Between Empowerment and Patronization: 40 Years IT

In summer semester 1973, I took my first programming course. This is now fourty years ago — time for a retrospect. What were the most impressive steps forward?

It was not speed. Ironically, waiting started to become a problem only after it decreased below a certain threshold. Before this, we submitted a “batch job” into the “input queue”, and then switched over to thinking about a second job. But when the turnaround times became much shorter and task switching became a pain, we had to just passively wait for the job to end, or wait for the hourglass icon to disappear — wait for the machine clocking our day — so the dependence on a patronizing system started to grow.

The first great affordance for me, was the replacement of punched cards by CRT monitors — where I was able to correct my mistakes, finally! As in my rural elementary school where we used slate and stylus, such that changes could be made just by wiping out with my fingertip.

This revisability should become the core of many important affordances which I have often blogged about. I was particularly happy when I encountered glued connector lines (first in “Inspiration Maps”), which survived all my rearranging.

To me, rearranging seemed much more like a unique advantage of IT than just storing and transporting, i.e. logistics, of digital data that were just a replacement for formerly analog carriers. Speeds and sizes involved in this logistics — or even spectacular new multimedial qualities of the cargo — never impressed me so much. Really new empowerment, by contrast, came through rearranging, and sorting and quick grouping by simple tags, which I first encountered in the MS Access datasheet views.

Another remarkable improvement was the “direct manipulation” principle. I experienced a very first hunch of this through the prefix area commands of the Xedit editor in IBM VM/CMS. You simply typed “DD” directly before the first and last row to be deleted, and it immediately worked! When typing the “DD”s, I often murmured “das da, und das da” (German for: this here, and that here) to enjoy the directness — long before I had a mouse. Then later I enjoyed the drag and drop: e.g. opening a given data type with different programs just by dropping its icon on theirs — an affordance that has largely disappeared since laptop touchpads made this too cumbersome.

Many of the great novelties ignited hopes that were bigger than the reality emerging later. This was especially the case when the first personal homepages promised a big democratizing effect. I dreamt that these (after being registered in the various decentralized branches of a virtual library) would offer me a direct glimpse onto the book-(mark) shelves of scholars across the globe — without mediators, gatekeepers, or paywalls. Then later, RSS seemed to be another try on this any-to-any topology. I should have known that this was at odds with monopolizing interests whose patronization and stultification goes so far that they even try to wipe out the knowledge about the browser address bar, such that people even type full http adresses into the search bar.

Patronizing is, of course, differently perceived by different people. I remenber well how many IT pioneers felt patronized by the GUI replacing the command line interface, or also by the “GML” commands simplifying the “Script” commands, i.e. colon commands like :LI (or later <LI>) instead of dot commands .XYZ for indenting and bulleting (or LaTeX instead of TeX). I always welcomed such ready-made simplifications of a single common task, as a great empowerment to do more than getting bogged down with details “under the engine hood”.

Therefore I also liked the Web 2.0 startup’s services that did just one task really well, i.e. guaranteeing outstanding usability. I liked them much more than integrated tools that promise countless features with mediocre usability. Of course you need several of the optimized tools — like knive and fork rather than a spoon. But I don’t want to be spoon-fed with mush-pap for babies or soup for elderly under tutelage. The integrated, patronizing, spoon-like application is good for passively consuming of content, but for the Read and Write Web 2.0 it needs knive and fork.

No doubt, these 40 years were exciting.

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