Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Your Head on a Platform

Part one of computing past and future follows. This is a rant down Memory Lane. Part two tees off on platforms, portals and prisoners of their own devices.

By Cracky, I Remember...

I am old, older than old...at least in PC terms. The youth can pull on their piercings to contemplate that I was a computer user when it had a very different meaning, before the Web, before PCs, before there was a public internet even.

Ask me if you want to know about bulletin board systems, Gopher, Veronica and Archie for accessing data and messages through a command line. Hell, ask me about paper tape storage.

Back in yesteryear, I can recall when a computer user was a mendicant. I'd take a request about results of a student survey to Dr. Eccles, the robotic looking and acting head of the data center. He'd sit in front of an IBM 360 mainframe and type my complex queries, getting a fat stack of punch cards in a bin. I'd put those into an input bin and in a few minutes my results came in dot-matrix 9-pin characters on a huge sheet of folded paper. I'd go back to the student newspaper and transcribe what I needed for an article.

I worked for magazines in New York with data centers in Denver, to where I had to fax updates to data entry elves or put in corrections myself using a Touch-Tone phone keypad. That was still about eight years before PCs.

Users and Lusers

There's a classic Boston dame story along this line. A sincere young woman who had relocated to town was speaking with a Mt. Vernon Street matron. After she went on about the glories of the city and how much she loved it, she mentioned that she had taken all her possessions by train from the Midwest to to live here. The matron released a brief snort before saying, "I was born here. I didn't have to!"

That is actually the attitude of far too many PC users now, and not only Mac folk. They are simply users, or as many geeks call them lusers.

It is unfortunate that so many have no understanding about what goes on with their their hardware or software. When something fails, their best bet is often rebooting, which generally works for some wave-a-dead-chicken reason that they'll never know.

It's somewhat like not knowing how to cook your own food or change a tire. After all, these are often slow, inconvenient, messy and expensive, but there are AAA and restaurants after all. Why should you have to worry your pretty little head about such mundanities?

In fairness to those who still have hair and unwrinkled skin, I am aware that many have only known the conflation of Mac OSes and Windows. These now share such traits as hiding all the operations behind ever increasingly complex software and massive amounts of hardware and memory to conceal the wizards behind the curtains. The settings as well as the solutions disappear...somewhere. The users end up feeling all powerful, until they suddenly are computer impotent.

For those who didn't have to live through the staggeringly painful early PCs, let us peek back at the BSOD and bombs. The effects were the same as today's reboot messages, but they were brutal. Microsoft and IBM lacked subtlety. When Windows or the PC failed, the display was a Blue Screen Of Death filled with unintelligible messages from memory.

The Mac versions were cute to the point of condescension instead. You would see the bomb or the sad Mac.

PC users got great chuckles from the Mac sorts so proud of the superiority of their system, particularly about the bomb. The Mac-intoy sorts would go on and on about how wonderful it was that they could plug in a printer and use it without having to add it through a driver on a floppy diskette. When the frequent bomb had the same effect as the BSOD, they somehow fooled themselves into thinking it was substantially different.

Truth be told, both early OSes sucked.

Alpha Geeks

The good part about the frontier days of PCs is that a lot of had to understand what was going on inside the computer, as well as what the software did and how peripherals communicated.

At its worst, there was too much understanding. For example in early 1980, I had to program my PC's function keys from the command line in assembly language so that they gave the right commands to my word-processing software. Also, I had to go to Radio Shack and buy the parts to the printer cable for my daisy-wheel (that sounded like a machine gun) and then build my own to match the PC and printer pins. Too much skill building was involved.

Yet, as a result, I'm the alpha geek to friends. When something doesn't work at all, doesn't work right or stops working, I can fix it or tell them how to do it. That's true for people my age, younger and older. For years, I have done troubleshooting for a 90-year-old minister who only recently stopped preaching. His son got him a Mac after his troubles with Windows PCs. Even so, I'd get late night calls saying, "I've been working on a sermon for six hours and it's gone!"

These friends are not stupid, just ignorant. They didn't review hardware and software for computer publications as I did nor did they write technical manuals. They have no reason to know esoterica or even what I consider basic information.

They can read the menus on the screen and figure out the icons. In theory, that should be enough, as evidenced by the state of online help systems.

We can pick on Microsoft because its software is ubiquitous, but the same is true of nearly all. Push F1 or click a Help menu. You invariably see a screen that describes the menus. Whoop-de-doo! I bet you could read the menus on your own and know what they are supposed to do. What you want to know is what happens when you don't get what you expect.

When I am a doc manager, I insist that my writers (including me) anticipate the users' problems. When they need help, what's likely to be the trouble on that screen or for that task? What they need is likely problem/solution sets, not a damned iteration of what they see on screen plainly enough.

Therein lies the biggest problem with computer manuals and online help. The people who research and write them generally can't think like users. They know how the software is supposed to work, not how a user can err or what happens if a bug or programming oversight causes a problem.

To write right, the doc folk have to shift from the ideal to the real. One mode requires understanding the software's specifications; the other the blend of the abstracts of the functionality and the many variations on what the users might actually do.

Abandon Hope

This dichotomy should remain or worsen. I don't see a new breed of doc writers with that think-like-a-user brain mode coming along. Technical writing definitely attracts the literal and those with limited abstract thinking ability. This also is likely to show the impact of more documentation done in countries where English is not the first language.

On the user side, there's no incentive for them to become technologically savvy, savvy enough to troubleshoot their own problems. The majority who, like tech writers, only know how things are supposed to function certainly don't have the information set to do that.

A world of texters, Facebookers, Blackberry thumbers, and pure users are the gentle, incompetent Eloi to the geeks' Morlocks. Like the rich kid sitting beside the dark road waiting for the tow truck driver to change his tire, the users are fine so long as all works exactly as it is supposed to work.

Our software has exceeded our needs many years ago. Few of us begin to understand or access more than a wee subset of even Office's capabilities. For many users, that's fine, until they want to use mail merge or create a sophisticated Access chart or (play scary music) something goes wrong.

We are certain to continue a multi-tiered tech culture, more like a spectrum than the bifurcation of Eloi and Morlock. The vast majority of PC users will be just that. At the far end will be those who truly understand what's under the hood and make a good living keeping the Eloi functional. The middle will have clusters of alpha geeks like me, incidental and accidental PC literates.

Part two leaps ahead to the present and near future of the Net and social networks.

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