Friday, October 15, 2010

Solving the Wrong Problems on the World Wide Web

Today’s Deep Tech column by Stephen Shankland for CNET News provides yet another example of intense innovation applied to a technology that may be more problem than solution.  The topic involves CSS and the role it is likely to play in the online publication of newspapers:

Good news for anybody with a newspaper who needs to reckon with Internet publishing: the man behind a key Web technology has your needs in mind.

After years of relative obscurity, the Web formatting standard called CSS, or Cascading Style Sheets has come into its own, taking a starring role as the mechanism for building a new generation of interactive, elaborate Web pages. CSS is growing in new directions now, and the technology's original creator believes its next direction for improvement will be dealing with more complicated Web page layout chores.

"There is important work left to be done for layout," Hakon Wium Lie, who is also Opera's chief technology officer, said in an interview here. The new CSS3 under development now can handle multi-column text arrangements, "but you couldn't replicate a printed newspaper in CSS."

Now there's work under way to address that with CSS modules called grid layout and template layout, Lie said.

"You paint a layout with ASCII art," a sort of visual design made out of text directly in the CSS code, Lie said, "then fill content into that. It's an experimental specification, but one I think has that compactness and terseness and minimalism that's part of CSS but still allows you to do quite advanced layouts."

Even though the Web is expanding from online documents to online applications, publishing is still very important. In particular with the arrival of the iPad and other tablets, tools to create a polished, flexible layout are essential as publishers seek to capitalize on the medium.

It is that last sentence that gives me the most concern.  I have had several friends show me how happy they are with their iPad, and they all seem to delight in pulling up a digital version of The New York Times that looks like the physical one.  I appreciate why print editions developed this format.  There is a lot to be said for taking in multiple stories at a single glance, and that glance is likely to have a strong influence on what you do when you start reading in earnest.  However, I must also report that I have yet to see any of my friends actually doing such “reading in earnest;”  all I have seen has been a lot of facile page flipping, none of which demonstrated the key question, “How do I go from here to the rest of the story?”

This raises the question of just how important layout is in the digital world.  Just about every news site I visit through Firefox has made its own set of design decisions regarding basic appearance.  Each has assumed a characteristic style, and most of the good ones not only facilitate my drilling down into the story I wanted to read but also bring my attention to other stories without unduly interfering with my focus.  My only real annoyance is that almost all of them suffer from “invasive” advertising;  and, on the worst of them, the layout seems to have been designed to bring attention to the advertising, rather than the news content.  This is likely to be a key point in any future impact of CSS, which may end up making it easier to support more advertising content, probably at the expense of screen real estate (so limited on an iPad) for the news I actually want to be reading.

This problem may have even more serious implications.  As I become more comfortable with what I can do in the digital world, my writing about music has become richer in its use of media.  Thanks to the expired-copyright sources available through IMSLP, I can now illustrate points I want to make with images of specific measures from the score.  The same goes for discovering other useful images, such as my recent encounter with an autographed photograph of Ferruccio Busoni;  and I suspect it will not be long before I start browsing YouTube for video clips of particular performers I happen to be reviewing.  I would hate to think that my own efforts to engage media to make my points as clearly as possible might be constrained, if not prevented, by layout standards that do not allow for the flexibility that those media require.

Most important, however, is yet another reminder that the appearance of newspaper stories is ultimately a dangerous distraction from the more substantive debate over the future of journalism.  As I cannot say too many times, the crisis in journalism has more to do with the level of serious professionalism in how journalism is practiced than with the surface features that confront the reader.  Serious readers can be very tolerant of appearances once they have decided that what they are reading deserves full attention;  and, from this point of view, the iPad may be dealing a high-impact blow to journalism-as-practice by favoring the interests of imitating an experience whose imitation may be both irrelevant and detrimental.

There will, of course, be the usual counterargument.  Technology is always a double-edged sword.  We just have to be careful in how we use it;  but, in an age in which once great newspapers are desperately hanging on to survival, just who is going to exercise that care?  Do we really want to get behind an innovation whose ultimate result may be even more advertising cluttering up our screens?

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