T h e    c o m p u t e r    s t o r e
The customer
The computer salesperson
Location: computer store, not very busy, neon lighting, strong smell of plastic cables, and the sound of running computer ventilation.
Pardon me, could I ask you for some advice?
Welcome to our hardware store. Of course, how can I help you?
I would like to purchase a new computer.
The computer salesperson directs the customer to the laptop section.
While they walk in the same direction, the customer becomes nostalgic.
I remember clearly, going to the computer store when I was younger and seeing an army of shiny screens standing in line on the desks. A few of them were shut down; just black and shiny, waiting for someone to switch them on. The rest of the screens were a moving swarm of mesmerising screensavers. Occasionally some customers dared to touch them and suddenly stop the hypnotic animation. They would then enter the computer’s interface, finding a way through the unfriendly visuals and all the technological terms.
The computer salesperson listens.
Can I touch it?
The computer salesperson maintains a healthy level of eye contact
with the customer and keeps listening.
I remember being very fatigued by the language used on the computer’s interface at first, it seemed very distant and emotionless. Even the word ‘interface’ seemed very abstract and unclear to me, that was until recently, when I became a ‘web-developer’.
The customer forms air quotes with their fingers.
Back then, it sounded the same as interbase, metaface, webface, datameta, metatag, dataspace, interpixel, interform and so on. It was abstract yet so generic and familiar it would almost frustrate me. The reassuring moment would come when I would be browsing on the visual internet, going from website to website, with warm, original and personal graphics.
The computer salesperson listens.
I was wondering if I could try to go on the internet using an installed browser? I would like to experience it here in the store, if possible.
Sure, you may.
They both remain silent for a bit.
What do you think makes a good website?
Mmm. The internet with its websites is an abundant and hectic place… What is the difference between a website that leaves you uncommitted and aloof, and another one that fully immerses you? Is a good website one that clashes with its neighbouring websites, the ones that are open in the other tabs? Is good design a perfect amount of disharmony and familiarity?
I always wondered why I would consider a website well designed. I realised I am more sensitive to a website that evokes a conflict with the rest of the websites surrounding it. MMmmh. Sort of metaphorically zooming out and seeing all the websites, comparing them and finding similarities, to figure out the patterns, and to question them by breaking them. A good design shows the unnoticeable, the never questioned detail, and makes your initial view shift to the medium itself.
Yes! Absolutely.
With the tips of their fingers, gently pushing on the keyboard,
the computer salesperson types the name of a website in the search bar and presses enter.
The page takes a few seconds, maybe even a minute to load.
They both stare at the white window, waiting, more titillated than impatient.
It’s the highest peak of excitement! At this stage, the website can still be anything.
Yes! There are two particular feelings I love the most when online. First, when entering a website and it seems a bit chaotic, but after some time clicking, hovering, loading, refreshing, scrolling down, scrolling up again, going back and forth between pages, spending some time with it, you start to understand its system and identity, and it makes you feel you are part of something.
The customer nods in agreement. The computer salesperson goes on:
The second feeling is probably my favourite one. It can sound a bit outdated, but I still happen to feel it; it’s the moment of excitement when you can’t access the website straight away, but you start imagining what this website could actually be. For example when someone, say a customer, narrates a particular web experience, the mental imagery occurs and you start projecting - now you have to wait before the online moment. There is a word to name this anticipation in German. It’s die Vorfreude, which could be translated as pre-happiness. You have to wait patiently, to type the URL and see the website loading. Sometimes…
The salesperson starts giggling.
…the excitement can be so strong that mistakes appear when typing the URL, leading to different or dead websites.
The website is still loading. They are still talking and staring at the white screen,
faces in the same direction.
I remember websites that would take so long to load, that I would open them in a new tab and wait nervously. I would wait longer to be sure it was fully loaded and I could enjoy every scroll and click.
Loading time is usually avoided as much as possible by web developers, using complicated technologies to be as fast and efficient as possible. “Slow-loading websites reduce customer engagement and hence, the average time that users spend interacting with your site” (Choudhary). Loading is sometimes perceived as badly coded. I am personally not particularly interested in speed technologies. I actually enjoy a slow website, it feels almost more precious, more fragile. I like to imagine the thinking process of the human behind the code. I like the slow web moment, loading for a while, potentially with a loader that has been designed and thought of. I feel affection towards artist J. R. Carpenter’s definition of the handmade web. She says “I evoke the term ‘handmade web’ to refer to web pages coded by hand rather than by software; web pages made and maintained by individuals rather than by businesses or corporations; web pages which are provisional, temporary, or one-of-a-kind; web pages which challenge conventions of reading, writing, design, ownership, privacy, security, or identity”.
