My sordid past

I recent flurry of traffic from Tantek’s blog prompted me to reflect on my sordid past as a Web geek. Many people ask “what happened?”

I got laid off around the same time that my baby son emerged from the larval stage to become a delightful daytime companion, and as we could no longer afford a nanny on my wife’s income after our crushing mortgage, well, I stepped up to the plate. I might have tried harder to arrange another outcome had I still found my areas of professional expertise as interesting as I had once, but really I didn’t. I had burned out. Getting laid off was a blessing.

I got involved with electronic publishing before this here Web thing picked up in 1995 or so. One of my lifelong interests has been lettering and typography, so I found myself engaged very early in the development and application of Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), at least five years before your average Web developer knew anything useful about them. It was an uphill slog, as browser support for CSS was pretty bad in the early years. By the time the situation began to improve, and CSS began to attract serious attention as a better way to do Web design, I was already a seasoned expert in a burgeoning field. I enjoyed some “rock star” status for a short while, even.

This was a double-edged sword. Some of my colleagues resented me. Any failure to walk upon water was celebrated as evidence that maybe I was a total fraud. My reputation meant good money, but good money meant I was somehow too valuable simply to ply my expertise in making lean, easy-to-manage web sites. I was told once that having me actually write HTML and CSS was like having Van Gogh paint a house. Surely I should be management material. Surely I should be good at more than this one rather narrow area. Maybe, but was I interested?

You know how the story ends. Like a precocious child who finds his contemporaries gaining rapidly on him — and even surpassing — in ability toward adulthood, I found myself sort of a washed-out rock star, not interested in sustaining or competing with my own myth, nor in settling for some stagnant gray eminence on the conference circuit or in teaching. I am happy if my Web work hastened the inevitable demise of building Web pages by tedious, fragile, arcane methods that can’t scale with the rest of the Web. There are now many more and better minds on the problem. [Exit].

I entered the Web world professionally when it was white-hot with subversive promise. It was a challenge to Big Media, permitting individuals and small groups to make an end run around ancient communications control structures and cost constraints, on a global scale. It still is, but it’s lost a lot of that early anarchic luster now that it’s become mainstream, at least among the small fraction of people in the world who have ever placed a telephone call. Maybe I need to feel like I am fighting The Man in some more or less quixotic fashion to keep interested. With bikes as an alternative to cars, I think maybe I’ve picked a big enough windmill to tilt for a long time.

My vocational attention shift from the Web to bikes wasn’t sudden, nor is there an entirely different set of values driving one over the other. The Web is a terrifically resource efficient medium, with the creative energies of its users not being dwarfed and dominated by the supporting apparatus, the way traditional publishing or broadcasting inevitably becomes more about the medium than the message, or the way driving becomes an end unto itself, sapping the health and income of its captives, and corrupting our built and natural environments in its service.

As early as 1998 I began to resent having to get off my bike, riding in each day of my too-short commute. I observed my colleagues interrupting their work many times a day to move their cars or feed a parking meter many blocks distant. I saw companies move out of human-scaled places to sterile office parks largely because they had more land devoted to parking than to people. I saw gym memberships, easy freeway access, and parking together offered as perks. Near the crest of the dot-com flameout, cars were sometimes offered as signing bonuses. That and reserved parking spaces within the lot. (I parked at my desk, because, you know, tech culture is tolerant of freaks.) The dissonance of seeking professional satisfaction in one kind of resource optimization while working within and feeding a culture that blindly celebrated the normalcy of such a pernicious and wasteful mode of moving and being got to me, degree by degree. After getting turned on to the potential of Xtracycles, bicycle doodles encroached from the margins of scrap into the center of my attention, and I took a flying leap.

5 thoughts on “My sordid past”

  • miketually

    The box model hack featured in the website of MTB routes that I created as part of my Masters degree thesis in 2001/2. I now teach web design at the college that I ride to on my bike.

    Even the world wide web is a small world…

  • Bill Manewal

    I enjoyed this insight into your development, Todd.

    And I must say that when confronted with any pasta longer than, say, penne, I’m always really, really, really tempted to adopt Carl’s methodology.

    I also appreciated the resonance of having pasta play a central role in your closing video. Well done and perhaps the noodle focus will prove good preparation for your China trip.

    You may have once been a rock star but, personally, I prefer the present when you just rock. Go clever chimp!

  • DL Byron

    Wow man. Talk about serendipity, I’m a member of WaSP, and during the history of WaSP at SXSW, it came up that you’d retired to building bikes and I hadn’t put the two together . . . I’ve posted about cleverchimp on my blogs, cite it as a great design example, and I’m a cyclist.

  • [...] Cleverchimp blog » Blog Archive » My sordid past Todd Fahrner is the CSS guru who gave it all up for bikes. Awesome fellow, moving tale. (tags: css history webstandards biography) [...]

  • Dave

    And here I was trying to give you CSS tips on how to fix your website banner in IE... :) While I was looking at it, I noticed that little text image replacement trick for the clever cycles logo - tricky :)

    I'm a still-employed web developer (among other things, database design/programming and all kinds of fun stuff) who, as you know by now, has also recently gotten into bikes, though I don't have any clever inventions to boost myself into self-employment :)

    Well, I for one am glad you made it onto this path. Cheers!

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