Egalitarianism and Progressive Enhancement

In 1971, John Rawls published A Theory of Justice, in which he described the following Thought Experiment he often conducted with students and other groups: The members of the Group were asked to design a society down to the very ethical principles that would guide the relationships of people within that society. They were given free reign and could create whatever kind of society they wanted—monarchy, anarchy, capitalist, communist—it was all up to them. The only stipulation Rawls placed on the experiment (and notified participants of) was that Group members were not allowed to know anything about who they would be as part of that society.

This twist to Rawl's experiment can be attributed to the “Veil of Ingorance” Theory conceived by John Harsanyi (a father of game theory), and it had a profound impact on how Groups chose to organize their hypothetical societies. 

What Rawls discovered through these experiments is that when the Veil of Ignorance is in play, people gravitate toward the deepest and broadest forms of egalitarianism in order to ensure that even the least well-off or marginalized people are treatly justly. In essence, it forces people to “walk a mile” in someone else’s shoes. After all, as a self-interested, rational human being, who would want to create a society that treats the elderly like crap if he might turn out to be elderly in that society?

The Veil of Ignorance is something we have to deal with in web design as well: As much as we may try to understand trends in our users—the browsers they use, the devices they are on, etc.—we can never know the full story. For instance, we may know that someone is coming to us on an iPhone, but we can’t (at least at this point) know whether they are using assistive technology like VoiceOver or even a braille touch feedback device. This is why concepts such as Usability and, moreover, Accessibility are so important. It’s also why progressive enhancement is my guiding philosophy—the use of progressive enhancement in web design is what egalitarianism is in society. 

Of course, whenever you start talking about egalitarianism, you attract the haters (and haters are going to hate). Here’s Gary Hull of the Ayn Rand Institute:

Egalitarianism, which claims only to want an 'equality' in end results, hates the exceptional man who, through his own mental effort, achieves that which others cannot…. Talent and ability create inequality…. To rectify this supposed injustice, we are told to sacrifice the able to the unable. Egalitarianism demands the punishment and envy of anyone who is better than someone else at anything.

Sounds a lot like the hardboiled/graceful degradation camp right? To paraphrase: Progressive enhancement is holding us back by requiring us to give all users a dumbed-down experience. Wrong! Like egalitarianism’s critics, many of progressive enhancement’s critics fail to grasp the meaning of “equality” used by egalitarians (instead using a definition more akin to that used by socialist and communist philosophies). To quote Alexander Berkman (emphasis mine):

[E]quality does not mean an equal amount but equal opportunity…. Do not make the mistake of identifying equality in liberty with the forced equality of the convict camp. … It does not mean that every one must eat, drink, or wear the same things, do the same work, or live in the same manner. Far from it: the very reverse in fact…. Individual needs and tastes differ, as appetites differ. It is equal opportunity to satisfy them that constitutes true equality… Far from levelling, such equality opens the door for the greatest possible variety of activity and development.

Were Berkman a web designer (rather than an early 20th century anarchist) he would probably fall down on the side of progressive enhancement as his statement echoes egalitarian aims perfectly: access to content and functionality without technological restriction. Progressive enhancement does not aim to give the same experience to every person on every device in every browser; that would be ludicrous. It simply asks that you honor your users (and your content) by giving them a positive experience irrespective of the their capabilities or that of their technology.

In my life, I’ve always been drawn to egalitarianism; I credit my grandparents for that. From a very young age, my grandparents encouraged me to follow the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's a simple maxim, but like egalitarianism it asks that you put yourself in someone else’s place and consider how your choices affect them. Would you want to be treated the way you treat others?

Surprisingly enough, even the Golden Rule has its critics. Whereas I see the Golden Rule as a positive motivator, some folks look at it and see it as a play to our inherent self-interest (e.g. selfishness). In other words, they argue that the message of the Golden Rule is more about you than it is about the “others.” I don’t really want to get into the whole is-a-truly-selfless-act-really-possible debate (Friends already nailed it anyway) because I think that line of thinking misses the point. To me, the point is simply consideration of the “other” in how you conduct yourself. To look outside yourself and your realm of knowledge and experience and actually empathize with another human being.

