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Benjamin Bojko: Are HTML shortcuts damaging to your creativity?

Big Spaceship technologist Benjamin Bojko suggests we need to break things and tear them apart to push for great results rather than good

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BIO: Benjamin Bojko ventured to Brooklyn in 2009, leaving Germany to become a technologist at Big Spaceship. He thrives on tearing things apart with code to create emotional and immersive experiences. For more information, visit www.bigspaceship.com

As a child, calculator watches fascinated me. Third-grade swag factor aside, I marvelled at the idea of fooling my teachers into thinking I was a fashionable math ace. They would never know of my devious plan to secretly let a machine solve my exam questions. Unfortunately, I never had the money to buy one and by the time I did, we were allowed to use calculators anyway. In the end, not only did I have to learn to read time off that analog watch I got for my birthday, but I also had to take the hard route and learn how to add, subtract, multiply and divide.
I often imagine what could have been if I had used a calculator from first grade. I would have blasted through exams as if they were a silly chore. Ultimately, I would have been stuck with entering in digits and generating abstract results in return. Would I have ever grasped the potential of what I could actually do with analysis, trigonometry and the like? I might never have realised that I can solve anything from the navigation systems used in satellites orbiting Earth to the (debatably equally significant) trajectories of birds being catapulted at green pigs.
Fast forward from naive elementary-school self to naive present self. Coming from a Flash and animation background, I was used to a cotton-wool world. I would code something once and it would magically run on oodles of browsers and devices. It was rewarding and flexible with countless ways of solving the same problem.
However, a year ago I left this happy place and faced fresh challenges. For me, the triumphant return of HTML and web standards meant learning new technologies. I did so with my first standards project for a beverage client. As an HTML-tenderfoot, I had an advantage: I was completely oblivious to the boundaries and limitations in this new world. Unsuspecting as I was, I pushed for more and more elaborate designs and visuals with the desire to create something that would capture the level of immersion we were all used to from Flash. In the end, we were able to create something unique that bent the venerable norm of standards websites at the time. We let our idea dictate the technology.
During my first excursion to standards-land, countless late nights taught me valuable lessons. Creating expressive experiences came at the high price of fragmentation. Suddenly, we had to account for platforms, devices and browsers. Whereas creating a gratifying visual effect in Flash was a matter of applying the right timing and easing to an animation, with web standards it meant doing the same thing for one platform and then altering it entirely for others.
Luckily, Web Standards have an incredibly talented, ever-growing community ready to swoop in for the rescue. There is a startling abundance of amazing frameworks, libraries, utilities, code-snippets, gists, forks and services to solve this fragmentation with abstraction. Above all, jQuery became the Swiss Army knife of my utility belt for all things cross-browser abstraction. Suddenly, tasks I deemed as tedious were done for me automatically behind the curtains. Soon, the ubiquitous inclusion of jquery.min.js was accompanied by an ever-growing army of fellow community creations. Any complex problem that needed solving? The Internet probably had a solution ready for me, and the utility belt kept growing.
After a while I became suspicious: grid frameworks determined our layouts, Typekit chose our fonts, and animations defaulted to easeOutQuad. Building something new and unique had turned into an orchestration of pre-existing pieces. All I had to do was lay out the string and tie those pieces together.
That’s when it struck me: this utility belt had become the calculator watch. I didn’t know or understand what was going on under the hood anymore. I realised that I had started to delegate my curiosity to the Swiss Army Knife. Technology was dictating my ideas.
Abstraction isn’t inherently bad. Frameworks like Processing take away all the unnecessary baggage of low level languages. jQuery does the same deed for standards by ironing out the scattered browser landscape. However, in striving for innovation, we can’t become complacent with the defaults we’ve grown accustomed to. Every once in a while we must risk breaking things and tearing them apart to push beyond what’s just good enough into what is great.

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