The customer marks a pause and quotes further, with a serious tone:
“I evoke the term ‘handmade web’ to suggest slowness and smallness as forms of resistance”.
The computer salesperson nods. The thought starts growing.
Yes. I also enjoy a website that has been slowly manually coded, as the website’s imperfections pop up. Small mistakes and typographical errors, a misplaced element. A website that isn’t functioning optimally nor fully automated or updated.
Since a website cannot be static and carved in stone, it’s destined to be obsolete eventually, it needs maintenance to update the files, the technologies. The website evolves, grows, reduces. It needs care throughout time, otherwise it will vanish. The vanishing glitches can also be beautiful. Letting go of human control and seeing how the website will evolve on its own.
On the other hand, I love to see handmade websites that are constantly reshaped through small changes here and there but most of all with care. A bit like a room that you clean up, where you add posters to the wall and place objects on the shelf. The great thing about creating your own website is that you can update and change its style anytime.
There are endless possibilities, the scale of the website is unlimited! It can have thousands of fixed pages or just a single very wide one in which you can scroll endlessly from left to right.
Learning coding is very liberating because you learn to publish your content to the world straight away. As Laurel Schwulst says “a website creator becomes both author and architect simultaneously”. You can create the content and build the container where it will be received. I think it’s important to make coding as accessible as possible, to demystify this sometimes unapproachable technology.
The computer salesperson changes their voice slightly to a more solemn tone.
This reminds me of what the Science Fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin has written: “Anybody who ever lighted a fire without matches has probably gained some proper respect for ‘low’ or ‘primitive’ or ‘simple’ technologies; anybody who ever lighted a fire with matches should have the wits to respect that notable hi-tech invention”. As she further explains, physical objects around us are also ‘technology’ as if “paper, ink, wheels, knives, clocks, chairs, aspirin pills, were natural objects, born with us like our teeth and fingers -- as if steel saucepans with copper bottoms and fleece vests spun from recycled glass grew on trees, and we just picked them when they were ripe”. They are made and modified by humans for humans. She expands the definition of technology. I can see a similarity with the handmade web, coded by humans rather than software. Learning to code slowly by hand also makes this digital technology more palpable, accessible and less abstract. Learning to code slowly by hand changes your perception of the web and your participation in it.
The customer listens attentively, excitedly, and suddenly the loading website starts to unfold. They both look into the screen and stop talking for a bit. They stare at the arrow-shaped cursor that regularly changes into a pointing finger when it hovers over a link. The rhythm of navigation changes by becoming highly precise since the links are very small to catch, the cursor moving slowly, almost caressing each pixel of the screen. The computer salesperson takes the customer’s right hand and guides it with the mouse, in silence. They know how to navigate a website but they tacitly agree to continue collectively. One hand moves the mouse, the other hand slowly and delicately scrolls down the page. The pulse of their heartbeats is speeding up. They start to wonder, what stands at the top corners? What is the bottom right pixel like? How is the webpage structured? As the elements of the interface become more and more clear, they can immediately identify:
I always wondered why the web of today looks so flat, sleek, and repetitive. It leaves me with a feeling of emptiness, passivity and slight alienation. I have no browsing memory at all.
The customer who is feeling a sense of togetherness:
Because most website architecture is based on default templates and all have the same structure. I came across the book Don’t Make Me Think by Steve Krug and understood that there are rules: websites should have a navigation that feels as intuitive as possible, users should be able to scroll through websites with minimum effort, without having to think. It has to be fast and without friction.
The customer marks a pause.
Sometimes clients and designers seek to mimic this ‘robotic approach’, with its template-like design. With wide sliders, wide images, automated opening menus, infinite scroll etc. I wonder, is the robotic really that reassuring?
The computer salesperson wonders too. There is a momentary pause.
They start to turn their head left and right, away from the screen,
taking in the shop, the main door opening and closing automatically,
noticing the height of the ceiling, how the neon lights are placed precisely,
and the sound of a colleague opening smelly cardboard boxes full of plastic devices.
The computer salesperson turns back to the customer.
I think there is a difference between going on a website in a shop or at home. Computers are spaces within spaces. We need to consider the environment in which the computer you’re visiting a website on is placed. As I said, looking at a website in … a library is not the same as seeing a website from the softness of your bed. When you move your laptop, you move all the digital spaces that are open in your browser along with it. You browse, you close your laptop, you physically relocate somewhere else, you open your laptop again, and you re-discover the browsed website, in another space, in another room.
They decide to carry the laptop to a separate room in the shop to have another look.
They first remove their united hands from the mouse, close the laptop, hold it,
and walk to the room together. One holding the laptop, one holding the mouse and its cable.
The other room is dimly lit. The walls are closer together and the ceiling is much lower,
forcing them to almost sit on their knees. They open the laptop again.
