Web Industry Prattle, Direct From Seattle (Part II)

Day 3: It was only eight in the morning, but the unnaturally stifling heat was beginning to ratchet up again as I walked through the Emerald City to the second day of Web Design World. Emily had stayed behind, dozing comfortably in our air-conditioned hotel room while I prepared for another helping of snarky lectures and greasy sales pitches. The catered breakfast was functional—bagels and coffee—and I was stuck at a table with two shy, taciturn IT guys from Texas and Alabama who didn’t seem too excited to be attending the conference for the first time.

I couldn’t blame them, because I knew that bailing on our crude attempts at networking would only hasten the Boston flashbacks for me—at least two of the day’s sessions would be repeats from last time. I was still unprepared for the oncoming déja vu, though, because it hit faster and stronger than I’d expected. At showtime, the CSS guru from yesterday swaggered into the packed main room to deliver his spiel on interface design, coming out swinging in favor of something like design eugenics.

“My mission in life is to make the world better via good design,” he thundered, “and if that involves treacherous things like teaching your managers how to be competent, tasteful designers, then so be it! Muahahahaa!!”

Hoary laugh lines got courtesy chuckles, especially when ye olde CNN-versus-Fox website compare-contrast was deployed to predictable effect, and every tired swipe at the dead horse of Web 2.0 earned a few more conspiratorial cackles from the faux-jaded crowd. Everyone only truly perked up when the speaker reached his thesis, which was delivered with the force of all ten commandments combined.

“I call it an ‘aesthetic usability principle,'” he crowed, relishing the vice-like rhetorical grip upon our delicate designerly sensibilities, “and it boils down to a simple truth: prettier things are easier to use. Your mileage may vary, of course, but…”

He trailed off, lost in contemplation, but there was nevertheless much ooooh-ing and aaah-ing among the peanut gallery, who didn’t seem to realize the evil buried in that bald assertion. I shuddered to think how my ex-girlfriends would have contrasted that principle with my younger, user-unfriendly psyche. I mean, prettier things may indeed be easier to use, but would they truly be equal to the dirty work of uglier things? Or would uglier things be useful for only for a short period of time? It didn’t make much sense, and I had to find out why, so I raised my hand to question the wisdom of industry expertise.

“So…isn’t that just another way to say ‘don’t hate me because I’m beautiful and therefore more useful?'” I asked. “Am I missing something here?” The presenter dismissed my query with a smirk and a shrug. “Don’t hate me because I’m right, man.” Several other geeks in the audience nodded and made other affirming grunts, which only encouraged his escalating hubris, and my lone desperate whining was soon washed away by the flood of euphoria coursing through the room.

“Make contact with your viewers! Cater to their every visual need!” he cried, and echoes of “Yes!” and “Hallelujah!!” erupted from the suddenly boisterous nerds around me. Sparks crackled through the crowd, and the speaker grew wild-eyed and manic. “Hell yes! Invite people to touch your interface! Put your hand against the screen!!

It was all too much for me, that early in the morning, but the energy level didn’t drop at all when the next presenter bounded onstage, and I knew instantly that I would be failing today’s endurance test, because this new guy was the same fiery New Yorker who busted our collective balls in Boston during back-to-back lectures on platform compatibility and effective Javascript methods. A quick glance at the day’s agenda confirmed that he’d be repeating the same grueling double-header, and my worst fears were confirmed when the compatibility session took off like a shot.

“Okay you punks,” he barked, “I don’t have any cool visuals like the last guy, so that means you’ll all have to keep up with my Microsoft-funded brilliance purely on bullet points. Check it out—I’ve been doing this shit since 1982, back when we were all bashing out COBOL on our Commodore 64’s, and there was no compatibility at all until IBM and MS-DOS. Everything was simple, which of course led to a lot of problems because oncedivergent featuresweredeveloped foreachplatformthat yieldedcompleteinsanity fromacompatibilitystandpoint! You move one thing wrong and then suddenly it’slikeJengaandyoursiteisdowninSingaporeand15minutesbehindeverythingelse—”

And then his voice swerved into the sun at speeds faster than light as my comprehension skills were demolished against the chair in front of me. I tried to clamber back into understanding, but all I heard was “Come on, debate me, you bitches! I’m a New Yorker, I can take it! You can’t stop New York City, motherfuckers!!”

