Letter and Spirit of Web Development

Published on November 14, 2023, filed under (RSS feed for all categories).

In the realm of law, there is the notion of letter and spirit of a law:

The letter of the law and the spirit of the law are two possible ways to regard rules, or laws. To obey the letter of the law is to follow the literal reading of the words of the law, whereas following the spirit of the law is to follow the intention of why the law was enforced. Although it is usual to follow both the letter and the spirit, the two are commonly referenced when they are in opposition.

I believe we benefit from thinking of letter and spirit in more than just law. It would help us in web development, too.

How’s that?

Largely, because it seems to be the letter that causes many a dispute in our field. We argue about code, we argue about formatting, we argue about documentation, we argue about statements and hypotheses, we argue about characters and words.

While this focus on the letter is important and useful, it also seems to be divisive. Including the spirit appears to foster respect and offer nuance.

We may feel this most in discussions about (in)accessibility—disagreement can get heated over details (letter), and contributors may miss that they’re all rooting for access for everyone (spirit). *

We may feel this least in standards organizations, like the W3C and its fora. While interestingly, here there may be even more discussions about technical specifics (letter), usually there are also checks on motivations and intentions (spirit). Although these checks make it harder (and sometimes more frustrating) to land on a solution, considering both letter and spirit adds to the discussions.

Accordingly, it’s useful for us to look at both letter and spirit of work done in our field.

What is being explicitly stated (the letter)?

And, what is the underlying intent (the spirit)?

This may complement other fundamental ideas, like that web design is a process (starting with leaving code better than we’ve found it) or, perhaps, that the craft of frontend development starts with conformance-checking, but the point is this:

When we encounter a dispute in our field, let’s keep letter and spirit in mind. Doing so should contribute to a fuller and friendlier discourse.

* It seems rare that someone proposes or builds something inaccessible either on purpose or not making a deliberate trade-off. A willingness to let idealism be idealism, and to understand the spirit of why something ended up inaccessible, can make it easier to connect and effect change.

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About Me

Jens Oliver Meiert, on September 30, 2021.

I’m Jens (long: Jens Oliver Meiert), and I’m a frontend engineering leader and tech author/publisher. I’ve worked as a technical lead for companies like Google and as an engineering manager for companies like Miro, I’m close to W3C and WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly and Frontend Dogma.

I love trying things, not only in web development (and engineering management), but also in other areas like philosophy. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.

If you want to do me a favor, interpret charitably (I speak three languages, and they can collide), yet be critical and give feedback for me to learn and improve. Thank you!