A bold new computer metaphor

Publication date: 22 June 2009
Originally published 2008 in Atomic: Maximum Power Computing
Last modified 12-Mar-2013.


Computers are pretty easy to use these days, right?

I mean, there've been umpteen user-interface revolutions and revisions since the dawn of the personal-computer age, almost all of them obviously improvements.

Mac OS, at the very least, makes a computer as easy to use as you could reasonably expect, right?

You hardly ever need to crank a handle to start your car any more! And tyres only blow out about once every 200 miles! What more could you possibly want?

Fortunately, I've got a better metaphor for the current state of computer usability than the car one, which has been the Lazy IT Writer's Friend since a "home computer" took up a large room and quintupled your power bill.

Let's, instead, consider that weird old phrase "computer literacy", these days seldom used except by the hardy souls teaching Windows to the elderly. Let's compare computer literacy with ordinary literacy. Reading and writing.

In this respect, I think you can make a case that computer technology has made it to the late sixth century AD, at best.

In the olden days, you see, the upper classes were able to read and write, but they generally preferred not to. They left it to people who had to do it, like scribes and clergymen.

(Look at the terms "clerk" and, even more obviously, "clerical"; it's a straight line from them back to the religious clerics who used to spend their lives reading and writing and shuffling parchment. Or only beating up monsters in dungeons with un-edged weapons, depending on your personal view of history.)

There were two reasons why people didn't read for pleasure back then.

One was that there simply wasn't a lot of stuff to read for pleasure. Before the printing press, before even affordable paper, stuff to read for fun was pretty thin on the ground. It was like the computer-game scene in 1970.

There was a much bigger reason why people didn't read for pleasure back then, though, and it ties right in with the usability, or lack thereof, of computers today.

Because of the way people wrote back then, reading was really bloody difficult.

One kind of early writing system gave you whole words more or less as we know them today, but no spaces between them - "scripta continua". (Classical Chinese has no spaces, either, which can cause trouble even with tiny strings of characters, in addition to the problems that non-alphabetical scripts always have.)

Other systems had spaces between words (actually just dots, but that's good enough), but no vowels.

It was quite possible - common, even - for early writing in European languages to have no vowels, and no spaces. Plus, if you were really lucky, incomprehensible shorthand symbols as well.

The reasons for all this were simple enough. The only material you could make a book out of back then was parchment, which was made from animal hides, and not cheap. Countries within trading range of Egypt used papyrus before anybody figured out how to make parchment, but papyrus is too fragile to be bound into a book, so a large papyrus document has to be a cumbersome scroll. Parchment displaced papyrus almost entirely by about 1000 AD.

When your "paper" was expensive and/or delicate and hard to manage in quantity, the more text you could pack into a small area, the better. Leaving out spaces and vowels helped with this, as did the various schools of shorthand symbols. These early "compression" techniques also made it easier for scribes to take dictation.

If you wrote modern English this way, then even without weird symbols, "hello world" would compress into "HLLWRLD" (lower-case hadn't been invented yet, either). The reader would then have to figure out from context what it was actually meant to mean.

"Hollow railed"? "Hill war led"? "Halal ower lode"?

OK, that last one's pushing it. But you get the idea.

(And yes, since you ask, this sort of thing does indeed have some bearing on the translation of religious scripture into modern languages. Not only can there be disagreement about the meaning of known words - look at the arguments over whether Moses' face became radiant after he met with God, or whether he GREW HORNS - but there can in fact be enormous differences in the words you end up with after adding vowels and spaces to old texts.)

Decoding this sort of compressed text was no fun at all. No wonder rich folk who wanted to read scholarly works or plays or epic poetry or whatever for fun usually hired someone to read to them.

Today, of course, not many people have staff who take care of their computers. But if they could have an in-house computer technician, the average user would probably very much like one.

I mean, just look at a perfectly unremarkable Windows XP error:

"Cannot delete [filename]: It is being used by another person or program."

Now, you may have no trouble figuring out that this is just because you opened a file from that directory in a program, and even though the file is now closed the dumb program, which is still running, is still locking the directory, so you probably have to close that program or zap a process or something and then you'll be able to delete the folder.

But if you know that, you figured it out over a long period of trial and error. Someone who doesn't spend 15 hours a day voluntarily staring at a screen could quite reasonably think that the "another person" bit had something to do with hackers, or other family members who use the same computer.

Windows Vista, of course, has completely fixed this problem. It gives you a much larger requester that says "The action can't be completed because the folder is open in another program. Close the folder and try again."

Well, at least it doesn't allude to "another person" lurking around your computer. It still doesn't say "there's a file in this folder that is open in [NAME OF PROGRAM, FOR PETE'S SAKE], and I can't delete the folder until that program lets go of the file", though.

(Windows 7 finally fixed this problem.)

All of us experts may know that the computer won't call the cops about an "illegal operation", and that Russian criminals and the NCIS can't access everything on your computer via a nifty animated interface like they do on TV. But stuff like this jams itself into the face of ordinary users all the time, breaking their concentration and demoralising them. It's like trying to read a book whose text LKSLKTHS.

Dozens of confusingly-named models of video card. Hard drives that die with no warning. The thousand and one bizarre symptoms a bad power supply can cause. Pop-up ads that offer to install an anti-virus program, and then install a virus. The list of jobs that're the computing equivalent of adjusting six two-barrel Webers on your 1961 Ferrari goes on and on.

(Just when you think you've escaped the car metaphor, back it comes!)

Computers aren't really in the hands of a priesthood any more. Big serious systems are still likely to be tended by religious orders of sysadmins and coders, but ordinary people all over the world have, and love, personal computers.

But those ordinary people are also likely to be part of a zombie botnet, and to be accustomed to their work and precious data just... "going away" from time to time.

You should be able to instruct a computer in natural language and get back information that's as easy to understand as that particular information could ever be. You shouldn't have to remember to make backups, or know anything at all about "codecs", or have to pick your new video card from a long list full of similarly-named cards, half of which are lousy cut-down models.

It is, undeniably, now a heck of a lot easier to use a computer than it was 25 years ago. You can do a heck of a lot more with it, too.

But just you wait until computer technology makes it to the Renaissance.

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