“Jesus God,” gasped a middle-aged nerd to my right. “I didn’t spend 1400 dollars to get a face full of F.U.D. from Microsoft.”

The acronym brought me back to myself. “F.U.D.? I don’t get it,” I said. My neighbor rolled his eyes in a ‘you-mortals-will-never-understand’ way. “‘Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt,’ dude. Like, duh.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” I sneered back. “I guess that really was the pitter-patter of passive-aggressive melodrama I heard earlier. Are you gonna take your Linux-shaped ball and go home now, you elitist prick?”

The presenter continued shrieking in the background, switching gears to his Javascript presentation, but my neighbor merely smirked at my rudeness. “You humorless, hypersensitive Mac users are all the same,” he shot back. “Can I help it if you’re too stupid to realize that this conference totally blows? The rooms are frozen solid and the food is terrible. In fact, I think I’ll get up and leave right now. Have fun at the kid’s table, dumbass.”

The vibrations were becoming pure evil, and contagious to boot. Half the audience had left in the break between compatibility and Javascript lectures, and before I knew it I was stuck in a lunchtime session where a totally different Microsoft hack tried to convince us all that Internet Explorer 8 wasn’t a worthless pile of rat droppings. His efforts were so pathetic that they’re not even worth repeating, and my black mood continued through the next lecture on gallery pages.

Somehow I’d drifted into the adjacent, smaller conference room, and found myself wedged in the back corner of a lecture by yesterday’s chubby elf-man. His ebullient expositions on “the hunting practices of informavores” and “credit cards for people who are silly” built up the presentation’s energy to the point where endorsements of podcast interviews with “Battlestar Galactica” babes Katie Sackhoff and Tricia Helfer raised no eyebrows at all.

“That’s how people think about content anyway,” jabbered the fat man. “When cosmetology and cosmology are no different, then sweet Jesus, can Olympic amateur nail technology be far behind?”

‘Wait, what the fuck?’ I thought. How had I ended up here? I’d barely got my bearings when the presenter ended with his usual exuberant “Thank you for encouraging my behavior!!”

I can’t remember much after that; I bounced between a glacially-paced forum on “Informing Design” and a blatant sales pitch masquerading as a Flash tutorial from an oily Adobe rep who told anyone not working with CS4 to “eat your heart out, losers!” I couldn’t take it anymore, and was beginning to feel overwhelmed by complete mental failure, but Emily rescued me with a sudden barrage of text messages. My wife had been over at the Space Needle and its environs all morning, so her enthusiasm was infectious.

“You’re gonna love the Science Fiction Museum and Experience Music Project,” she wrote. “Come meet me at 4th and Pine after your final session and I’ll even take you to see the Jim Henson Legacy exhibit!” And you know what? She was exactly fucking right—I loved it. I loved the robots and aliens and muppets all so much that my nostalgic glee lasted throughout the muggy monorail ride to and from the museum and the brutal walk back up the hill to our hotel room.

It even lasted through Day 4, the next morning of packing up, checking out, and fleeing Seattle for the airport and our flight back to L.A. It even lasted through the plane buzzing a mountain, and the vapid stewardess bubbling about “You guys shoulda taken a picture of that one!” and the shitty landing in Burbank—because Em and I had one last ace to play: a concert by Elbow at the Wiltern—one of our favorite bands playing one of our favorite venues.

Hell, the comfort of knowing we’d be seeing a great show even lasted through the worst ever opening band Em and I had ever seen, because once Guy Garvey and his crew strode onstage at the last outpost of art deco in Los Angeles, everything was at last all right with the universe, and we gratefully gloried in it.