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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.

That is to say, in the 60s and 70s, computers were weak and slow and computer users were also computer programmers. A small, tight knit circle of developers and computer scientists were responsible for the bulk of the progress made in that time, and the idea of designing tools for non-technical users was never considered.

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:

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 it!

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 ( 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.

@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. :)

@pnathan for sure.

I haven’t gotten in to lisp machines yet, but I’m always down for discussion.

@ajroach42 @pnathan
This thread is going to be gold :)
(I'm replying here so that I won't forget about it...)

@ciaby @pnathan I hope you enjoy! I'm looking forward to the discussion as well.

@ajroach42 @ciaby
OK, so, I'm about a decade older than you, Andrew: I taught myself QBasic in the mid 90s, got online late 90s, never really looked back.

First, I want to say this: older computer systems - considered as systems - were generally more capable.

But to be clear, they were limited in use for those who didn't take an interest in learning them. I'm talking about things that weren't Windows 3.1+.

@ajroach42 @ciaby This was the Great Debate that was largely won by Microsoft. "Everyone can 'use' a computer.". That is to say, everyone can operate the appliance with preinstalled software. *everyone*. Apple pioneered the notion, but it turns out to be the preferred mode for businesses, who really rather don't like having specialized experts.

@ajroach42 @ciaby It is my contention that Windows (& *nix) computer systems are designed to be administrated and managed by sysadmins, and the user experience in this case is great.

When you have sysadmins, there are no driver problems. There are no printer problems. There are no problems, as a matter of fact: it's all been taken care of by the admins.

This is exactly how executives like it.

Apple does the same, with their iPhone.

Apple is the sysadmin, metaphorically.

@ajroach42 @ciaby

Here is the fundamental conundrum of computers: to use at an expert level - to really make the machine work for you, you must become an expert too, and usually a programmer, even ad hoc.

Efforts to avoid and deny this have occurred for *decades*.


Some of Engelbarts work.

Algol (ish)


Chris Granger's 'Eve'.


FPGA designers with CAD addons.

Embedded system CAD tooling

numerous academic papers

@ajroach42 @ciaby

all these systems collapsed at a point: the point where the fundamental reality of the problem met the fundamental reality of the machine.

programming had to occur.

Apple solved this by making so many programs available on the iThings for so many niche issues, that programmers would code what was needed and the user didn't have to care anymore about surmounting the issue.

Same for businesses & windows, essentially.

@ajroach42 @ciaby

so here's the problem: you're right. computers are easier to use, fsvo of use.

but the truth was, back when computers were harder to use, in the 90s... people really hated learning how to use them. there was an immense demand for not having to think (there's a book called "don't make me think" about this whole problem).

so we have this weird place where no one outside of the "'elite" wanted to care, and they resented being made to care.

so apple won by fulfilling that.

@pnathan @ajroach42 @ciaby
A sort of side dilemma with this is that, by turning computers into magic boxes for making increasingly complex layers of tasks accessible to average people, this understanding gap just widens. Average users become increasingly disconnected from even a baseline understanding of the processes and design patterns at work in computing, and the knowledge of the "elites" becomes ever more rarified.

@pnathan @ajroach42 @ciaby
How can there ever be reasoned popular discourse about the practical, moral, and political implications of modern computing, if you have to be a developer or programmer to even understand the basic concepts?

@cossimo @ajroach42 @ciaby this is an incredibly important point and its part of why I reluctantly support "everyone must code" efforts in schools, despite its attachment to the jobs ideal.

it's analogous to the idea that in a lab at school, you encounter ideas of safety and ideas relevant to the discipline, even if you never do anything with it again.

but, then again, we can describe the effects of computing without being a programmer. This is, I think, the lesson of the environmental movemen

@cossimo @ajroach42 @ciaby You don't have to be a chemist to demand that a paper mill not put outputs into your drinking water.

Likewise, you don't have to be a programmer to note that Facebook & Twitter's algorithms are outrage machines and should be regulated for the good of our society.

@pnathan @ajroach42 @ciaby
Very true. The "outrage machine" is a pretty easily understandable by-product of FB and Twitter, because it is so overt. By contrast, I think average people have much less of an understanding, for example, of the APIs, tracking pixels/widgets, apps, etc., the FB and Twitter algorithms use to collect and aggregate data about them, or how that data gets used to tailor their everyday experience.

@pnathan @ajroach42 @ciaby
I think most people are still fairly ignorant (perhaps willfully so) of how closely they are tracked and how their phones make their every action a data point.

Similarly, to riff on the chemistry example, most people are blissfully ignorant about all the *stuff* that gets put in their food and most of the inhumane or unsustainable process that are used to create it.

@pnathan @ajroach42 @ciaby
The more seamlessly invisible a technology is, the more people willfully ignore it, no matter how dangerous it is.

Anyway, didn't mean to drag this (awesome) thread off on such a tangent.

@cossimo @ajroach42 @ciaby I don't think it's precisely a tangent though: invisibility and lack of understanding - or lack of desire to understand - helped build the problem we have today.

if all users really cared deeply about understanding and collapsing the user/programmer division, then we'd probably all be using a Linux core with a Lisp machine on top; everyone would intuitively understand algorithms and how the net worked.

but they prioritize other things, WHICH IS FINE.


@pnathan @ciaby @cossimo

Lisp machines also failed economically.

CP/M was better and more widely used than DOS, but IBM took DOS anyway.

It doesn't matter what users want, if it's not offered to the users.

We have software monopolies today.

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