It’s Always Year Zero

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In the short term, opinions about technology often follow a compressed form of Laver’s Law:

  • Everything just before me was completely broken.
  • Everything that comes after me is completely unnecessary.
  • Everything I use right now is perfectly fine; stop changing things.

We tend to judge things based on where we started, our personal “Year Zeros.” But what’s “Year Zero” for us isn’t “Year Zero” for others. And in the fullness of time, the good ideas win out and hindsight judges them retrospectively obvious.

In 2020, I learned that it’s always Year Zero when it comes to building websites.

In “The Third Age of JavaScript” I speculated about a new wave of web developer tools enabled by the confluence of multiple trends:

In this framing, 2020 was Year Zero of the Third Age. But what happens in 2021? 2022? What makes me so sure that 2020 was some clear dividing line?

Nothing. There’s always room for innovation. New libraries, new frameworks, new build tools, even new languages. Yes, most of these will go nowhere, and yes, we swing back and forth a lot. But it’s the people who believe that web development isn’t done yet that make the future happen. Not those who play armchair quarterback, nor those who see everything in an odious light. I’d rather side with the people who believe it can be Year Zero than the people who believe Year Zero has passed.

“Year Zero” to me also means keeping a beginner’s mindset and constantly re-examining what I think I know. When I first learned web development, I was told that React was the best framework to build sites, Presentational and Container Components was the right way to do React, and that BEM was the right way to structure CSS. As a newcomer at Year Zero, I assumed that any discomfort I felt with the orthodoxy was my fault. Flash forward to this year and and my most popular articles are about Svelte and Tailwind questioning that conventional wisdom. No one gave me permission to do that. It took years to learn that I could dare to disagree with my mentors and give that permission to myself.

I feel this most of all for the newcomers to our industry. Every year there are about ~350k freeCodeCamp, ~100k university and ~35k bootcamp grads. It’s Year Zero for them. Or how about our end users — the millions of non-developers who every year have more of their world consumed by the buggy, slow software we make? It’s Year Zero for them.

It’s also Year Zero for web development in the broader arc of human history. The web is only 30 years old. We’ve had over 300 years refining modern physics, and yet there are still things we know we don’t know. It is such early days for the web.

Let’s stop pretending what we know is absolute truth and that what we have is the end state of things. It’s Always Year Zero.


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