Tree Easier, Forest Harder

Voice Card  -  Volume 28  -  John Card Number 10  -  Tue, Jun 8, 1993 12:10 AM

This is ONE OF 4 responses to VC 27 John 15 ("Easier or Harder?")...

For the last few months Paul and I have been debating this question: "Are computers getting easier to use or harder to use?" When I first posed the question, the answer seemed obvious to me: computers are getting harder to use. But to Paul the answer was equally obvious: computers are getting easier to use.

Since then I've asked dozens of people; some say easier, some say harder, most say both (or neither). As usual, the answer depends on how the question is interpretted. What do I mean by computer? (PC? Mac? Mainframe?) What do I mean by easier? (Less time-consuming? Less confusing? Less complex?) And, as Holly asked, what do I mean by "use"?

The reason I thought computers were getting harder to use is that, taken as a whole, all the different operating systems and applications and networked environments, are MUCH more complex than they used to be. I used to be able to explain the Macintosh and all available software to a novice in under a half hour. Today I don't understand more than a fraction of the overall system.

At work we deal with a building full of Macs and PCs all interconnected and using the latest software. Even though some of the people I work with are leading experts in their various sub-disciplines, we are constantly baffled by the things that go wrong. Even experts are becoming superstitious about computer behavior.

Consider the typical secretary (now called a word processor). Twenty years ago the only gadgets she needed to comprehend were a telephone and a typewriter. Granted, typewriters are very limited in what they can do by today's standards, but at least they are easy to understand. You put in the paper. You type the letters. You remove the paper.

Today's word processor is required to be a computer expert. She has to master the intricacies of at least one (and often more) arcane operating systems, at least one (and usually more) word processing programs, file servers, all kinds of printers (with their attendant printer drivers), networks, e-mail, fax gateways, spreadsheets, page layout programs, fonts (both bit-mapped and vector-based), file formats, optical character readers, memory upgrades, screen savers, virus checkers, disk formatting, PICTS, TIFF files, encapsulated postscript, fragmentation, memory allocation, ram disks, inits, cdevs, TSRs, macros, translation protocalls, mail merging, passwords, windows, publish-and-subscribe, hotlinks, command keys, daisy chaining, modems, I/O ports, templates, and the list goes on. And on. And on!

In order to even begin to handle all of this, she is sent to one class after another. Her cubicle is lined with computer manuals. She is frequently visited by an I/S support person who often has less of a clue about what's going on than she does. And taped to the side of her computer is a list of support lines in case a problem arises in one of these interlocking systems. And problems do arise. Every day.

Paul's response, as I understand it, is "look how easy it is to do a newletter! You want three columns? Push a button. Spell checking? No problem! A photograph? Just paste it in! Try doing THAT on a typewriter!" In other words, tasks that were difficult or impossible for one person to do with yesterday's tools are now relatively easy (once you learn how).

But as Larry observed, "it really isn't any easier or faster. I'm simply getting much more in return for my efforts." We expect more now than we used to.

After much give and take, I've come to the following conclusion about the dramatically different answers Paul and I found to the same question. I think Paul wasn't seeing the forest for the trees, and I wasn't seeing the trees for the forest.

A specific task like a newletter, defined according to today's expectations, can be done much easier with today's tools than with yesterday's tools. But the general task of, say, being a word processor, requires much more knowledge and problem-solving skills than it used to. A good page layout program may make it easier to produce a newsletter, but whether that newletter is actually easy to produce on a given day will depend on a thousand variables and on the skill and experience of the person confronted with all the surprises a complex computer environment can unleash. The trees are, in a sense, getting easier to use. But there are a lot more trees than there used to be and so the overall forest of computers is getting harder to use.

What, if anything, can we do about this? Can a computer system be designed that is as easy to use as a car? Any moron can (and often does) drive a car without having to take special classes or read a shelf full of manuals or make daily calls to technical support. Can we make computers this easy to use? As easy to use as the holodeck in Star Trek? And if there is a way, are we moving closer to this goal? Or farther away?