As I sit here and go through the process of toying about with several devices that are based on computing principles, most obviously the desktop and laptop computers I own, it occurs to me. In spite of development that has gone on during my lifetime, and before, no real improvements have been made to the humble computer. In fact, as of June 2012, psychological professionals are still dealing with a phenomenon they refer to as Technology-Related Anger.
This is because, in spite of cries and pleas concerning serious deficiencies in the implementation of the humble computer, and idealised portrayals of their capabilities in imagined futures, specifically the ease of operation and task completion. In one semi-funny scene of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Scotty (James Doohan) is shown to a computer in order to input a formula for transparent aluminium, a material he proclaims could be as secure against water pressure to the same degree as glass panels six to twelve times as thick. At first, Scotty attempts to talk to the computer in a couple of different ways that manage to convince the people he is trying to present the formula to that he is a bit out of his mind. When one of them suggests just using the keyboard, he simply speed-types on said keyboard in the manner of all childish “science fiction” films, with no regard given to the idea that, being from a time where he can simply talk to his computer, he might not be able to do this. Anyway, the idea that a computer in 1987 could do all that is being asked of it by Scotty, even one as far ahead of the pack as the Commodore Amiga 1000 was at the time, is stretching it just a bit. But the point here is the discordance between what Scotty expects to be able to do to impart information to the computer, and how the computer is actually able to receive information.
This brings me to my first point about how to improve computers, and operating systems, so that the unwashed public does not generally feel like such are being forced upon them in a manner akin to violent bottom sex.
1. Ditch the QWERTY standard.
I cannot say this loudly enough. But in order to articulate it properly, let us look at one of the worst market failures that prove the Republican party line (markets are magical and should not be interfered with at all, rah rah rah) is bullshit. Path dependency. Path dependency is like a lion running toward a small rabbit-like creature (say one about a tenth of his size) at full speed. Out of the corner of his eye, he might see a lumbering giant of a mammoth, elephant, or similar type monstrous creature that could keep him feed for weeks. And that large source of food is in a state that will make the actual take-down far easier than the norm, at least from a combat point of view. But turning to run toward the larger prey involves an expenditure of energy that makes the results seem possibly not worth it. So there is a certain amount of pressure, whether self-imagined or not, to simply keep running towards his original target and chomp it down, irrespective of the fact that he will not receive the same benefit in the end or long term.
This phenomenon, known as path dependency, is the only, I repeat only, reason the QWERTY keyboard is still used today. The QWERTY standard was adopted when the Remington No. 2 typewriter used it, and has remained in use ever since. As per the Wikipedia, the network effect of a standard layout and a belief that alternatives fail to provide very significant advantages keeps it in use today. The latter reason, friends and neighbours, is bullshit. Compared to the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, or DSK, QWERTY requires more motion of the fingers, produces more errors, has a far slower typing speed, and, most importantly, produces more repetitive strain injuries. When will QWERTY be ditched in favour of DSK? Probably only when the cost to society of trying to alleviate or treat repetitive strain injuries increases to a point above the cost of widespread switchover to DSK.
But this is also one area where ditching an old standard that was developed long before the existence of the first computer would make the computer far less painful to learn and use.
2. Develop other means of user input.
No matter how much we try to improve the keyboard, one problem is always going to remain. Some individuals, for a myriad of reasons, will have difficulties in using them that are so prohibitive that no kind of keyboard, mouse, trackball, or touchpad input is ever going to help. This is where the voice input so widely seen in science fiction films or television series of varying natures comes in. A good example of how it would work, in the positive sense of the word work, is in the 1986 production of The Fly.
Aside from the fact that a security system based around a registered user of the machine speaking their own name into the computer’s microphone would be a zillion times more secure than anything Mickeysoft (or Apple, or the Linux neo-Nazi contingent) can offer at present, a computer that can understand commands spoken to it in plain English is every non-techie user’s dream at present.
3. Reduce the level of “knowledge” required to maintain and use the operating system.
This should be a fairly obvious one, given how many professional therapists deal with something they call Technology-Related Anger these days. Whilst it is true that techies have good reason to be exasperated by the profound levels of ignorance that the people Mickeysoft’s entire marketing strategy still revolves around, one of the reasons why Windoze still dominates the market in spite of this is because the only alternative operating system that does not entail a near-vertical learning curve, OS X (the one I use), entails expensive investments in hardware, software, and time. Yes, the reward for making the switch is profound, but since the initial steps are akin to wading through wet concrete, the likelihood that the average punter is going to try is low.
And this is to say nothing of the fact that operating a computer is a bit like driving a car. Just because you have trained yourself to drive a sedan from A to B without injuring yourself does not mean that you can compete in a race without getting killed.
But the people who create computer operating systems, at least outside of Mickeysoft, to one degree or another, expect people to have the equivalent of a racecar driver’s knowledge just to go to and from work. Whilst it would be nice if this were actually feasible, it just does not work this way in that sad little place we call the real world.
