I make no secret of the fact that I love old computers, and that I think modern computers have lost their way in terms of providing utility to users. To that end, I write about, and think about, computers and the way to move computers forward, without losing site of the fact that computers should serve their users. I grew up with hand-me-down computers, from Atari to Apple to Dell, and in the process I got to experience a sizable portion of computer history very quickly, in my teen years.
This left me with Opinions.
I write about things that are informed by these opinions often. When I talk about building a World Wide Web analog without the internet, about reviving the BBS or when I lament the fact that Gopher was doomed to obscurity by the modern web, it is in response to my experiences with an array of computers from the dawn of the home computer revolution up through to the modern age. There was a time when computers were magical.
I had come, in recent months, to suspect that I might just be an old fuddy-duddy. I'm approaching 30 years old, and I had begun to feel like I was looking at modern computers and modern software through the lens of someone who was being left behind, shouting at the sky, shaking my fists at the kids on my lawn. I was coming to the conclusion that my love of these computers of my childhood, and of ones that I had never had the chance to interact with, was some kind of rose tinted nostalgia.
I had not fully subscribed to this theory, but it seemed more likely that I was romanticizing something that was actually Not Great that it was that nearly every modern software and hardware platform had inexplicably gotten shittier.
I am now prepaired to say, with conviction, that every modern hardware and software platform has gotten shittier, and that it's not inexplicable. I'm going to try to explain how I came to this conclusion, and give some potential explainations.
First, let me lay out a little bit about my technical literacy and my profession, this might help explain some of the assertions that I'm going to make. I started using computers, and the internet, in 1995. Our family computer, my first computer, ran Windows 3.11 (for workgroups). Later, in the late 90s, I was given an Atari 400 and reams of books and magazines on basic, followed shortly by an Apple II GS and dozens of disks of software.
Later still, I started collecting computer detritus, and assembling frankenstiend linux boxes, and emulating some of the the machines I read about in the magazines I had as a kid.
I loved computers. I loved making weird little programs, and silly applications and games. I'd build things in GW Basic or Freebasic, and distribute it to my friends on floppy disks. Even in the latter half of the 00s, I was passing half broken games around on floppy disks (or collections on CD-Rs, when I could talk someone in to buying some for me.) Computers were, by and large, ubiquitous in my life. Nearly everyone had an old one they didn't want, and a new one they didn't understand.
For a teenager and an aspiring computer programmer, the 00s were a great time to learn.
I collected cast offs from neighbors, from thrift stores, from office upgrades. I rebuilt them, installed useful or fun software on them, and sold them or gave them away. All of my friends had computers of their own, because I had access to these machines, and I cared enough to outfit them with the appropriate software.
(It must be said, at this point, that 'useful' and 'appropriate' are relative terms. In 2009 I gave a good friend a computer that had been built for Windows 98. It was running Puppy Linux from a CD, and saving data to a USB flash drive over USB 1.1. It did word processing, email, and basic web browsing. It had a whopping 64MB of RAM, and was covered in glitter, googley eyes, and carpet samples. But it was free, and it wasn't useless, and that was important.)
I went to school to become a programmer, and discovered that I don't enjoy programming as it exits today. I understand it well enough, and I *can* do it, but I don't *want* to. I make websites, and I build tools to help other people use computers.
I make my living as a systems administrator and support engineer. (and I'm looking for a new gig, if you're hiring.) That's a fancy way of saying that I solve people's computer problems. Professionally, I'm responsible for identifying and mitigating the shortcomings of various computer systems.
There are a lot of these shortcomings. Like, a lot. More than I ever expected.
Some of these shortcomings are legitimate bugs. Some of them are bafflingly short sighted or poorly considered architectural decisions. Just as many are cases of a divergence between the needs of the user and the abilities of a program. Modern programs are often feature incomplete, poorly supported, and difficult or impossible to customize. Modern computers are often slow, and cranky. I'm responsible for handling the fallout of this unfortunate situation.
I've seen how revolutionary a computer can be, if it is designed with the needs of the user in mind, and how disastrous the same can be when it is not. I've seen computers used to empower people, and used to oppress. I've seen computers be Good, and the consequences of when they are not.
So that's who I am, and my experience with computers so far. Those are my credentials, and my qualifications.
