Sunday, January 18, 2015

So, I've been writing this book...

It's about my approach to interaction with computers and computerized devices, and every now and then I stop and ask myself if there aren't already enough books out there that tell people how they should or shouldn't be designing, programming, and using computers and smartphones. I think... I'm not certain, mind you, but I think that my approach is really substantially different, and that's down to the fact that I'm not a programmer or even an avid computer user.

I think that most of the people who design software and hardware, who build them and write books about them, I think they are kind of in love with computers. They're in these long-term relationships, and it shapes their perspective. I don't love computers. I think that they have a lot of potential; even that they could be great, but for now they're just carrying too much baggage. All of these bad relationships have shaped them, and the result is that they're hard to live with. They are rude and insulting, and they hurt us a little every day just by being themselves. They interrupt us, they force us to always do things their way, and they almost never concede and do things the way we want.

Oh sure, they pretend to share the decision-making. Look, you can change your desktop into any picture you'd like... ...but you have to have a desktop. Getting a repetitive strain injury from typing too much? Well, you can always buy a new keyboard - see, your computer has ports for peripherals like that, and you can choose to use almost any keyboard you can buy... ...but you have to use a keyboard if you want to enter words or numbers quickly and accurately.

There are lots of smartphones to choose from, but compare what they have in common to what is unique about each one, and... ...they're really almost identical, aren't they? What's that? You're certain yours is special and unique - the very best of the best? Maybe you're seeing it through rose-tinted glasses.

And don't get me started on computer mouses! We have so many to choose from now and even alternatives like touchscreens! Whoo! I'm sure my mouse won't hurt me if I just choose one in the right colour, and everyone knows touchpads don't require any repetitive motions at all, at all, at all.

Computers, whether desktop, laptop, or palmtop are our closest companions in our work and our studies and our play... ...and they are so bad at it, it's like a cliché. They might change, they might even get better, but it's a really slow process that is totally out of your control, so it will never happen on your schedule and on your terms.

I believe computers and tablets and phones didn't set out from the start to demean us. I'm absolutely certain that there is no evil or punitive intent involved. They've been shaped by these strange one-sided relationships; created to compete with one another's accomplishments, rather than with the lofty goal of trying to be a decent companion. No one ever worried about making sure they were kind or polite; they just had to be flashy and fast, lightweight and petite.

Well, I don't want a companion that's the smartest or the smallest or the fastest or the most powerful. I want one that treats me nicely. 

I want a companion that gives me the impression that working with me is a pleasure, not something to be interrupted at any time with unrelated observations and demands.

I want a companion that thinks well enough of me to apologize when something we've planned doesn't work out.

I want a companion that doesn't distract me while I'm trying to do something else, like work, or relax, or drive.

I want a companion that knows that shouting is just for emergencies, and doesn't demand my full attention every time it has something to tell me.

I want a companion that explains what's wrong - even if I can't help - instead of just shutting down.

I want a companion that treats me like a human being instead of screaming at me all the time, and I don't know why anyone would settle for anything less.

Of course, I could be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time today.

Anyway, the good news is that it is possible to teach your digital companions to treat you like a human being at least some of the time. I've spent the last fourteen years working towards that with computer scientists, engineers, ergonomists and psychologists on three continents, and I think we've come up with some really simple strategies that will make your life less frustrating, more productive, and far less dangerous.

So I've been writing this book...