Programming

Fighting the Last War

Karen Englebart, on the 99% Invisible podcast, episode Of Mice and Men, talks about the larger goal of her father, Douglas Englebart, and his wonderful accomplishments, including the invention of the mouse in the 1960s and later work on collaboration and networking at Xerox PARC.

I think Doug shares some similarities with Nikolai Tesla. They were so far ahead of their time, yet they did not take a business or industry role in developing their vision in an iterative fashion, but they mostly sat by and watched, disappointed that it did not play out the way they wanted. Both Englebart and Tesla suffered from a misunderstanding of how groups of people, especially non-specialists, work at scale.

Karen mentions that people use a computer for the first time and can pick it up very quickly because of the graphical user interface, point and grunt. Then she claims that an expert using the same computer four years later has not changed how they interact with the computer. She claims that they should be using hardware inputs designed by her father in the 60s, including a five button chorded key bank.

(This argument also assumes that the user will not learn any new software in the intervening four or five years, which is outlandish. This also shows that predictions from the 1960s about how people would spend their time using computers fell short: most of it is spent reading content written by other people, watching videos, social networking, etc. which all benefit from a low-learning-curve, consistent interface.)

Weird Argument Assumes the Problem is Physical

I think this argument is disingenuous. It is like saying that the third grader learning to type their papers on a computer should change their tools when they become the next Ernest Hemingway. Or complaining that Math departments should use something more advanced than the same pen and paper used by grade schoolers or the same white chalk on a blackboard used for centuries. On the face of it this would be a bogus claim. Developments in advanced mathematics are not held back by the physical tools being held by the mathematicians in their hands.

The real question is whether what you are doing on the computer is scaling up to meet the speed and demands of the symbolic manipulation happening inside of your cortex, and even whether the tools being used change how you think about the problem -- including when your hands are not on the mouse and keyboard when you are away for a break.

Weird Argument Assumes No One Is Using Chorded Key Input

Additionally, maybe Karen Engelbart is unaware that many full-time illustrators and artists use a Wacom tablet and pressure sensitive pen in their right hand, while using their left hand to do various chords, including shortcuts for Photoshop and the like, and various keyboard modifiers and combinations of modifiers in 3-D modeling tools like Alias and Maya. In some sense all these specialized computer users already have specialized tools with high learning curves (Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Alias, Maya, Nuke, Emacs, Visual Studio, Logic Pro, Final Cut) where even experienced users are continually learning new tricks.

In other words, instead of looking at the broader computing landscape (and mobile devices in particular) she should be looking at specialized professions to see how the power users get their work done and maintain ergonomics for decades of their careers. I wonder if she is aware of the implications of ergonomics and repetitive stress problems caused by all of this virtuosity, especially the hand-cramping involved in chording multiple keys -- an actual common practice that does exist in the world, but is simply known as keyboard shortcuts.

Missing Argument That Human-Machine Interfaces Have Room From Improvement

and lack of acknowledgement of the actual challenges of deploying supposed improvements in the workplace

And finally, as much as I agree with the idea that spatial reasoning might be better mapped to human physicality, à la minority report and Oblong Industries[1], in a lot of ways this misses the boat about how people actually get work done in their narrow fields, and the realities of office anthropology, economics, and politics: what managers are willing to pay for, or not pay for -- as evidenced by the proliferation of the open office wastelands of even the most "forward-thinking" cash-laden American corporations.

Again, the speed at which the most abstract thinkers (programmers, research scientists) make progress day to day and year to year is not typically limited by how quickly they can physically enter their thoughts into the machine as programs, proofs, commands, or otherwise. If anything, their day-to-day is improved by removing weird repetitive strain actions like chording, and replacing explicit command sequences by background processes, like programmer IDE syntax checking and inline autocompletion.

If Karen's actual underlying complaint is that the folks using their uber-powerful laptop computers and pocket supercomputers do not understand them and are not benefiting from their untapped capabilities, Alan Kay has been beating that drum for a lot longer. As a member of the "elite" application-crafting class, though I agree to some degree, I also accept the idea from economics of specialization and segmentation. The best software creators I have met have understood the duty of the technical class to reach across the aisle and craft solutions that meet human customers where they are, instead of forcing the user to take responsibility for the limitations and frankly unnecessary complexities of the machine. In other words, it is not looking good for the whole field of computing when programmers think that the solution to a problem is for the user to become a programmer.


  1. I have yet to see Oblong create a piece of software with the depth of a real professional app, something way above the demo or toy level. The closest thing was the integration of applications and devices on the three screen mission control, with maps and the wand, etc. Oblong is probably right that human dexterity and the motor cortex evolved to work by doing, by movement in space and time, and studies showing that internal mental (neurological) maps incorporate tools as a literal extension of the body map shore up this perspective. ↩︎