, the citizens of Rock Ridge set up a toll booth to slow down the bad guys coming to destroy their town. Warning: foul language.
Congress could put an end to FCC favoritism toward big business by passing legislation, instead of allowing the FCC board to vote on rules after the formality of a meaningless public comment period, since the board Republicans will almost certainly vote against net neutrality despite the majority of public comments in favor of it. Congress is also beholden to big business, but at least it retains some ability to bend to the public will. As it stands now, after the December 14 vote the new rules will likely get challenged in court, and the legal struggle will eat up years, and all the while the internet gatekeepers will make fortunes extorting internet users who need to pass their toll booths.
This past Wednesday, July 12, many internet companies and net neutrality advocacy groups participated in a “Day of Action to Save Net Neutrality”. They were attempting to influence Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai and his two fellow commissioners during the public comment period on reversing the 2015 FCC net neutrality rules, or as Chairman Pai would have it, “Restoring Internet Freedom”.
2017 caricature of Ajit Pai by DonkeyHotey.
The public comment period is open until mid-August and is all well and good, but based on Chairman Pai’s previous comments as well as recent remarks, the entire thing is merely a charade to satisfy bureaucratic regulations. After the public comment period is over, Chairman Pai and the other Republican on the Commission’s board will vote to roll back net neutrality and deal with the consequences in court over the next few years. The FCC board has space for five commissioners, but currently there are only three, two Republicans and one Democrat. [Editor’s note: For an accessible version of the Wikipedia page about the FCC, click here; the amount of commissioners listed on the page may have changed since this post was written.]
A fantasy scene from the 1983 film A Christmas Story, with Peter Billingsley as Ralphie, and Tedde Moore as his teacher, Miss Shields.
The recent remarks from Chairman Pai that make a mockery of the public comment period have to do with his off-hand dismissal of the sheer number of genuine letters, calls, and emails in favor of net neutrality on the grounds that numbers will not sway him, only the content as he judges it. Oh. In that case, he may be judging these comments, or compositions, based on grammar, originality, penmanship, and interesting presentation. Please have them all on his desk by mid-August, as late comments will be marked down for tardiness.
Doris Day sings the theme song from her 1958 film co-starring Clark Gable.
Mr. Pai, formerly a lawyer for Verizon, has not shown as much critical judgment of the anti net neutrality comments the FCC has received, many of them astroturfed. Those comments must have been from the “D” students, and Mr. Pai, in the interest of fairness to everybody, but particularly to them, has decided to overlook their faults and boost their grades at least to “C”. The smarty pants crowd will take what marks Mr. Pai gives them in the interest of Restoring Internet Freedom to Verizon, Comcast, CenturyLink, AT&T, and other mega-millions Internet Service Providers (ISP). There’s the level playing field everyone likes to believe in, and then there’s the reality of the playing field groundskeepers have groomed to suit the home team. To get all these mixed metaphors to agree, think of the grading curve fix which benefits major sport athletes in school. Verizon? A+!
“When you take the UNCF model that, what a waste it is to lose one’s mind, or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is.”
― Vice President Dan Quayle, speaking at a luncheon for the United Negro College Fund on May 9, 1989, mangling the Fund’s slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
Is the internet making us dumber? stupider? how about less bright? Listicles like this one could be one reason why we might not be that smart anymore. Maybe they’ve helped make us smarter than we used to be. Did listicles ever exist outside the internet, meaning a long, long time ago? Maybe in magazines, most of which were not meant for serious people, the way newspapers were, way back when.
Mel Brooks shows us an alternative past involving lists and tablets in his 1981 movie History of the World – Part 1.
Anyway, enough history. Here we go ―
Before the internet, you needed to know and remember stuff, because you couldn’t just look it up online at the drop of a hat. You maybe could find out from a book, if you knew where to find one.
Because you can look up practically anything now on the internet, some people think it’s making us smarter, especially about what our favorite celebrities have been up to lately.
Without the internet, we couldn’t check on what our friends had for dinner and all the cool places they’ve been out to eat, unless we called them, which we don’t want to bother with, just text. Everything would have to be texts, which is probably okay.
Spending lots of time playing computer games is good because it trains you for a good job with the military remotely piloting drones to drop bombs on terrorists over in their country from an undisclosed location somewhere else, and that’s really smart because otherwise they’d be over here blowing themselves up.
Knowing a lot of internet and computer stuff is also a smart way to get a job with the National Security Agency (NSA) looking into everybody’s business.
There’s no need to develop social skills when there are social media networks like Facebook and Twitter around.
The internet is also good for getting things off your chest by commenting online, and you don’t have to worry about being nice about it, because on the internet no one knows who you are, unless they’re with the NSA.
