Observation: from patch review to file managers, most computer software seems to be software to deal with messes created by computer software.

Which I’m not saying isn’t an important or totally legitimate need, because it is.

What I really want to get at, and if you know me at best I’ll meander circuitously around the topic allowing you to fill in the gaps, is something like…. we need to start conceptually considering computers as a single product, and trying to think about their improvements from that standpoint. The all-encompassing world-enveloping effect computers have on their serious users (engineers, designers, all of us) is such that we fail to adopt this stance, and don’t often recognize that much of what we do really isn’t an improvement on a world without computers. If GNOME, or whatever, started really measuring its impact relative to a world without computers… took complete ownership of that large a design problem, that would be epic. Impossible, but epic (epics rarely are possible, that’s why they are amusing before we descend once again into a world of indulgant self stimulation).

While I’ve always mildly adopted this view, a recent event recalled a past event that brought it back into focus.

Recent event: I spent the past week working on a debt related project (this, besides epic amounts of money, is one of the cool things about consulting… you get so many new ideas all the time) , redesigning some of the deeper interactions (and some surface stuff as needed) for a debt consolidation community. The thing is hideous from a techie standpoint AND from a design standpoint. The site is pretty much a bunch of forums which are pretty much stock phpbb things where people discuss the problems they have with credit card debt, how to escape and whatnot, and a service that redirects people looking for debt consolidation loans to loan providers that won’t rape them (these are harder to find than I would have ever believed… and I started out suspicious of this industry… my fears have been confirmed and then some). Its pretty vanilla and nothing that would excite the techie in me. But here’s the thing… well, I’ll let you judge. They have all these stories of people in debt, which, frankly, moved even a nihilistic left coast bourgeois fuck like me. I mean, some of these people were talking about killing themselves over this. And the work I did could easily help 50% more people (= tens of thousands) find this community and figure out how it works. Cool! That seems worthwhile, and that sort of concrete “make the world better” goal seems to be missing in most computer projects, at least for me.

But altruism is often dull, and usually overrated. So lets be selfish. Lets forget all the people in different social classes or whatever… what would make my world better. Actually better. Not slightly pretend better, but “I’m a happier person” better (actually, I just borrowed this phrasing from another project I’m working on… I’ll post a mockup later). Come on, be creative. Are computers really making our lives better? I dunno. On the backend…. I think so. I like how fast I can receive mail. I like how cheap many things are. But even there, I start to get suspicious. And I don’t mean this as some deep philosophical puzzle. But I’m drifting off point again.

Oh yes, the past event that I was reminded of by working on the debt website. This doesn’t sound sexy either, I guess my tech-libido is low today. Oh well. But it was a comic posted on the door of a sysadmin at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA) while I was a student there. I think I was a sophomore or something, and I’d just started taking product design curriculum. Anyway, it was a picture of a keyboard with phrases on each key like “make coffee”, “pick up kids from school”, “fix relationship with husband”, etc. I don’t remember the caption, but I’m sure it was just hilarious. :-P Anyway, the image has haunted me a bit. I couldn’t find it recently, so if you have any idea what I’m talking about, I’d love a clue as to what comic it was, what date, etc.

Contextualize things. Those are real problems my friends. Computers are absorbing, they are large and vast and hairy and beautiful. There can be little doubt. But what do they really touch? Can we challenge ourselves to grow beyond? I think this is why I have become increasingly bored with computers (hi everyone who hasn’t heard from me in a year or so ;-). They touch so very little. It all seems a tiny bit pointless after a while. Now, I see there are some points, and I’m very glad there are people finishing off those points, just as I am very glad there are accountants, bank managers etc. But its not a context I would do very well in.

A popular “design 101″ excercise is to basically start making people list all the “problems in the world” they see. Count how many you think you could solve with computers (hint, for most people this list would be very small, if your list is very long… um… do what you like but I’d personally look for more stimulation).

In conclusion, lets grow fat and sassy together. Its 5am. Fuck.

5 Responses to “Meditation on Computers”

  1. HI Seth,
    There are a number of ways computers make my lfe easier.

    1. Word Processors. The delete key makes constructing text Soooo much easier than typing.

    2. Presentation Software. I make a lot of presentations, typically one per day. Using computers much faster and easier than creating transperencies.

    3. My research into experimental Particle Physics would be impossible without computers. This requires all sorts of complex purpose written software. I love being at the cutting edge of human knowledge, investigating the science of the very small.

    4. Comunication. I make 1 -2 videoconference per week.

    5. Communication email, Still useful despite the spam.

    5. Communication weblogs. I’m involved in a number of special interest websites that are potentially world- changing. (See http://www.theoildrum.com/)

    6. Communication websites. Some colleagues and I self published our investigations into nuclear power which has preoved quite influential. (see http://nuclearinfo.net)

    6. Communiation IRC, it’s fun to hang out with my friends on IRC.

    7. Entertainment. It’s fun for me to hack on AbiWord :-)



  2. Benjamin Otte Says:

    Computers are tools. They don’t solve problems. People solve problems. But people solve problems with computers.
    How many problems can you list that are easier to solve with the help of computers?

  3. Read http://www.accelerando.org it shows some nice twists about how computers an change the world.

  4. Good post seth. I was noticing though that that community site doesn’t support IPv6?? What the hell dude?

  5. Henrik Omma Says:

    Good question: Is a world with computers better than one without? For some groups it clearly has the chance to go either way. The blind community for example – information in electronic form is great. Email, scanned documents and online services are very useful — when those services and your OS are all accessible. With services and personal communication moving online (myspace, youtube, mugshot, etc.) some groups risk growing increasingly isolated from the rest of humanity if we don’t provide universal access. In that case they’ll be worse of than they would be in a world without computers.

    This is one topic that makes software development rewarding for me at least.

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