Before we go any further, let's talk about The Computer Chronicles.
The Computer Chronicles was a TV show that ran from the early 80s through the early 00s. Over it's nearly 20 year run, The Computer Chronicles covered nearly every facet of the newly developing Computer industry. It was hosted by people with Opinions.
The guests were, frequently, people who were proud of the things they made, or the software they represented.
Watching the developer of CP/M and DR DOS talk to a mainframe engineer who worked at IBM in the 50s about the future of computers as seen from the 1980s was eye opening.
On the one hand, this show serves as an excellent introduction to, or reminder of, the capabilities of computers 35 years ago. It helps us see how far we've come in terms of miniaturization, while also demonstrating again that, in many ways, there is nothing new under the sun.
Before the advent of the internet, reporters were writing their stories on laptops and sending them in over phone lines, 25 years before the release of the iphone HP released a computer with a touchscreen, three years before microsoft released he first version of windows Apple and Visicorp demontrated GUIs wih features that Windows wouldn't be able to approach for another 9+ years.
And, of course, I'm reminded again of Douglas Engelbart's 1968 "Mother of all Demos", in which he demonstrated the mouse, the GUI, instant messaging, networked gaming, and basically every other important development of the following 50 years.
It took 5 years for Xerox to refine and miniturize Engelbart's ideas to the point that they thought they could market them, and another 10 years before Apple refined and further miniturizaed the same ideas, and brought us the Mac.
Nothing is ever new.
The whole video of Engelbart's Online System (NLS) is available on youtube. Some of it is *really* interesting. Most of it is unfortunately dry. It's easy to forget that this was 50 years ago, and also mindblowing that it was only 50 years ago.
Anyway, back to Computer Chronicles. In an episode about Word Proccessors, the man they were interviewing said "There's a lot of talk about making people more computer literate. I'd rather make computers more people literate." There's a phrase that resonated with me in a big way.
It sounds like the kind of semantic buzzword shuffling so common in standard corporate speak, but I got the impression that the guy that said it, believed it. He believed that computers had gotten powerful enough that they no longer had to be inscrutable.
There were others working around the same time on similar ideas, or at least from a similar philosophy. Working to make computers, if not intuitive, at least comprehensible. I think this is a noble goal.
The computer is often thought of as a tool, but it is more like a tool shed, in which we store a collection of tools, a source of power, and a workspace.
The tools of the 60s and 70s were primitive, partially because of the limited space and limited power our toolbox could provide for them, but also because our ideas and understanding of how these tools should work were limited by the audience who was using the tools.
Computer culture had, by and large, a kind of elitism about it as a result of the expense and education required to really spend much time with a computer. This changed, slowly, starting in the mid 70s with the development of the Microcomputer Market and CP/M.
Computers became more affordable, slowly. Affordable computers became more powerful, quickly. Within 10 years, non-technical users were interacting with computers on a daily basis. It was against the beginnings of this backdrop that the phrase I mentioned earlier was coined. "Human Literate Computers" or "Human Centered Computing."
Ease of Use was the holy grail for a lot of computer companies. A computer that was so easy to use that they could sell it to grandma. But, to me at least, Human Literate and Easy to Use are distinct ideas. Many modern applications are Easy to Use. Netflix is Easy to Use. Facebook is, for all it's faults, pretty easy to use. The iPhone, the iPad, and ChromeOS are super easy to use.
Well, they are easy to use as long as you use them in the prescribed way. As long as you let them tell you what you want to do, instead of the other way around.
That, IMO, is the distinction.
I think that many of the steps towards demystifying the computer of the 80s and 90s did good work, but ultimately, the computer industry left the whole idea behind, in favor of making some tasks Very Easy while making other tasks Practically Impossible, and turning everything into a surveillance device.
When I was a kid I was brought up with computers that showed you how they worked.
You booted in to a command prompt or a programming language, or you could get to one, if you wanted to.
I got to play with GW Basic and qBasic and, a little, with hypercard.
I got to take apart software and put it back together and make things that made people happy.
I got to make things that I needed. I got to make things that make me happy.
Today, the tools to do that are complex to compensate for the vast additional capabilities of a modern computer, but also to reinforce technical elitism.
