Ol’ John Henry

Can Web Design Beat the Machines?

February 05, 2015 •

The Legend of John Henry is the tale of a steel drivin’ African American labor hero that defeated the Machine that came through town to take his job.

John Henry was a towering man, made of solid muscle, who earned his wages laying rail nearabout the mountains of West Virgina. He could hoist a jack, lay a track, he could pick and shovel, he could throw a hammer all day long.

One day a Steam Drill company rolled into town selling its wares and John Henry wanted to drive against it, he didn’t like machines taking people’s jobs. A contest was setup: Man vs. Machine. A grueling battle took place that day and according to the legend, which turns out to possibly be true, John Henry beat the Steam Drill that day.

But John Henry Didn’t Win

Many of the tales go on to tell what happened after his amazing victory. Thirsty and hungry, John Henry went home to his wife that night where she fed and tended his tired spirit. John Henry closed his eyes to rest but never woke.

John Henry bested the Machine, but it cost him everything. He’s a hero and patron saint for the working class. The songs like to say “the Hammer got the best of [him]”, something those of us on the edge of burnout understand. While inspiring, his victory is somewhat soured by his death and we in the 21st Century – having the gift of hindsight – now know the inevitable futility of that competition as very few railroads are laid by hand these days.

In the long run, the Machines did win.

So… Are Wordpress Themes, SquareSpace, Macaw, Froont, and The Grid killing web design? My new answer is: Probably. Probably a bit.

I used to vehemently oppose the very notion that humans in web design are replaceable. Over the last year, I’ve read a handful of posts about “The End of Client Services” and have privately snarked the minutiae of these arguments until the whistle blows. Yet, over the same year, I’ve seen a handful of shops I respect and admire close their doors. My assumptions that gumption and people skills are enough to keep the doors open have been challenged.

In order to win, you need to do more than the Machine; faster, better, and for cheaper. It makes perfect sense to me why smaller shops at the end of their fiscal runway get tired and want to assimilate into a startup or some Behemoth Talent Vacuum.

New tools, Lord, Lord, so many new tools

I think the waning of s/web design/client services/UX/ is all somewhat connected to all these tools. The needs of the multi-device web are ever increasing, but timelines are inversely decreasing.

All these tools –and Lord knows there are lot of tools out there– exist to bridge the gap between speed and complexity of the Web. What if instead of hissing, confusing, angry, “not how I’d do it” steam drills, these are just the next iteration of getting things done?

All my thoughts on this “Web Designer vs. Machine vs. Startups” hubbub culminated in a couple recent episodes of Freakonomics Radio. The first was an episode with Kevin Kelly, a co-founder of Wired Magazine.

Kelly maintains a book/blog called Cool Tools, a collection of over 1,500 tools to help simplify your life. 1,500 tools would not simplify your life, nor should it, that is too many tools. But as Kelly points out, exposure doesn’t hurt and maybe there’s a tool out there that can help simplify your life.

”A tool is really just an opportunity with a handle.“ – Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine

I was struck by the profoundness of that thought and I feel it really speaks to modern day web design.

Second, in the episode titled “How Safe Is Your Job”, Stephen Dubner unearths the topic of Creative Destruction. This very topic. Are machines taking our jobs? The answer is “Yes. Inevitably”, but we’re offered a consolation. In the end, market disruption typically creates more wealth which creates new industries which creates new opportunities.

My faith in Trickle Down Economics is not that strong, but I think we’ve already seen how something like a free CMS can disrupt big box CMS, and spawn a whole new industry of themesmiths. That lowers the cost of web design but also creates a market where thousands of people in our $21 Billion Industry can create small (or large) self-sustaining businesses.

A short prophetic post from 2013 by Paul Boag about “The Decline of the Webpage” outlines his thoughts on how web pages as we know them might just fade away into history, replaced by data-mining algorithms like Readability, Google Now, or Facebook. Reports of the Web’s death are greatly exaggerated, but Paul’s vision isn’t too far fetched. Every day my search results get richer, and by “richer” I mean I click through to less sites because Google has siphoned off the information I need.

Paul goes on to explain (in his talks, podcast, and book, which I recommend) it’s similar to how we no longer have “Chief Electricity Officers” around the office helping us plug things in and making the move to light bulbs. We’ve adapted. It’s quite possible Web Design is a temporal industry that simply morphs into something different.

I’m somewhat comforted by the idea that our jobs just fade away and are replaced by something else. We’re the first step on the next 200 years of the Web.

It was in a recent Rapidfire episode on Shop Talk that Chris first harkened on the parallel to the tale of John Henry. A sucker for Web Design analogies, that one really struck a chord with me which is how we ended up here. Then on another Shop Talk with Wren Lanier we talked about how “Software is eating the Web Design Industry”. Wren wisely pointed out that as an Industry, we love and celebrate “disruption” until it comes knocking on our door. Now I’m trying my best to be less defensive and more welcoming of it all.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m stubborn enough to want to fight the Machine and let the Keyboard get the best of me. But reading John Henry’s tale as a parable for burnout, I take a step back and realize it’s probably not worth it and I should seek out the new tools that simplify my life.

There is one thing we can do. The one thing we can do for the Machines that eventually come to replace us is to set the bar as high as possible. If you’re gonna take my job, Robot, you’d better do a damn good job. I feel that’s a part of John Henry’s legacy.

Thanks to Chris Coyier for originally locking into the John Henry analogy.