Is grunt ‘n’ click getting in the way of web literacy?

I’ve just listening to a fascinating episode of the 99% Invisible podcast. It’s Episode 149: Of Mice and Men and its subject is my much-more-talented namesake Doug Englebart.

Cat and cursor

The episode covered The Mother of All Demos, after which Steve Jobs took some of Englebart’s ideas and ran with them. However, instead of the three-buttoned mouse and ‘keyset’ originally envisioned, we got the single-button Apple mouse. The MacBook Pro I’m typing on this retains this legacy: if I want to ‘right-click’ I have to hold down the Option key.

Christina Englebart explained her father believed that simplicity only gets you so far. We may be in an age where toddlers can intuitively use iPads and smartphones but a relentless focus on this has led to a ceiling on the average user’s technical skills. The analogy used was the difference between a tricycle and a bicycle. Anyone can immediately get on a tricyle and use it. That’s great. But sometimes, and especially when you’re going up a hill, you need gears and the features that bicycles afford.

Essentially what we’ve got now are faster horses pimped-out tricyles which are shiny terminals to web-based services. Cory Doctorow calls this the civil war over general purpose computing:

We don’t know how to make a computer that can run all the programs we can compile except for whichever one pisses off a regulator, or disrupts a business model, or abets a criminal.

The closest approximation we have for such a device is a computer with spyware on it— a computer that, if you do the wrong thing, can intercede and say, “I can’t let you do that, Dave.”

This is paternalism at its worst. The experience of a whole generation of young people is digital surveillance baked into the tools they’re encouraged to use to learn and be ‘social’. Meanwhile, their physical boundaries are more constrained than ever before ‘for their own safety’.

Extremely simple user interfaces are great, but not when they’re the whole story. I don’t want a device that’s hard to use. But nor do I want one that’s so locked down that I have to bend my hopes, wishes and dreams to the will of a company providing software with shareholders. To extend the tricycle analogy, we grow up and stop using Fisher-Price toys at some point. We learn to use the real deal. This may take time and effort to learn, but the payoff is empowerment, human flourishing, and innovation.

I’ve had this experience learning Git recently. Ostensibly it’s a method of version control for software but the whole experience allows you to think in different ways about what’s possible in the (digital) world. While not quite grunt ‘n’ click, GitHub makes this easier for those new to the whole process. It’s got a relatively low floor but a pretty high ceiling. That, I think, is what we should be aiming for.

Questions? Comments? Tweet me: @dajbelshaw or email me:


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