From degradation to enhancement: redesigning society

In his 1984 essay “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism”, the Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson wrote that

conspiracy theory (and its garish narrative manifestations) must be seen as a degraded attempt — through the figuration of advanced technology — to think the impossible totality of the world system. [My emphasis.]

That is, our culture currently lacks the clarity to map the arcane workings of the global economy, but some of our tall stories still feature some wayward, fetishistic glimmers of that impulse. This figure of degradation reappears throughout Jameson’s work, always referring to an echo of a lost or unattainable whole: our critical sense of history, or an image of Utopia, etc.

Web designers have our own take on degradation. Graceful degradation is a way to deal with a world where different web browsers support web standards and sexy new technologies to uh, varying degrees <cough />. We design for the most complete experience, and build pages in a way that might preserve an echo of that experience in older or less capable browsers. In those dodgy browsers, the page gracefully degrades, and we exerience a still-worthwhile remnant of the lost whole — a bit like the way Jameson likes to see our radical impulses.

Meanwhile, a different design approach has emerged over the last few years, turning graceful degradation on its head: progressive enhancement is a way of designing outwards from the core content of the page. It keeps the design open to possibilities of sexiness in opportune contexts, rather than starting with a “whole” experience that must be compromised. While it might simply seem like another way to achieve graceful degradation’s exact goal from the opposite direction, this newer approach is qualitatively different: because progressive enhancement doesn’t presume a single, ideal state to fall back from, it deals much better with emerging landscapes and multiple contexts. For example, developing an integrated design that provides an equally “full” and contextually appropriate experience for both mobile and desktop browsers is easier with progressive enhancement.


So, if our degraded attempts at Utopia remind me of design’s graceful degradation, design should return the favour: what might progressive enhancement suggest in the world of culture and politics? As a designer who hungers for progressive political change, this question intrigues me. At the very least: rather than groping for a Lost Symbol of freedom, with plenty of us being left with a “graceful”, less-than-ideal experience as a fallback position from a fetishised Utopia, progressive enhancement suggests instead that a well designed experience of freedom can be built outwards from a core structure of meaning, in multiple ways, and in uneven terrain.

We should be careful not to reduce progressive enhancement in the real world to something politically unambitious, like simply “working within the system”; in web design, this would’ve been like sticking with table layouts and font tags in your markup “because that’s what we have”. That’s how ridiculous the idea of social democratic politics seems to me: you can’t redesign the world with spacer GIFs. Web designers wouldn’t enjoy our remarkably coherent landscape of enhancement options unless standardistas had advocated a clear break with the status quo, and so it is with redesigning society. (And yet this break wasn’t a spectacular event, but rather a massive sea-change that occurred over several years of bitter struggle.)

Meanwhile, you can find graceful degradation’s ambition — assuming a maximum specification, and then making do in less than ideal circumstances — in the experience of Stalinism, and that really wasn’t so graceful, was it? In the absence of a worldwide socialist revolution in the wake of World War I, Stalin’s defensive pragmatism of “socialism in one country” was clearly the wrong kind of pragmatism. (It’s no accident that orthodox Trotskyists, who utterly opposed Stalinism, still defended the Soviet Union as a “deformed workers’ state”, i.e. a degradation of a canonical design.)

On the web, progressive enhancement suggests a different kind of pragmatism — one that avoids both the conservatism of continuing to use the corrupt instutitions of embedded font tags, and the defensive contortions of trying to preserve a canonical design that was specified for only the most advanced browsers. By shrewdly taking different opportunities to enhance a core structure of freedom in different contexts, an ethic of progressive social enhancement could avoid both the increasing conservatism of social democracy on one hand, and the development of regimes that try and fail to defend a canonical idea of revolution that was only really aimed at the most industrially advanced countries.

Anyway, if you take anything from this, “you can’t redesign the world with spacer GIFs” is my favourite phrase from the above.

(Originally posted on my blog in February 2012.)