Dave Totten's personal voyage to the land of IT Fluency, and other Digital Governance issues.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Fluency Milestone #2: HTML and markups

Reading Snyder's chapter on HTML really annoyed me at first, but in the days since I read it, it's actually had me thinking about things more than I had expected.

I was bugged by the redundancy of the information. I learned this much about HTML in 1995 in a journalism class at the University of Alaska Anchorage on publication design. The class was taught by Dr. Larry Pearson, a former copy editor at the Anchorage Daily News who was one of the first people I ever met to become obsessed with the Internet. He was responsible for converting the newspaper from a manual layout process to QuarkXPress (he did it overnight; editors found Macs on their desks with no warning when they arrived one day.) I remember working with the tags, fighting with uncooperative tables with invisible borders, trying to maneuver page elements around. It seemed so impossible when compared to the desktop publishing tools of the day, like Quark or Page Maker or Microsoft Publisher. Why did I have to use these abstract codes to order my page? Why couldn't I use the mouse? Wasn't this a Macintosh, after all?

But, the fact that I had to learn that much at least about the markup language did give me a sort of fluency that Snyder would be proud of. For example, when I was able to get MS Publisher to act like a WYSIWYG web publisher, I went and looked at the code it generated and was able to see that it had accomplished this trick by dropping layers upon layers of borderless tables over the page. Something did click for me when I realized that the markup tags used by HTML are based on the same idea of the markup tags I used to see on ancient WordPerfect machines back in the early 1980s. There is a clear progression of the technology, almost like the evolution of an organism, where new developments build on old ones--even though starting over from scratch might have been more efficient.

The later developments in web page design addressed all the shortcomings of HTML except ease-of-use. Computer programmers solved the issues of page layout, interaction with databases and running small programs with the tool they like best: introducing more code and more languages. Cascading Style Sheets, XML and Java are tools that are far out of the reach of the average computer user who might have been able to understand the basic concept of mark-up tags.

So, here's the fluency question for Lawrence Snyder: can the computer-using public ever hope to become fluent in Java Script, Visual Basic or XML? Or is the existence of these tools enough to put real web publishing out of reach for everyone but the technologists?


Blogger Piotr Konieczny said...

That's a good question. Let me illustrate it with a personal example:

Over a year ago, I was involved in a game design project (FreeOrion), which I eventually withdraw from, beacuse I didn't have the time to learn xml to submit already coded ideas, as the designers required (besides, I decided to dedicate all my spare time to Wiki, which seems more useful then a game development).

Any project that requires participants to learn such complicated languages is setting very high barriers for entry. But, on the other hand, do we really need to learn them to be web-literate? I doubt many people will ever became fluent with xml or Java, but:
1) they don't need them, except for very rare, specialized projects
2) they may be replaced by easier versions

7:19 PM

Blogger David Totten said...

Piotr: Your point 2) is my hope for the future. Is it possible to replace some of these tools that are based on coding with tools that can be used by regular people? I think so, but only if that's the goal of the programmers from the outset. We'll see.

10:13 AM

Blogger Luke said...

I would say that if you are going to ask for html or xml to become easier, you may as well hope to ask Microsoft to rewrite windows in basic or something- that is to say I don't know that a high degree of fluency is required to get online or if its even important. Services like the ones we use for our blogs, as well as almost any ISP package that includes hosting is likely to have some kind of WYSIWYG tools for coding a page. The quality of the code they produce is questionable of course, but good enough for most people. The next step would be those people who want their pages to stand out will take the steps necessary to go beyond their template based web design and learn how to code so they can make their page stand out.
XML is a really powerful tool and isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Pure html is being supplanted by xhtml and html+css which can make things even harder, but like I said there are tools that make it no more difficult than using Word.

I think our class is a great example of this abstraction layer at work- there are some in the class who understand the underlying structure, and there are those who avoid computers as much as they can- but we're all running websites that can be easily updated and modified, that users can comment on and link to etc. that is a huge step forward.

8:25 PM


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