Whilst nobody can rightly argue that Windoze’s approach (akin to a car with the hood welded shut) produces favourable results, producing an operating system that has clear tiers of technical knowledge built into it, with a means for the user to specify to varying degrees what level of hand-holding they require from the operating system. The way that “alternative” operating systems other than OS X are built at present is the equivalent of requiring a degree in nuclear physics to operate a microwave oven.
4. Games are meant to be enjoyed. Not gawked in awe at.
It seems to happen regularly. User buys new computer. User takes computer out of box, assembles it, and starts it up. User installs relatively new game. User gets angry when they discover game will not perform optimally due to one or more parts not being “new” enough.
The designers of videogames in the years 2000 to 2012 have proven a very different lot to those that existed from 1980 to 1996 or thereabouts. Whilst videogames made from 1990 to 1996 occasionally exhibited jumps in the hardware required of the user’s computer, Starting in the latter part of that decade, designers seemed to adopt this insane idea that users should simply upgrade their computer every six (or even less) months in order to enjoy their newest piece of work. Needless to say, this is a ridiculously wasteful approach that only puts us further along the path to that coming day where resources will be so scant that people will be going to war over them.
Nobody is, of course, saying that game designers should not attempt to innovate or change design every once in a while. But when a mere patch to a game, operating system, or in some really gob-smacking cases program, causes the whole computer to run as if it is running through wet concrete, something is wrong.
Go back through the videogames you have played in the last six or even eight years (yes, some of us have memories that go back that far). Try to name changes in any of them that make a difference in terms of how you play the game, enjoy the game, or cope with the means by which you play the game. Think real hard, because aside from the (admittedly very good) social interface incorporated into MMORPGs like World Of Warcraft, I am seriously coming up empty when I try this exercise. I have already gone on at some length about how supremely awful Diablo III‘s interface was even when it was in Diablo and Diablo II, but rather than make a better interface, Blizzard somehow managed to succeed at making one that is even worse. That is an accomplishment.
5. DRM has to go. It should, in fact, be outlawed.
Digital restrictions management is a scourge. All it succeeds in doing is putting barriers between people and the sharing of information. And the stories of occasions where DRM has gone off half-cocked and resulted in persons being unable to access information that they have a legitimate claim to are legion.
Defective By Design claims to be a grassroots campaign to raise awareness of and call for the elimination of DRM in all of its forms. Now, you would think, being an author, photographer, and general artist of many stripes, I would be in favour of a protection system that ensures the original artist gets paid for his work. And believe it or not, I am. But DRM is not that protection measure. And another article has popped up concerning why the real problem with Diablo III is not Diablo III, but rather the people who made it, and how they tethered it to the Internet.
DRM is an expression of the fact that information technology is the one industry that has never encountered any serious, meaningful regulation. Until the time that the deregulation frenzy was in full swing and the idea of creating new regulations rather than destroying existing ones became sacrilege under the New Church Of Reaganism™, it never occurred to the powers that be that the little calculation machines we call computers were not going away.
But the thing is, people are not going to stand for barriers being placed between them, things that they have purchased, and things that they have purchased and expect to make use of on a regular basis. Whilst I totally understand and even applaud the fact that authors like Stephen King have basically turned their backs to the concept of online books, it is important to understand an important reason why authors, not publishers, are so wary of the medium. You see, the last headline in this post on Defective By Design’s online journal explains it best. How would you feel if you, the author, heard a stream of complains from customers that someone between you and them, namely the retailer, suddenly deleted the novel you have written from their collections without any warning or explanation? Shocked, angry, wanting to terminate that retailer’s authority to sell any product bearing your name? Let me tell you something. If this were one of the novels I have written in which Linula struggles with the lifelong after-effects of child sexual abuse, I would be hopping mad. I would be publically saying that Amazon.com is no longer allowed to sell any literature bearing my name.
But Amazon.com’s de facto monopoly (which antitrust legislature should have moved to break up long ago) and use of DRM pretty much means that the user is absolutely at their mercy where access to the literature they have paid for and thus have a right to expect access to is concerned. That is why I urge anyone who is thinking of even purchasing an e-reader to do as I have done and specifically seek out a brand that is not Amazon.com’s.
Oh, and you might think that with all of the complaints I have listed here thus far, I must be about to break into song and dance about all the virtues of Apple and their product. This is very far from the case. I love OS X’s design and relative efficiency, do not get me wrong, but the actions of the Apple corporation have me putting my face in my hands and shaking my head in disgust. Never forget that.
6. Proprietary ≠≠ “baaad”.
Now, with all of the complaints I have made about present-day software and hardware, particularly the previous point, you would think I am all about the “proprietary is baaad” bullshit of the open source software movement. You would be wrong. You see, prior to my acquisition of an Apple iMac in 2008 or thereabouts, I made numerous attempts to work with open source operating systems, specifically Linux and distributions thereof that I can only remember the name Ubuntu from. I hate them. I mean I really, really, really hate them.