It used to be that before the internet you could be bored a lot. Now with smartphones and tablets that you always have with you, you don’t ever have to be bored and think about stuff, because you can do other things online, like Facebook or Twitter again.
According to Hebb’s Law, which you can look up online, when your brain spends a lot of time doing something, it gets smarter doing that thing. Even though the brain is mostly fat, it’s like a muscle that way.
Your brain is wired just like the internet. Well, actually, since your brain was here first, especially if you were born a generation or more ago, the internet is wired like your brain. Not that any central authority planned it that way, it just happened. If you’re an old person, that’s probably why you might not understand everything about the internet, because you have to think about it, instead of being wired up ready to go from early on.
Mike Judge shows us a possible future in his 2006 movie Idiocracy. Okay, it might be more than just a possible future and might be closer to now than is comfortable. Warning: foul language.
Okay, that pretty much wraps it up. It was fun. Now you know the internet isn’t necessarily making us any dumber, just different, but don’t think about it too hard or your brain’ll seize up and crash like you drank something really cold really fast. You can’t email Microsoft tech support about that.
Buffalo Bob Smith of “The Howdy Doody Show” with the Peanut Gallery
Some may remember the 1950s television program “The Howdy Doody Show” and its studio audience of children who were known as the Peanut Gallery. The show started on radio in 1943 and adopted the designation of peanut gallery for its audience from vaudeville, where it referred to the rowdy denizens of the cheap seats, who often heckled the performers and pelted them with peanuts. In adopting the peanut gallery term “The Howdy Doody Show” cleaned up the associations from earlier uses of the term to the point it became synonymous with that program, at least for that generation. As a side note, the comic strip Peanuts borrowed its name from the Howdy Doody version of the peanut gallery.
The vaudevillian archetype of a peanut gallery has never gone away, of course, as there have always been venues for the unruly mob to express themselves in anonymity. In the past, the opportunities were limited. Now, anyone with a computer and a desire to vent can post a comment online. Never before has the peanut gallery found a forum with as wide a reach as the internet. They are no longer the cute, freckled tykes of “Howdy Doody,” however; now they are known as Trolls.
Many online publications, which at first welcomed comments from their readers for various reasons, have been rethinking their policy after discovering a comments section that is not moderated eventually descends into a cesspool of vitriol largely stirred up by trolls, while moderating a comments section costs time and money. Some publications have decided to do away with their comments section altogether (the policy this website follows, by the way). There are websites which have found some success encouraging commenters to moderate each other with up or down votes on comments.
Anonymity online does a great service promoting and protecting free speech, even when the words someone chooses to use when exercising their right to free speech aren’t agreeable or important. While anonymity encourages the outspokenness of someone who has a worthwhile contribution to make, it does the same for someone who doesn’t. Who is to decide what is worthwhile? You are, for yourself, as others are, for themselves. Trolling can’t be legislated away or even moderated away entirely. It can be shut out, though unfortunately at the price of shutting out worthwhile comments as well. In the end, the best practice for many internet users is probably still the one expressed by some sage in the early days of the internet who advised “Don’t feed the trolls.” They’ve got their own peanuts, after all.
By VS6507 (Own work) A sign saying “don’t feed the trolls” on a mountain Fløyen in Bergen, Norway
“Online Privacy and the Founding Fathers” by Matt Shirk
The comedian George Carlin used to riff on oxymorons, phrases he found absurd such as “military intelligence” and “business ethics.” To that list we could add “online privacy.” The internet has always been a public place which gives people the illusion of private communication because of how they access it, from a handheld device or from their own computer. Recently in a ruling on a class-action lawsuit concerning Yahoo’s practice of scanning emails, a federal judge affirmed that online privacy is not for everybody.
In the lawsuit brought against Yahoo by email users who did not use Yahoo’s email service but corresponded with people who did, Judge Lucy Koh of the U.S. District Court for Northern California signed off on a settlement which allows Yahoo to continue scanning the emails of non-Yahoo users without their consent. The major change from Yahoo’s previous practice is that it must do so only while the emails are on its servers, rather than while they are in transit.
That satisfies the letter of the law while doing nothing to redress the grievances of non-Yahoo email users. The four plaintiffs in the lawsuit received $5,000 each. The Judge awarded the plaintiffs’ lawyers 4 million dollars in total. A 45 page PDF of the settlement is here, and the summary starts at page 40. Google is being sued in a similar class-action which is pending before Judge Koh.
Since most people don’t fully read the terms and conditions before signing up for online services, it’s doubtful whether many users of Yahoo, Google, or similar free webmail services are aware those companies are scanning their emails for the purpose of targeted advertising, as well as scanning the other half of the exchange coming from their correspondent. Other users who are aware of the scanning are resigned to accepting it as the price of free webmail. And the “price of free” is another oxymoron Mr. Carlin himself might have gleefully noted.