Progressive enhancement follows the Golden Rule because it is concerned with the “other”. That’s why accessibility is such a key part of building websites following the progressive enhancement philosophy. It’s about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes—someone whose abilities and situation probably differ from yours. We are a diverse lot after all.

Of course whenever I bring up the importance of acessibility, I get reactions like this: My business is selling TVs. Blind people don’t buy TVs so why should I cater to them?

Really? I know a lot of blind people with TVs. Sure, they may not be able to see it themselves, but their spouses, children, and friends likely can. And they can listen to it.

Back at my old ad agency, I had an email run-in with a department head over the National Federation for the Blind’s lawsuit againt Target. The NFB was suing Target because the company refused to address issues with the accessibility of its website that prevented blind users (among others) from being able to shop there. So I passed around a link to Derek Featherstone’s post on the subject as suggested reading. The reaction I got from the department head was that of your typical free-market libertarian:

Is Target forcing blind people to shop there? If they don’t, does Target hurt them in some way?

If it doesn’t meet web standards, why don’t blind people just shop somewhere else?

These are fair points and are the very arguments we often hear against equality legislation like the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ignoring the legal requirements and altruistic motivations behind doing something to provide equal opportunity—and ignoring the fact that in many cases the government will give you tax credits for making your business more accessible—let’s consider the business benefits of being more accessible.

To return to the TV store analogy, for all we know, a potential customer—who just happens to be blind (or even just vision-impaired)—might be on the hunt for an awesome home theater system that would be a huge sale for whoever gets her business. If she can’t easily navigate our site to find what she’s looking for—or access our physical storefront—do you think she’s going to stick around and struggle through a frustrating (or potentially humiliating) experience just to give you her money? No way, she’s going to make her purchase from somewhere that is more accomodating, that gives her equal opportunity to make a purchase by respecting her needs. So beyond doing the “right thing,” it’s in our self-interest to be as respectful as possible of our customers and potential customers—that’s good customer service.

Progressive enhancement considers customer service (a.k.a. user experience) at every level of an interface because it instructs us to provide equal opportunities to access content and functionality.

Back in January, Ben Hoh demonstrated his complete understanding of the progressive enhancement philosophy:

[Progressive enhancement] keeps the design open to possibilities of sexiness in opportune contexts, rather than starting with a “whole” experience that must be compromised. While it might simply seem like another way to achieve graceful degradation’s exact goal from the opposite direction, this newer approach is qualitatively different: because progressive enhancement doesn’t presume a single, ideal state to fall back from, it deals much better with emerging landscapes and multiple contexts. For example, developing an integrated design that provides an equally “full” and contextually appropriate experience for both mobile and desktop browsers is easier with progressive enhancement.

What a great way to put it. Eloquent, to say the least.

Interestingly, the intent of Ben’s post was not to sell people on the benefits of the progressive enhancement approach to web design but rather to ponder the question: what might progressive enhancement suggest in the world of culture and politics? It’s a subject I have been mulling over in my head for years and I thank him for finally coaxing it out of me.

Many people say it’s impolite to discuss politics (or religion), but I live for these discussions. Discussing either topic gives you so much insight into the what makes a person tick, and I love getting to know people. And despite having never formally studied it, I just love philosophy and believe that my personal philosophy (which is largely shared by the team here at Easy) greatly informs the work that we do. I hope sharing it leads to some interesting discussions both here in the comments and (just maybe) out in the real world when we run into each other—be it at conferences or the coffeshop.

P.S. - To see other perspectives on progressive enhancement and politics, I highly recommend reading Ben Hoh’s post and Barry Saunders’ follow-up.

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