The politics of progressive enhancement

Design is thoroughly political. Architects shape our environment, advertisements and propaganda sell messages, product design drives our economy.

Many manifestos have been written championing design's potential for effecting political change. The Futurists and Constructivists dreamed of a society transformed in the gleaming image of new technology. Modernists sought to codify design into a set of formal principles fit for building a rational, effective, democratic society. Josef Muller-Brockmann, for example, prefaced his Grid Systems in Graphic Design with a concise summary of the political objectives of the International Style:

Design which is objective, committed to the common weal, well composed and refined constitutes the basis of democratic behaviour. Constructivist design means the conversion of design laws into practical solutions.

Post-modernist design gives up that high-mindedness, celebrating freewheeling subjective design that goes with the flow of the marketplace.

What about web design? Election day is here at last and I thought it might be interesting - and hopefully not too esoteric - to imagine a political system shaped according to the principles of the philosophy that guides much modern web design: progressive enhancement.

I've long thought that progressive enhancement might have wider applicability as a useful tool for considering political and economic issues. Even the name implies that connection. And I'm reassured I'm not alone: before writing this I did a quick search to see if anything has been written along the same lines and found a cluster of very interesting posts: see Benjamin Hoh's fascinating piece From degradation to enhancement: redesigning society, and the eloquent responses from Barry Saunders and Aaron Gustafson.

There are three aspects of progressive enhancement, I think, that have some interesting parallels in political theory.

1) Universal accessibility

Progressive enhancement's core principle is universal accessibility: a website should be designed so as to ensure that its essential content and functionality are available to all users, irrespective of their device, browser, physical location or ability.

Users might access a web page using a cheap Nokia or Android phone tuning in and out of a flickering connection on the train, or they might be reading it in the office using the latest iMac with Retina display. Both sets of users will be able to access progressively enhanced content, regardless of their technological means. The page won't be so heavy that the user on the train won't be able to download it, and any non-essential special effects and features will only be sent to users with better devices.

This is in keeping with the founding principle of the web, that it should be an open communications medium open to everyone, everywhere, regardless of location, browsing device or physical ability.

2) Flexibility

So a progressively enhanced website should work for everyone. But that doesn't mean we'll all see exactly the same thing. We don't need or want grey uniformity of browsing device and experience, and strict regulation of bandwidth services to ensure it's the same for everyone at all times. Progressive enhancement recognises it's good to let a thousand technological flowers bloom. There's room for cheap feature phones, 27 inch desktops, and web enabled fridges. Users get a browsing experience tailored to the characteristics and capabilities of the technology at their disposal. Small devices might just get text. Desktop workhorses might get some nice images along with the text. And it might be possible to tap into features like the geolocation API to further enhance the experience for the latest smartphones.

Whatever, one size won't fit all: progressive enhancement tries to take advantage of the best new technology as well as protecting users with devices that lock them into the 'past'. The quality of the user experience is enhanced for better devices, but, crucially, everyone gets the most important thing: content.

3) Standards

Progressive enhancement is made possible by the wonder of web standards. I say 'wonder' because it is quite extraordinary to think that the fierce competitors that make our web browsers - Google, Microsoft, Amazon et al - have been willing to commit to a common technological framework, a set of rules that is ultimately in the best interests of all. All contemporary browsers support the web standards framework and so can be relied upon to display web pages written using those standards. This frees designers to develop a single browser-agnostic site that will work everywhere.

That's a somewhat rose-tinted account: there are of course subtle differences in the respective implementations of the standard that keep life 'interesting' for designers. But for all its imperfections the ideal of a universal coding standard has been realised. All of the major players have condescended to embrace a common set of rules that has made things better for everyone. Without standards the web would break, split into competing worlds, each with its own standards and rules of admission.

I think these principles map quite nicely to some fundamental political concepts:

1) Accessibility = Equality of opportunity

Progressive enhancement's commitment to accessibility corresponds to the political principle of equality of opportunity, the belief that political, economic and social frameworks should be designed so as to make it possible for everyone to participate, not just those best placed to do so.

Liberal democracies craft mechanisms to help achieve that ideal, including universal education, subsidised training, public health care, and welfare benefits. The political left and right disagree on the appropriate mix of these elements, but there's a remarkably wide consensus that government should provide some kind of support, a 'welfare state'.

2) Flexibility = Political and economic freedom

Equality of opportunity isn't the same as equality of outcome. People have diverse abilities, aspirations and ambitions, making inevitable significant economic and cultural differentials. Efforts to engineer society to realise a single pattern for living, a 'ideal' way of life, lead to authoritarianism.

Progressive enhancement recognises difference, complexity. It acknowledges technological progress, and works with the fact that different devices will deliver different user experiences. It merely seeks to ensure information is open to everyone.

Applied to the political realm that principle implies social democracy, the system prevalent in much of Europe that seeks to allow the free market to flourish without giving rise to and entrenching economic inequalities that restrict opportunities for the vulnerable. The market is given rein to generate wealth, but it operates within a social democratic framework that provides support for those who can't participate, or who are just looking for a way in.

3) Standards = The rule of law

As we've seen progressive enhancement assumes that the web can only move forward if all stakeholders agree to define and abide by a common set of rules.

That corresponds to the political ideal of equality before the law. Participants within a liberal democracy agree to abide by rules for the greater good of all. Political liberty implies restraint as well as expression: it presupposes order, a mutually agreed framework that ensures freedom and individual creativity can be exercised whilst respecting the integrity of others. We might resent abiding by certain laws, or paying taxes, but if we don't society splinters into a free for all, impinging the liberty of all but the strongest.

It seems, then, that the principles that guide progressive enhancement are very similar to those enshrined by liberal democracy: accessibility, equality of opportunity, recognition of diversity and complexity, universally accepted rules, a guaranteed minimum level of provision.

That's to be expected of course: it's inevitable that the principles governing the development of the web, any technology, will be rooted in the ideals of the society in which it is embedded, in which it arose.

But I do find it intriguing that, even when considered only briefly in the course of a short post like this, progressive enhancement emerges as a distinctly social democratic ideal, with it's overriding concern for equality of access, an ideal which designers, standards bodies and manufacturers have gone out of their way to support. There's not much agonising over whether users with poorer devices or connections 'merit' inclusion, whether ownership of the latest device is an indication of superior 'virtue'. Everyone is simply accepted as a valid and respected participant.