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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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!)
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.
@emdeesee I addressed why I think this is a bad idea elsewhere in this thread, in passing, but I'll be glad to get in to it in more detail if you'd like.
First: comparing JS to hypercard demonstrates to me that you've never used hypercard. The difference in levels of complexity between the two are massive. In all seriousness, go watch a hypercard tutorial, or open a stack in the editor and get a feel for how simple it is to work with.
@emdeesee 2: JS is massive and complciated and difficult to read. It can be an introductory programming language, but I don't think it makes a good one, and especially not for an 8 year old. He's doing very well with lua, and has been considering Python.
@emdeesee 3: In order to share the things you've made in the development console in firefox, you have to copy them out of the development console and in to a text editor, save them, and then either view them locally or upload them. The process is complex. Web hosting is more complicated than swapping files on flash drives or dropbox (I recognize that you could share the website files on flash drives or via dropbox, but I'd still argue that this is more complex than swapping .p8 files)
Pico-8 looks pretty neat; I'm just not familiar with it. It looks like great way to have fun with programming.
@emdeesee There's also TIC-80 which is open source.
The reason I like these platforms is because they reveal the source code for their games, and integrate an editor. This means that you can start by modifying someone else's simple program rather than trying to write your own from scratch.
@ajroach42 I should also say that when I was new to programming, printing "haha butts" 1000 times on the machine at the mall was the height of technical achievement. That probably colors my pedagogical notions, and what a new learner might feel is satisfying.
Pico-8 looks fantastically advanced to me.
@ajroach42 Sorry, I must have missed it.
@emdeesee Oh no worries. It's a huge thread, and I didn't go in to it in a lot of detail.
@ajroach42 I've used Hypercard extensively, making both apps and informational decks, though I was already an adult when Hypercard emerged. It was easy to get to do simple things and difficult to get to do complex things. But you *could* do complex things, which always felt like an accomplishment when it worked out.
It was also limited to the most expensive personal computing platform of the time.
I have nothing against Hypercard; it's fine.
@emdeesee Neat! So then you should be able to recognize the massive difficulty presented by doing simple things in JS in firefox as opposed to doing those simple things in hypercard.
Also, note that I'm not advocating that we bring hypercard back exactly. I'm lamenting that there isn't a modern analog in terms of simplicity of use.
@ajroach42 I think I do understand. My original response was thinking "out loud" about how I'd help a young person into the activity of using a programming language to do fun and cool things today...
@emdeesee If I was working with someone a little older, with a little bit of a technical background, I'd agree with you.
For this kid, at this time, it wasn't a good solution.
If you try it, I'd be curious to know how it goes.
@ajroach42 Unfortunately, my experience with this was with an unmotivated learner, and the results were ... unfulfilling for both of us.
We tried Logo and Python; this was around 2005, with a 12 year old, my daughter. Now she's learning Python on her own, and occasionally comes to me with questions, and to say, "I wish I'd let you teach me to program back in the day." 😀
@emdeesee That mirrors my experiences of trying to teach people before I started using Pico-8 (and games on code.org) as the base.
A social network for the 19A0s.