Unusually useful

Cover of Unusually useful book for the web

It never occurred to me that one day books could be seen as the new vinyl records. It is surprising how fast technology is perceived to displace printed books that were here for hundreds of years. But also depressing when we have to admit how temporary something like knowledge has become. One day we learn one new thing and the next we have to unlearn it and make room for something new.

It is a well-known fact that the more we have from something, the less valuable it becomes. To what extent then have we devalued reading as an experience by merely publishing more and more literature? It is an interesting question.

To say that you are a reader today and that you still go through all material manually already places you at a perceived disadvantage compared to people who claim to use speed reading or find their own data mostly from their own data-mining activities. Why seek books for an hour in the local library when billions of search results appear in less than a second? We seem to arrive at the interesting bits faster than ever before, but does this mean that our understanding has improved of how we can make them immediately practical?

Very often we need to hear or read about something repeatedly and over extended periods of time to be able to remember it. So the speed of getting familiar with something seems to remain constant. Learning for the tomorrow's exam is hard, because our time is limited and we possibly have to memorize without understanding. But if we change the time scale, then we can get familiar with that material by unintentionally stumbling over it again and again, under different circumstances and contexts, that lead us to a better appreciation of it. A couple of days ago I have encountered a text in the following spirit: "Of course will such complex mathematical formulas be hard—you look at them for the first time. But once you realize that they are everywhere and you have spent sufficient time to become familiar with them, they will start to feel quite natural to you and you will be trying to use them for even more complex things." Hence, the true moment when we have learned something seems to be when we no longer even perceive it, but instinctively use it.

Usually my way of learning has always been through repetition over time, but I noticed an interesting thought pattern here. Seeing something for the first time = "Let's accept this even if it may be wrong", second time = "I may have seen this before", third time = "I saw this before", fourth time = "If I saw it so many times in multiple sources, then it must be true". Is this now simply information or has it suddenly become knowledge? Still hard to tell, not unless it has been used and has proven to work.

I haven't inspected for a long time what kind of old vinyls I am still keeping. Taking a look at what I was trying to get familiar with years ago made me somewhat curious of how much from what I learned is still valid. The photo shows the "Unusually useful book for the web", published in 2004. This is 10 years ago. I think that this was my first book about web design and I have read it only once. It was densely packed with content to the point of overwhelming me, because at that time point everything was new to me. I felt like jumping in the pool where I had no idea how to swim. It contains interviews with many people from the web industry, where they share what worked for them and what didn't, in a very conversational style. This doesn't make it a light read since it asks many and hard questions from which every web designer would benefit even today. The technologies mentioned there were just keywords to me at that time and despite seeing their abbreviations, I had no idea how they are connected. Because only the ideas mattered to me, I wasn't paying much attention of who was saying what. Later I got the strange feeling that I have heard some names before.

The books today seem to focus more on technology rather than human needs. After all, the technology is the one that changes much faster. But this then makes these types of books more useful. Today, it is hard to imagine who would interview 50 different people, organize, structure and present their thoughts in a compelling, non-repetitive and accessible way to produce a book like this. Perhaps this "vinyl" book needs an update.

But it also led me indirectly to this question: What would be "unusually useful" for a web designer today? How have the variables changed which make a website successful?

Have we made the web more "unusually useful" as a result of being more knowledgeable or do we insist now to be "responsibly responsive" (and after 10 more years something else)?