The modernist web…

I seem to have my eyes glued to a screen of some kind for every minute they are open. Not good. Last night was the turn of the TV, and I watched a semi-regular favourite of mine from the BBC, namely the Culture Show. In amongst the highbrow discussions on art and music was a piece about Modernism. I was hooked.

I thought modernism was all empty houses, straight lines, and dodgy hairstyles. I’m not wrong, but it’s about a whole lot more as well, and I realised as I watched the programme that we – the web designers and developers of this present Internet Age – are recreating a digital form of modernism.

In the programme Andrew Graham-Dixon discussed the origins of modernism, and said it was as much as social movement as an ideological one. That as it’s heart was a desire to do away with the chintz and brocade that had been the domain of the rich for so long, and give functional design to the masses. It was, he said, a movement for the people, to reduce clutter: to “help people live cleaner, simpler lives by using cleaner, simpler lines”.

Modernism wasn’t for the privileged few, it was for the masses. Fitted kitchens, functional chairs, basic cutlery, all easily produced and available cheaply.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this. From the growing movement to get real, to the simplification of technologies, the modern(ist) web has the same aims at it’s heart: to get simple, functional and stylish stuff to the masses quickly and cheaply.

Whether that’s done through RSS syndication, lowering the barriers to joining the web, or current design trends, it all points to one thing. The new web is for the masses.

The modernist web cuts the clutter, makes sites more useful and powerful, but simpler. APIs, mashups, blogs, wikis, RSS, all easily produced and available cheaply.

But, history has a warning for us. The ethos of this message can become diluted as unscrupulous people start to realise there’s a market (or rather a huge world of mini-markets) here. As the Culture Show said, just look at high-rise flats. They were meant to use the ideology of modernism to provide cheap, stylish, modern housing. But what they did was “replace horizontal slums with vertical ones”. Why? Because the builders didn’t care about quality or materials or standard of production. They were motivated by money, not passion. And we’re faced with the same challenge: to keep the standards high despite the commercial possibilities of what we’re doing. The new, modernist web may be simple on the surface, but there should be a lot of thought about the end user underneath.

Modernism, whether it’s used to create high-rise flats, chairs, fitted kitchens or websites requires thought and discussion. The advantage we have over the early modernism pioneers is that we have a tool – the internet – that provides fantastic opportunities for both thought and discussion to occur. Let’s use it.

So, the modernist web. It’s social, simple, honest, moralistic, understandable, poweful, accessible, considered, scalable, easy to join in and built on the best standards. In essence: it’s for the people.