📝 CSS-Tricks 213: Are we just moving problems around?

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[Robin]: Over the weekend I read this post by Jim Nielsen about web technologies and syntax that I really enjoyed. The gist of the post is that the latest technical achievement is not always the answer to our problems, but rather a better understanding of the problem itself.

For example, CSS-in-JS is a way to solve the conflicts that plain old CSS can cause in a codebase of dozens of components and custom styles. However, in my experience at least, those problems are really just moved around rather than actually solved. We now have new problems, like what do we do with our global styles? Sure, we might have less CSS floating about the place and messing up our global scope, so to speak, but now we have dozens of custom styled components that we have to manage and maintain.

Anyway, back to Nielsen. He writes about this sort of complexity:

Think about it: HTML seems “simple” on the surface. It’s “just” a markup language, some text wrapped in tags. But if you go deeper than that, if you examine the grain of HTML, how it wants to be used, how it was designed to be used, you’ll see its proper usage is steeped in nuance and expertise. Entire books have been written on how to use HTML as the base grammar of the web, and to enhance from there. Same with CSS and JS.

So while that new blog post detailing the latest syntax or language additions appear to present a resolution to decades-long problems, the working knowledge of these languages are less about syntax and more about how things work.

That said, I think there are some new technical achievements that do more than just move the problem around. Instead, they go back to the beginning, understand the problem, and then start fresh with a solution. I think many improvements that have been made to the CSS language are like that. Some of them sure are nice additions to have, like filters and blend modes and what not. But CSS Grid and flexbox are two obvious examples where they’re making complex things really simple.

This reminds me of another post I read this weekend, this time from Tom MacWright where he describes a clean start for the web. One of the quotes that Tom mentions is from Richard O’Keefe, where he once said that “you cannot get a simple system by adding simplicity to a complex system.”

This is pretty good advice for building a design system and it’s extremely good advice for building things on the web.

Tom continues by re-imagining what web browsers could do if they started from scratch and became more restrictive and less burdened by legacy ideas of what the web should be:

Social networks are universally more restrictive than web pages but also more fun in significant ways, chief amongst them being that more people can participate. What if the rest of the web have that simplicity and immediacy, but without the centralization? What if we could start over?

It’s a super interesting post and I love reading things that push me to think about these sorts of things, although I’m not sure that I agree with everything Tom says — and that’s okay! The more important question that both of these posts bring up is this: are we really solving problems when we introduce a new framework or a new solution to a problem?

Or are we merely moving problems around?

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