In point three of this list, I already outlined the worst problem that holds Linux in general back from ever even making a dent in the monopoly position that Mickeysoft holds. But there is an even bigger problem. In discussion of unrelated subjects such as religious zealots or Republic___s, much is made of the same character defect on their part that the open source software displays. There is only one way to describe this major character defect: sheer, unbridled, flabbergasting arrogance.
Mickeysoft is not on top despite all of open source’s assurances of itself that they are eating away Mickeysoft’s monopoly just because of lock-in tactics. If that were the case, I would be using open source operating system as we speak. But I am not. Instead, I laid out a large amount of cash to move to another “baaad” operating system, open source movement delegates. One called OS X. Do you know why I did this? Because in contrast to the whole ignorant, circumstance-ignoring refrain to “RTFM, noob”, Apple and their users actually make an effort to help guide newcomers into their world. You know, kind of like how we are meant to do with children, and those whom Jesus did not just dropkick through the goalposts of life at birth?
This is kind of what I am talking about when I say that the one thing a product or its makers, irrespective of what that product is (Jesus, cola, potatoes, fast food, you name it), should fear is that product’s fans. Because when a fan tells an unsure newcomer to “RTFM, noob”, it does not just reflect on that fan, product maker. It reflects on you. Ever wonder why no porn stories exist in which the experienced elder woman does not tell the hapless teenage boy she is seducing any equivalent of this statement?
7. Easy to operate, easy to customise, makes a computer user happy, healthy, and… well, something.
Let us get back to something I said in my earlier point about alternative means of input. Let us say for example that you have a computer that can understand plain-English commands spoken to it. What is the first thing you start saying to a new computer? “Make my text bigger, please”, “make my icons larger, please”, “make it straightforward for me to sift through the thousands of icons in this folder please”, “keep my icons arranged in this order on the fly, please”, or all of the above? Because believe me, having received an eyeful of OS X 10.7 in recent months, I am starting to get more than a little ticked off with the seeming absence of an auto-arrange option.
Oh, there are a myriad of ways one can view the contents of a folder. But when you can only pick two that are remotely useful out of nine or ten, that is a problem. Being able to say to my computer “please keep these bits of information in an order where I can easily pick them out rather than scroll up and down trying to find them”, and have it consistently remember that, would improve even OS X no end.
I have also made the acquaintance of a man who, due to a rather serious injury to his neck, has very limited control of the muscles and other movement-vital parts below his neck. He can bend his upper body in order to cough hard, grip things very weakly in order to manipulate them for better accessibility (eg putting a plastic attachment onto a finger for typing), and things along these lines, but his mobility and task-accomplishing faculties are, shall we say, a bit diminished. Sort of the opposite of his character and determination, you might say. And whilst I am sure he is not all that impressed with me lately in some respects (I do not blame him), I value his opinions concerning the accommodation of disabled individuals within society a great deal. So when I say that I think he would agree with me that a computer that a computer able to perform all of its tasks based entirely on vocal commands from the user would be a giant leap forward for computing, I want you to understand what I am getting at here.
8. Remove normalism from search engines.
Language is both a wonderful thing and a major pain for its users. This is best expressed in one of my favourite axioms concerning the communication barrier between autistic adults (especially Powell types like myself) and… pretty much everyone else. Just because we are both using words from the English language does not necessarily mean that we speak the same language.
Search engines, sadly, offer a classic example of this. In the era of my first steps into the promises of the Internet, I made frequent use of a search engine called Alta Vista. Now, whilst Alta Vista still exists (here), it has sadly fallen to the same trap as many other good things from that era. Namely, in the gobbling up of competitors by Googoo, every search engine pretty much turned into another Googoo. Whilst Alta Vista does not presume that you must absolutely want “.au” appended to everything if you access them from a terminal in Australia, their ability to find information related to a non-leet speek phrase leaves a similar amount to be desired.
An example of this problem lies in the results I get when I do a search for graphics relating to the words “dwarf woman”. Now, admittedly, that query is a bit vague and open to interpretation, so I do not act that surprised when I get a few images of midgets who happen to be women. But then I start adding terms, such as “fantasy”, “dungeons and dragons”, “world of warcraft”, and on and on it goes, depending on the kind of results I want to see. The pictures you have seen in such posts as stories like Kronisk’s Mirror are the result of that search. But the point here is that regardless of what search parameters I put in, images come through that are only vaguely related to my query, or worse yet not even related to my query at all. Not only is King Balor of Hellboy II: The Golden Army fame not a woman, he is about as Dwarf-like as I am Elf-like.
So when someone tells me “get online and do a search” when I am seeking something in the real world, I feel like I want to punch them. I end up screaming “which fukking magic words do you want?” at the engine, and so on. This is exactly what I am talking about when I say to people that accessibility has different meanings to different people. Because I am sorry, Googoo, but I do not speak normie leet-speek search engine expectation.
Anyway, I hope that these pointers can somehow reach the operating system programmer and computer hardware design communities, giving them a good idea of why few other universally-accepted machines and peripherals thereof inspire half as much rage and anger as do their products. If not, they can all go to hell and stay there.