Comic Update: Behold Leviathan, Confused

August 03, 2009

Sooner or later HTML5 will not be the most interesting topic to wax poetic about. This is not that day.

I’m usually in sync with the web-related posts written by Jeremy Keith over at his personal site, Adactio. He’s usually saying something I’m thinking (albeit with more eloquence than I could muster), or spouts some gem of wisdom that I wish I’d thought of first. As such, it is safe to say that I respect him and, normally, his opinion.

This weekend, however, he wrote firmly on the topic of HTML5 and its process, in The HTML5 Equilibrium. In doing so, he made a sort of sandwich. The opening and closing of his post were two delicious, carefully toasted buns of high quality. But firmly settled in between them was a rank egg salad segment where he detailed his view on the W3C/WHAT WG “split personality”, ruining my appetite for his creation.

I’ve never been able to stomach egg salad sandwiches.

My reaction was spawned by his discussion of the status of Ian “Hixie” Hickson as the dictator-for-life of HTML5, sitting astride a position of absolute power in how the spec is edited. As readers probably know by now, there’s been plenty of friction lately between the HTML5 efforts and every other W3C group known to man as Ian’s been refuting their expert advice in exchange for his own pseudo-expert opinion on a wide range of topics.

Keith comes to Hixie’s defense by stating that although an unelected autocrat is horrible, it can work quite well. He evokes the power of dictatorship by referencing Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan and quoting Shakespeare’s Henry V. Specifically, he states that by doing so we transfer “moral responsibility” from the populace to the dictator, then goes on to say that Ian has taken this mantle and used it evenhandedly and fairly.

In short, Jeremy uncouples the means from the ends. Leviathan, written in the 17th century, is a text that firmly opposes Separation of Powers and refutes the Right of Rebellion, claims the sovereign’s acts are incapable of being considered unjust, and makes it unjust for the populace to attempt to unseat the sovereign.

In short, do what you’d like, Hixie. It won’t be our fault, because we’ve given you all the power, and from here on out we’re blameless. But at the same time, should we disagree with you, tough for us. It’s all your show now.

And really, that’s what it’s become. The Hixie Show. The amount of “not invented here” mentality that evades the modern HTML5 spec is odious. Accessibility in HTML5 isn’t being decided by experts. Process, when challenged through W3C guidelines, is defended as being “not like the old ways”, in essence slapping the W3C in the face. Ian’s made it clear he won’t play by the rules. When well-meaning experts carefully announce their opposing positions and desire for some form of closing the gaps, Ian and the inner circle constantly express how they don’t understand. This understanding issue has reached a comedic point. When Sam Ruby pressed them on the subject during an objection by John Foliot (as noted here), Ian’s response is a glib “I don’t understand John’s concerns. He hasn’t explained them. He has just made unsubstantiated demands.

This phrase (“I don’t understand”) is used by Ian so frequently that I’m genuinely concerned. He’s ostensibly a bright man. The usual objections and positions by other parties in the HTML5 dialogue are incredibly well documented at this point, in staggering detail. To claim the inability to understand exhibits one of two traits: Either Ian is a simpleton, or he is deliberately “misunderstanding”.

I don’t think it’s the former. Ian has clearly demonstrated his phenomenal intelligence. Yet, the latter option is part of Ian’s well documented deny, delay, too late methodology for handling people. Engaging in this sort of behavior is disrespectful of his community of peers, and more than discouraging when its coming from our empowered Leviathan.

We must accept this, though. Because it’s the results that matter, right? If we get a HTML5 spec, any HTML5 spec, we should be happy about it. Despite all the assurances to the contrary, I can’t really believe that it’s acceptable to consider a product’s method of construction to be independent from its quality. If so, I should be paying far less for my garments, right?

There’s a thought process here that is so far removed from the 21st century as to be terrifying.

In today’s comic, Jeremy Keith reveals the Leviathan to the Squirrel. Things go badly. But remember, it’s only the Leviathan’s fault, because we’ve absolved ourselves of both power and responsibility.


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4 Responses to “Comic Update: Behold Leviathan, Confused”

  1. Speaking about HTML5 poetry: the HTML5 haiku contest is still running. ;) Put your thoughts about sovereigns and rebellion in a haiku format and twitter it with the hashtag #html5haiku

  2. Darn, and I had all these egg-salad sandwiches…

    Augh! In his ‘English’ document, he mentions quoting and messes up the punctuation.
    Which kind of has nothing to do with this (but since you linked that text, I decided to look around).

    Anyway, as for the spec:
    I don’t think he’s QUITE so bad as everyone says. He has a lot of experience, and generally sees those problems that a lot of the WHATWG members miss completely. There’s really nothing acceptable about his constant use of “I don’t understand” in well-discussed topics. I can see that he’s being contrary without adequately dispelling others’ doubts.

  3. Last Friday, I set into motion an illustration of why the WHAT WG process is flawed – using WHAT WG rules. As an alternative Editor, I invoked ‘benevolent dictator’ status and made a minor change to an existing document that is clearly licensed [1] to allow me to do so. I then submitted that
    alternative Draft to the Working Group Chairs for consideration as the next Working Draft. [2]

    By all appearances now, this has caused a state of ‘crisis’ within the Working Group as there are now 2 Editors Drafts vying for the status of next Working Draft. While I can appreciate that this is seen by many as a real issue, (and others as a ‘political game’) it is an issue that was created *simply because I used the WHAT WG rules of engagement* instead of the W3C rules.

    (Read the entire posting here: )

    [1 "The WHATWG version of this specification is available under a license that permits reuse of the specification text." ]
    [2 ]

  4. @Michael – I don’t think Ian is a bad man. I don’t think the WHAT WG is filled with bad people, either. I do agree that what is going on is unacceptable, though. I think they have decided that the ends justify the means, and are deliberately creating the facade of democratic participation with the full knowledge that in fact that their participating is purely dictatorial. Consider that Jeremy Keith’s post simultaneously states that Ian is a benevolent dictator, and at the same times says WHAT WG participation is democratic. You can’t have it both ways. The merits of either case can be debated, but pretending that both are occurring is deception. And deception doesn’t simply doesn’t belong in the process.

    (I don’t believe Jeremy is engaging in deception himself. I believe he’s trying to explain the group as it tries to explain itself, which I see as flawed.)

    One could argue that being allowed to petition the king constitutes democracy, much as you can pretend that mailing to the WHAT WG mailing list means you have some sort of proportionately valued voice. But of course, that isn’t true.

    @John – I hope your efforts have a positive, direct impact on what’s going on. I don’t believe HTML5 is quite a train wreck yet, but I believe at it’s present course, it will be by October when Last Call arrives. (Insert Ballad of Casey Jones metaphor here).