ajax and the shifting rhetoric of user interaction

A couple of months ago, I was writing about the geospatial web and the potential shift toward a localized, topographical web rhetoric. Underlying the powerful experience of powerful geospatial applications, like Google Maps is an approach to web design termed AJAX (asynchronous javascript +XML). Basically, AJAX allows for a smoother user experience by not requiring the user to wait while a server handles each user request and refreshes the page. It’s not new technology, but rather a new way of combining existing technologies.

Undoubtedly there are other ways of making this happen, Flash, for example, or desktop applications. So what makes AJAX interesting? Primarily that it works now and that it works well across browsers. However, as designer Jesse James Garrett (who coined the term) writes,

Proprietary solutions are never as compelling for Web designers as open
standards are. Web designers are passionate about the Web as a medium,
and that medium doesn’t belong to any technology provider.
It’s something that all of us, working together, are helping to build.
For many Web designers and developers, crafting a new medium is what
attracted them to the Web, and what keeps them engaged with the Web
regardless of the ebb and flow of stock markets. Technologies that
don’t work on a Web-wide scale are, by definition, not participants in
this process.

Perhaps. And if so, it is an interesting example of how cultural values shape and are shaped by technological developments. As the Open Source argument goes, if we want a web that supports an open and free culture, then the technological mechanisms that support the web will need to be open and "free." I put "free" under quotes here because, as Lessig points out, it’s not free as in "free beer." We’re not talking about the abolition of property here.

However, even more than that, I am interested in understanding the rhetorical impact of a technopractice like AJAX, including its associated cultural values. Clearly, the purpose of this strategy is to create a more seamless user experience that is still interwoven with standard web functions (unlike Flash, which just sits on/in a web page, even when it does call upon an external database). All that’s great, but at the same time I worry if this increasing level of sophistication will make it harder or easier for the average end user to participate as a producer of new media. In a way, I can see how it should make things easier–how AJAX might assist building sites like Blogger or Flickr. On the other hand, it might also lead to making the web more of a menu driven/multiple choice experience.


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