The Battles for Peace and Web Standards: Two Battles We Shouldn’t Have To Fight

In which I pine for the Democratic Web to quickly win the Battle for Peace and the Battle for Web Standards: two causes near and dear to many of us.

The thing I love about the Web is that it’s highly democratic. Every person has a voice and can contribute to the conversation, whatever it may be. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in political blogs, where everyday folk like you and me can get right in the middle of the debate. Howard Dean’s campaign blog was an early signal to the rest of the campaigners: if you don�t have the blog effect you don�t have enough. The conventions were a cementation of the arrival of the bloggers: both parties included 20-30 bloggers on their invite list.

I don’t think it is a stretch to say that the Web and blogging is a huge turning point in media coverage in particular and democracy in general. Ideas are spreading (and being forgotten) faster than ever before. If we can represent each of these ideas clearly and thoughtfully discuss them, then democracy will blossom.

Two battles, though, seem to be resistant to this democratic openness that the web exhibits every day. They are battles that we shouldn’t have to fight: that are, I believe, supported less fervently because they seem so obviously unnecessary; these battles shouldn’t exist.

One is the Battle for Peace, and the continuing struggle to show those in power that War should be the last of all possible resorts, no matter what people are involved, what party is in control of the White House, or who wants to win the next election. This battle has been waged ever since humans had the intellectual power to decide not to fight. But the battle has been getting louder since 9/11 and its aftermath, when the U.S. responded to terrorists by bombing Afghanistan and then, after failing to capture Osama bin Laden, began the subsequent bombing of Iraq, which to this day has not been directly connected with the terrorist acts that started it all.

Almost every American supported the country’s initial response of going into Afghanistan. After all, these were the terrorists who killed thousands of people in New York and Washington and Pennsylvania. But the war in Iraq was a different story. Many people, including myself, saw that the U.S. was not in the position of last resort. There was no imminent threat, and simply put, these were not the terrorists who threatened us at that time. To us, there is simply no question that this was Wrong. Thousands of web sites, including this one, protested the War on Iraq by replacing their home page with ones sharing the same sentiment: War in Iraq is Not the Answer.

Because this was, and remains, an unnecessary act of War to many Americans, we tend to become cynical about it, not knowing what we can do to help stop it. We suppress our basest feelings of disgust and jump feverishly into the fray of the political arena: but we only end up distracted from the real issue of innocent Americans and Iraqis dying. We try to show those who continue this treachery that we know better than them, and we tend to do this in the language of sarcasm, Doonesbury-style. But has this been effective? Or has sarcasm become the refuge of the powerless?

The other battle, though not as timely as the one currently in the news, is the Battle for Web Standards. More specifically, the battle for widespread implementation of Web Standards on the Internet. This affects Americans nearly as often as the Battle for Peace, but it goes on in a much less spectacular fashion and the stakes aren’t life and death. This one is near and dear to me, though, because I make my living, in part, by designing web pages using Web Standards.

The Battle for Web Standards is being fought against an equally powerful juggernaut as the Battle for Peace. The foes are large corporations like Microsoft who control the software that most people use every day to communicate with all our loved ones, our friends, our colleagues, and fellow researchers in life. By failing, in such obvious fashion, to support Web Standards and choosing, instead, proprietary implementations, these corporations are stifling the good of everyone for selfish reasons. They place their own monetary gain above all else, and hinder the efforts of groups like the World Wide Web Consortium, whose efforts are focused on providing a place for new standards to grow.

The benefits of Web Standards are far-reaching. But for all the niceties they provide us designers, like the ability to design cross-platform, accessible, backwards (and forwards?) compatible web sites, the vision realized by their implementation is much nobler. It is a vision of enabling communication between all people of the world in the hopes of increasing understanding across cultures and countries. In other words: enabling democracy. This understanding could not come at a better time.

Thus the corporations who stifle the growth of standards alienate people who recognize the obvious goodwill of those who push for their adoption: technologists, designers, and thoughtful companies. It is an anomaly to us: we cannot understand why one company or a small group would want to control something that has such potential to benefit mankind in innumerable ways. Like the War on Iraq, this perversion of power seems to us just simply Wrong.

To state that we support these battles less fervently because they shouldn’t have to be fought doesn’t mean that they are not being fought. The protesters in New York City during the Republican National Convention and grassroots groups like the Web Standards Project fight them every day.

But what if they don�t succeed? What if the powers that be continue on?

Should they continue on, the powers that be would have to ignore the growing voices echoing in that great democratic medium now enjoying a proliferation unlike any other medium in history: the Web. Thankfully, this can only happen for so long.

Witness the recent flap over Wikipedia, started by a staff writer of a Syracuse, NY newspaper who told librarians not to use the publicly-editable online encyclopedia because it was “untrustworthy” and the idea was “repugnant”. However, further debate and discussion has suggested that Wikipedia actually heals itself relatively quickly, with contributors overwriting vandalism�in about 5 minutes.

5 minutes. That’s how long it takes Right to overcome Wrong on some parts of the Democratic Web. I only wish we could win all such unnecessary battles so quickly.

Published: September 14th, 2004