I often wonder why Hypercard had to die.
It was because Jobs wanted the Computer to be an Appliance. A thing only used in prescribed ways.
Letting people build their own tools means letting people control their own destiny.
If I can make what I want, or if someone else can make what they want, and then I can take it apart and improve it, why would I pay for an upgrade? Why would I pay you to build something that doesn't meet my needs?
I'm mentioning hypercard specifically because I've been relearning hypercard recently, and it is *better* and more useful than I remember it being.
It's honestly revelatory.
Hypercard, if your unfamiliar, is powerpoint + instructions.
Here's a great introduction/example: http://www.loper-os.org/?p=568
The author walks you through building a calculator app in about 5 minutes, step by step.
Warning: There's a bit of ableist language tossed around in the last paragraph. Skip it, there's nothing worth reading there anyway.
You use the same kinds of tools you would use to build a slideshow, but you couple them with links, multimedia, and scripting.
Want a visual interface for your database of client data? Great! slap together a roladex card, and drop in a search function.
Go from concept to presentation ready in an hour or two (or less, if you've done this before!)
Hypercard was easy to use. Everyone who used it loved it. It was integral to many businesses daily operations.
Jobs killed it because he couldn't control it.
Microsoft doesn't ship any tools for building programs with their OS anymore, either.
They used to. There was a time when you could sit down at any windows or DOS machine and code up a program that would run on any other Windows or DOS machine.
But we can't have that anymore.
In the name of Ease of Use, they left out the Human aspect.
Use your computer how you're told to use it, and everything is easy.
Do anything new or novel and it's a struggle.
My nephew has an ipad.
He asked his dad how to write games. His dad didn't know. His dad asked me how to write games on an iPad. I told him not to bother.
My nephew asked me how to learn to write games.
I gave him a raspberry pi and a copy of pico 8.
Now he writes computer games.
He couldn't do that on his iPad.
Hypercard would be a perfect fit for the iPad and iPhone.
Imagine the things you could build.
But we aren't allowed to have computers that are fun to use, that are easy to build for, that are human centric, or human literate.
The last 10 years of development in computers were a mistake. Maybe longer.
Instead of making computers Do More, or making them Feel Faster, we've chased benchmarks, made them more reliant on remote servers, and made them less generally useful. We brought back the digital serfdom of the mainframe.
In the first episode of computer chronicles (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpXnqBfgvPM) the mainframe guy is real adamant about how mainframes are good and micros are bad.
The host, a microcomputer legend, disagrees pretty strongly.
Later, when they talk about the future of networking, the mainframe guy talks about it as a return to mainframes. The micro guy talks about BBSs, peer to peer networks.
The mainframe guys are winning.
(this is not to say that I think mainframes are bad. I don't. Mainframes can be really good and interesting! Plato was wonderful, as were some of the early unix mainframes.
But IBM style Mainframe culture is The Computer as a thing you Use but don't Control culture, and I am very against that.)
I have to step away for a while. I'll continue this later.
Alright, I'm back for a bit.
I have a few dozen replies to get through. If I'm still awake after that, I'll continue my thoughts. I have a lot more to say, but I'm not sure if I have the energy tonight. Might have to pick it back up after work tomorrow.
Lots of people in the replies to my original thread had lots of very negative comments about computer users vs computer programmers, and some of them seem to think that every human alive (excepting themselves) is some kind of half creature, incapable and undeserving of tools designed to meet their needs.
This is the technoelitism I mentioned earlier.
I'm done having that conversation. If you wanna talk about how computers should remain complicated, or how people should just learn to use the tools we foist on them, go somewhere else.
I'm not really even interested in talking about programming tools beyond lamenting the loss of programming as a fundamental part of the computing experience, rather than a niche secondary thing.
@ajroach42 I want to respond, elaborate, & discuss at length here. I spent about 10 months some years ago immersed in the computing literature around the history of debuggers, during which I went from EDSAC to Visual Studio, but also all the other half-dead ends ends of computing history such as, e.g., Lisp machines.
Naturally, I came out of it a Common Lisper, and also naturally, with Opinions about modern computing.
Up for the discussion? It could get wordy and over a few days. :)
That's super interesting. I'm bookmarking this to go through in my downtime tomorrow.
