Software that makes us stupid ~ 2011-05-16

One of my big gripes with the makers and marketers of technology is that they design software and interfaces with all sorts of presets and automatic features to do the thinking for you. This is the big lie of technology marketing: Our new product is so intuitive, it practically operates itself! You will be able to do amazing things without any effort or learning on your part!

They have been using variations on this theme for a long, long time now, and I have two big problems with it:

  1. It's mostly not true
  2. It shouldn't be true

Using technology requires understanding which comes with effort and thought. Otherwise, you can't use it effectively and when it breaks down you instantly become a helpless child. Hey, I love technology more than Napoleon Dynamite's brother, but if you can't deal with problems or unexpected situations when they arise (which they always do) then you are better off without it.

BUT that kind of philosophy doesn't sell stuff. So, having saturated the market with useful devices for people who know what they're doing, the computer and technology marketers have turned to selling really expensive crap to people who will never be able to use it effectively. This is The Microsoft Way. However, if dumb people want to blow their money on dumb things, that's their business. The real problem I have is that in an effort to make their software accessible to people who are not interested in learning, they cripple those of us who attempt to understand the building blocks and want to use them creatively to produce something original not based on a template. With every version of Windows and other Microsoft products, the practical everyday functions get buried deeper and deeper in layers of sub-menus in favor of a glossy graphical interface that is slow and cumbersome, but oh so pretty and marketable.

But Microsoft certainly does not have the corner on this market; that just happens to be the operating system I'm stuck with due to the software I use. Down at the college they have gone the 'artistic' route and bought into the Mac nightmare. Holy inaccessibility! The operating system for people who refuse to think has arrived. And it comes with a price tag that to me says, "I am willing to pay this much to avoid learning. See how smart I am!"

Another great example of this principle is in consumer-level digital cameras. They provide you with all kinds of 'automatic' options to choose from; sometimes dozens of ways that the camera will do it for you. I believe you get far better results if you just understand the basic principles. There are really only 7 things I can think of that you have to be aware of when taking pictures. (See my blog post on the subject.) Just take a little time and you will unlock the power to make your pictures look the way you want them to; there is no need for all this nonsense getting between you and your ability to operate a camera, and it just ends up being more complicated than it would have been with the basic controls exposed!

Whatever technology you choose, you are going to have to learn it before you can use it effectively, and this is a good thing. Once you learn it I believe you will look back like me and be shocked at the amount people are paying to stay stupid.