The computer screen switches on, they rediscover and re-enter the recently visited page.
I often think of websites as spaces, more specifically, I think of them as houses. And the web pages … as rooms.
The customer nods.
Mmm. When creating a website, you need to define its navigation, its structure, how you enter and access the pages.
They type ‘house’ in the search bar and press enter.
house, noun:
A building for human habitation,
especially one that consists of a ground floor
and one or more upper storeys.
A building in which people meet for a particular activity.
When you enter a house you have never visited, most of the time, you can immediately sense where the different rooms are. You understand relatively quickly where the kitchen is and what you are supposed to do there. The living room is the place for relaxing and socialising. The toilets are usually at the end of a corridor or close to the shower bathroom if not merged together. Every space is strictly defined and has a specific function. When you enter a house you get an atmosphere straight away. You get a sense of the space, guided by the colours, the visuals, the lighting, whether things are in order, or if it is messy.
The customer is interested.
A house, like a website, takes time to be built, and it has to be carefully thought through to hold together. Like a house, a website can be restored, renovated, or may perish — it needs maintenance. Like a house, it is located physically, on a server. It will then be accessed via its URL; like a house, a website has a precise address. Like a house, it has some invisible yet fundamental technologies necessary for it to function properly, like electricity and water pipes …
They both reflect together, looking around the physical space they are in and going through the website. Even the dictionary website they were just visiting now becomes a subject of analysis. They search for images. All the houses they see evoke for them a stereotypical website with a specific aesthetic and functionality: the American house, the tiny house, the palace, the modernist house, the cabin, the Pippi Longstocking house, and so on.
When you are the person thinking about the architecture of the website, you immediately think of the future navigation through the pages. There will be an entrance, a starting page that’s actually called the homepage. How do you walk through the homepage? Is it a squeezed or a monumental entrance? You also need to think of how to travel from one page to the next one or to the subpage.
Adding a new page to a website, a new tab, is like adding a new room. Adding more content to a page can be considered as adding more items to this room.
Like for a house, you need to think of general harmony between every room (every page). What is being repeated or is going to be alternating? The colours, the materials, the furniture, the sense of space?
They go back to the first website. The reflection of the screen in their eyes changes with the loading of the page.
Look, the header for example. I like to see the header as a roof. Or maybe the attic.
And the footer as the cellar.
The menu as the stairs bringing you through the different rooms.
The scroll bar as the elevator.
The favicon as the name on a postal box.
I like to see the hovering as the temptation of an open door. You can enter it, it’s showing you the potential of an accessible room close by. Will you choose to enter?
The computer salesperson nods.
Now I wonder, do you want to enter the website through the usual entrance?
The customer hesitates.
If a website is a house I can build, how would I curate it?
Do you want to use the default doors to move from one room to another
Or instead a small hole in the wall
Like a rat hole
Hidden behind a little curtain
Even smaller
Or navigating your house from above rather than through the doors
From the point of view of the ceiling
Why not have the ceiling a bit closer to the ground
Having a house where running is the only acceptable way of navigating
Or having endless hidden content,
Things you can search instead of being presented with a recommended feed
Storing memories in the kitchen rather than on the living room shelf
Keeping the stairs but removing the rooms
Remove the stairs and have an elevator instead
Having a guest book
A hidden box of memories
A friend’s room
A house that is not a house anymore
A website that feels like a building that feels like home
Having all the content hidden in the scroll bar
Building your own little town of handmade websites
Considering HTML and Css as raw materials to build a digital building
Entering a website like entering a house through its window.
• Works Cited •
Carpenter, J.R. “A Handmade Web”. Lucky Soap, 2015, www.luckysoap.com/statements/handmadeweb.html. Accessed 15 January 2022.
Choudhary, Akshat. “5 Ways a Slow Website Can Impact Your Business”. Wetopi.
February 2020. www.wetopi.com/slow-website-impact-business/. Accessed 15 January 2022.
Kru, Steve. Don’t Make Me Think. New Riders Press. 2020.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “A Rant About Technology”. Ursula K. Le Guin Archive, 2004.
www.ursulakleguinarchive.com/Note-Technology.html. Accessed 15 January 2022.
Schwulst, Laurel. “My Website Is a Shifting House Next To a River of Knowledge. What Could Yours Be?”. The Creative Independent. www.thecreativeindependent.com/essays/laurel-schwulst-my-website-is-a-shif ting-house-next-to-a-river-of-knowledge-what-could-yours-be/. Accessed 15 January 2022.
"The Computer Store" is a text written by Clara Pasteau in 2022. It was published and edited by Soapbox Journal for their printed issue 4.0 At the Interface. Thank you Pepe for your precious help, thanks to my friends from the Gobstoppers, and Maisa Imamović for being my forever hopeful coding soulmate.