If it is what it appears to be, then I can't wait to spend all my time on it.
@ajroach42 I've still got a lightning talk (5 or 10 minutes) under my belt, "Users vs. Programmers" to give at Akademy or something similar. Not this year, though, I don't have the spoons. What I want to do is prove that every programmer is also a user unless they make all their own tools.
@ajroach42 I feel like, fundamentally, the approach to what a computer should be *for* has changed.
I'd argue that, from the 1930s to the early 1970s or so, computers were primarily built to solve some sort of task first and foremost. There was plenty of experimentation with those computers, and there were occasionally purely experimental machines, but the industry was focused on meeting business and governmental needs.
@ajroach42 The mid 1970s personal computer revolution, was a fundamental shift, though.
People wanted a computer, not necessarily to do a certain task for them, but *for the sake of having a computer*, so they could tinker with it.
The earlier large computer users were programmers as well in many cases, and some were enthusiastic, but ultimately, they used a computer because they were paid to make the computer owner's job easier.
Not so for the 1970s personal computer owner.
@ajroach42 thats because the people in power benefit from that economically.
@ajroach42 the mainframe is just in the cloud now.
@thegibson More or less.
Except that it's less like the Mainframes I love (university systems and the like) and more like a giant timesharing system where everything you do is tracked.
(Hand jerking off motion dot gif)
@ajroach42 Some people thought this is a nice idea. Especially the plan9 folks (I cannot find the right source to the interview I saw)
I think Ease Of Use got in the way of Control Your Own Machine. This was promoted by Microsoft and other large companies in their own interest and then mistakenly chosen by the users.
The truth is computers are not easy to use. Ease Of Use does not make them easy to use. It takes some learning to "get" (grok) computers.
@hairylarry I agree!
And we've settled for ease of use for business reasons, financial reasons, even though it's worse for users in the long run.
Learning to drive a car is also difficult and frustrating and dangerous, but people manage to do that.
There is a better balance available between ease of use and local control, and we gotta find it.
I don't think we've settled for ease of use as much as we've settled on "increased engagement"... How to keep peoples eyeballs glued to your product.
Gopher is very easy to use, more so than a typical website today... But a gopher hole gets you where you need,and then you're done.
Most websites have a goal of keeping you there longer.
@ajroach42 Awesome story. 👍
Disagree. Firstly I'm not persuaded that the mainframe is a bad thing, and secondly pervasive computing infrastructure allows us to do things we couldn't before.
The question is who controls it it and to whom are they answerable? Mastodon is like Usenet: control is distributed. There are problems with that as Usenet found, but they're radically different from the problems creared by monopolists like Facebook.
@simon_brooke in the next post in this thread I said that I didn’t think all mainframes were a bad thing, and that the problem was down to who controlled them.
But federation is weird and it’s entirely possible that you didn’t click through to see that one.
I agree that modern ubiquitous computing should allow us to do things we’ve never done before. I lament that those things are mostly ‘spy on people in novel ways’ so far.
Fair enough, I didn't see that. But I'd plead there's far more to pervasive computing than new ways of spying on OTHER people. I really appreciate the many new ways of spying on myself. It allows me to track and map my cycling, correlate my mood with local weather, compute my blood clotting factor and adjust my medication, remind myself when I need to leave home to get to events, and advise me the best way to get there avoiding traffic. It makes my life better.
@simon_brooke I couldn't agree more.
My concern is mostly that all of those things rely on other people, and that those other people can't be trusted.
Finally found time to read this whole thread. Quite a piece of writing. I answered your last post in the thread but all I said was stuff you were already talking about earlier that I hadn't read yet.
@hairylarry I'm still trying to get it turned in to a blog post, but I got distracted by my new toy.
What new toy.
@ajroach42 I agree with what you’re saying, but could you explain what you mean by that last line? “We brought back the digital serfdom of the mainframe.”
@Thepunkgeek there was a time when, at least for certain definitions of the word computer, no one could afford home computers, so they had terminals and dialed in to corporate or educational mainframes.
They had no control over these systems. They were serfs, limited by the will of the sysadmin who controlled what programs they could run, how long they could stay logged in, and what files they were allowed to access. They had no privacy.
A social network for the 19A0s.