Our Ragged History

→ An audio version of this article is available.

In 1992, for my father’s 30th anniversary in the United States, he designed and printed trading cards of our family’s history. They start in pre-war Eastern Europe and span the the Holocaust, life in Romania, growing up in the ’70s in Brooklyn, and his reign as king of advertising on Madison Avenue in the ’80s (my dad was literally, literally 80’s Don Draper). For the 20th(ish) anniversary of these trading cards, we worked together to adapt them for the web.

View Julius: The Cards →

Who am I, where am I going?

Tony Soprano, Join The Club

The Julius Cards are our origin story. Jews are like Wolverine. We have been experimented on. We have egregious gaps in our history. We all secretly have bone claws. The Julius Cards began as a novelty, stemming from my dad’s love of sports, toys and trivia, but by making them, my dad has become The Archivist of our family’s history. My brother and I are too maladjusted to want families of our own, so we wouldn’t point to this digital record and say, “This is who we are. This is what we came from.” But we could, if this weren’t the end of the family line.

My family is ethnically Ashkenazi, and lived in Timisoara, Romania during the Holocaust. Many artifacts of ours were either destroyed by Nazis or left behind when my immediate family came to the States. Dozens of relatives with vivid, full lives were lost as a result of the Holocaust as well. In my family, we can’t recover that information through oral tradition. This is in part because most survivors have since died, and also because some survivors, like my grandmother, refuse to talk about the war. This is apparently not uncommon. In Jason Scott’s apposite dConstruct talk, The Save Button Ruined Everything: Backing Up Our Digital Heritage he revealed that he has seven great-cousins that he doesn’t know the names of because they were lost in The Holocaust. His family was unable to talk about the loss.

The — creatures — who designed it wanted to make sure it stayed put, barring major moonquakes. They were building for eternity.

2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke

I’ve been ruminating on some themes I’ve been exposed to over the past few years: digital preservation, the IndieWeb and futurefriend.ly movements, progressive enhancement, storytelling. They contributed to how I approached The Cards: looking both forward and backward. Longevity was the guiding design principle that informed all of my technical decisions, whereas many of my design decisions were allegorical. For example, Spinoza, the typeface, was chosen because it shares a name with Baruch Spinoza, a Jewish-born philosopher who did some work in optics, particularly on instrumentation and the design of lenses for telescopes (can see far into the past) and microscopes (very introspective). Very heavy-handed, no?

I did everything right with The Julius Cards: I published the work to “my” server, as much as it can be mine because I’m actually leasing space on a shared server, which I try not to think about too much. I didn’t use jQuery because I’m embarrassed by it. I built it to function without Javascript. All blocking requests that rely on a third-party are at the end of the document. The flash of unstyled text, while wince-worthy (for some reason? Like I’m ashamed for people to know that resources are loading?), is collateral for knowing that my work isn’t beholden to the whims of the Typekit CDN. I used a flexible, em-based layout to be screen-size agnostic. My breakpoints are based around the measure of the type, not common contemporary device widths. I spent hours beating every unnecessary byte out of every image, 112 in total, because many are sized for different breakpoints.

However, I don’t know if longevity as an ultimate goal is practical. Is it fair for me to say, “I built this thing to live forever,” because I designed for it to live forever? The web feels fractally brittle. We grandstand about how much we care about the things we make and throw around words like “craft” and “heritage” and “love” like we make a difference, but how many smart people wile away their days building what Andy and I refer to as “dog social networks”? A “dog social network” is an umbrella term to describe anything on the web that has about as much gravitas as an actual dog social network.

This brittleness is exhibited in practice regarding how we develop web today. We balk when we have to provide an experience to a minority set of underrepresented browsers or cases where we can’t rely on Javascript, and while it’s obnoxious to solve problems for a perceived set of invisible people, it’s our responsibility to make things robust if we’re proud of what we create so that people can actually experience them. There are things being built today that only function under a narrow set of constraints, and it could all be intentionally thrown away and celebrated for that. I’m referring to another unsustainable pattern where a thing is built to absorb as much of people as possible, gets sold, and decision-making power is relinquished to those who may not have the best interest of the thing or its fans in mind. This type of exchange, while seen as a success in one sense, is actually a big shame because the thing you built is dead, even if it was only a dog social network.

I don’t have enough perspective to speculate on the nature of the web, so I’m going to be myopic on purpose: What if it’s nature is to be impermanent, and that is its strength, and what allows it to evolve rapidly? I’ve worked hard to ensure that The Julius Cards will be around for a long time, but what if that’s unnatural? Anecdotally, one of my favorite things ever written is only available through the mirror at archive.org because the author’s family allowed her domain to expire when she died. When I die in a plane crash (because that is how I want to die), who will keep the servers running? Who will keep this thing alive for the length of time I intended for it to be alive for?