This is a presentation I made for the Eindhoven Design Academy. It is mostly self-explanatory
I long ago used a slide in my talks about the IT dark age, showing how we’d come through a period (early 90s)where engineers were in charge and it worked, into an era where accountants had got hold of it and were misusing it (mid 90s), followed by a terrible period where administrators discovered it and used it in the worst ways possible (late 90s, early 00s). After that dark age, we started to emerge into an age of IT enlightenment, where the dumbest of behaviors had hopefully been filtered out and we were starting to use it correctly and reap the benefits.
Well, we’ve gone into relapse. We have entered a period of uncertain duration where the hard-won wisdom we’d accumulated and handed down has been thrown in the bin by a new generation of engineers, accountants and administrators and some extraordinarily stupid decisions and system designs are once again being made. The new design process is apparently quite straightforward: What task are we trying to solve? How can we achieve this in the least effective, least secure, most time-consuming, most annoying, most customer loyalty destructive way possible? Now, how fast can we implement that? Get to it!
If aliens landed and looked at some of the recent ways we have started to use IT, they’d conclude that this was all a green conspiracy, designed to make everyone so anti-technology that we’d be happy to throw hundreds of years of progress away and go back to the 16th century. Given that they have been so successful in destroying so much of the environment under the banner of protecting it, there is sufficient evidence that greens really haven’t a clue what they are doing, but worse still, gullible political and business leaders will cheerfully do the exact opposite of what they want as long as the right doublespeak is used when they’re sold the policy.
The main Green laboratory in the UK is the previously nice seaside town of Brighton. Being an extreme socialist party, that one might think would be a binperson’s best friend, the Greens in charge nevertheless managed to force their binpeople to go on strike, making what ought to be an environmental paradise into a stinking litter-strewn cesspit for several weeks. They’ve also managed to create near-permanent traffic gridlock supposedly to maximise the amount of air pollution and CO2 they can get from the traffic.
More recently, they have decided to change their parking meters for the very latest IT. No longer do you have to reach into your pocket and push a few coins into a machine and carry a paper ticket all the way back to your car windscreen. Such a tedious process consumed up to a minute of your day. It simply had to be replaced with proper modern technology. There are loads of IT solutions to pick from, but the Greens apparently decided to go for the worst possible implementation, resulting in numerous press reports about how awful it is. IT should not be awful, it can and should be done in ways that are better in almost every way than old-fashioned systems. I rarely drive anyway and go to Brighton very rarely, but I am still annoyed at incompetent or deliberate misuse of IT.
If I were to go there by car, I’d also have to go via the Dartford Crossing, where again, inappropriate IT has been used incompetently to replace a tollbooth system that makes no economic sense in the first place. The government would be better off if it simply paid for it directly. Instead, each person using it is likely to be fined if they don’t know how it operates, and even if they do, they have to spend a lot more expensive time and effort to pay than before. Again, it is a severe abuse of IT, conferring a tiny benefit on a tiny group of people at the expense of significant extra load on very many people.
Another financial example is the migration to self-pay terminals in shops. In Stansted Airport’s W H Smith a couple of days ago, I sat watching a long queue of people taking forever to buy newspapers. Instead of a few seconds handing over a coin and walking out, it was taking a minute or more to read menus, choose which buttons to touch, inspecting papers to find barcodes, fumbling for credit cards, checking some more boxes, checking they hadn’t left their boarding pass or paper behind, and finally leaving. An assistant stood there idle, watching people struggle instead of serving them in a few seconds. I wanted a paper but the long queue was sufficient deterrent and they lost the sale. Who wins in such a situation? The staff who lost their jobs certainly didn’t. I as the customer had no paper to read so I didn’t win. I would be astonished with all the lost sales if W H Smith were better off so they didn’t win. The airport will likely make less from their take too. Even the terminal manufacturing industry only swaps one type of POS terminal for another with marginally different costs. I’m not knocking W H Smith, they are just another of loads of companies doing this now. But it isn’t progress, it is going backwards.
When I arrived at my hotel, another electronic terminal was replacing a check-in assistant with a check-in terminal usage assistant. He was very friendly and helpful, but check-in wasn’t any easier or faster for me, and the terminal design still needed him to be there too because like so many others, it was designed by people who have zero understanding of how other people actually do things. Just like those ticket machines in rail stations that we all detest.
When I got to my room, the thermostat used a tiny LCD panel, with tiny meaningless symbols, with no backlight, in a dimly lit room, with black text on a dark green background. So even after searching for my reading glasses, since I hadn’t brought a torch with me, I couldn’t see a thing on it so I couldn’t use the air conditioning. An on/off switch and a simple wheel with temperature marked on it used to work perfectly fine. If it ain’t broke, don’t do your very best to totally wreck it.
These are just a few everyday examples, alongside other everyday IT abuses such as minute fonts and frequent use of meaningless icons instead of straightforward text. IT is wonderful. We can make devices with absolutely superb capability for very little cost. We can make lives happier, better, easier, healthier, more prosperous, even more environmentally friendly.
Why then are so many people so intent on using advanced IT to drag us back into another dark age?
It’s been weeks since my last blog. I started a few but they need some more thought so as a catch-up, here is a nice frivolous topic, recycled from 1998.
Surely gardens are a place to get back to nature, to escape from technology? Well, when journalists ask to see really advanced technology, I take them to the garden. Humans still have a long way to go to catch up with what nature does all the time. A dragonfly catching smaller flies is just a hint of future warfare, and every flower is an exercise in high precision marketing, let alone engineering. But we will catch up, and even the stages between now and then will be fun.
Advanced garden technology today starts and ends with robotic lawn trimmers. I guess you could add the special materials used in garden tools, advanced battery tech, security monitoring, plant medications and nutrition. OK, there are already lots of advanced technologies in gardens, they just aren’t very glamorous. The fact is that our gardens already use a wide range of genetically enhanced plants and flowers, state of the art fertilizers and soil conditioners, fancy lawnmowers and automatic sprinkler systems. So what can we expect next?
Fiber optic plants already add a touch of somewhat tacky enchantment to a garden and can be a good substitute for more conventional lighting. Home security uses video cameras and webcams and some rather fun documentaries have resulted from videoing pets and wild animals during the night. There will soon be many other appliances in the future garden, including the various armies of robots and micro-bots doing a range of jobs from cutting the grass every time a blade gets more than 3 cm long, weeding, watering, pollination or carrying individual grains of fertilizer to the plants that need it. Others will fight with bugs or tidy up debris, or remove dying flowers to keep the garden looking pristine. They could even assist in propagation, burying seeds in just the right places and tending them while they become established. The garden pond may have robot ducks or fish just for fun.
Various sensors may be inserted into the ground around the garden, or smart dust just sprinkled randomly. These would warn when the ground is getting too dry and perhaps co-ordinate automatic sprinklers. They could also monitor the chemical composition, advising the gardener where to add which type of fertilizer or conditioner. In fact, when the price and size falls sufficiently, electronic sensors might well be mixed in with fertilizer and other garden care products.
With all this robot assistance, the human may design the garden and then just let the robots get on with the construction and maintenance. Or maybe just download a garden plan if they’re really lazy, or get the AI to download one.
Another obvious potential impact comes in the shape of genetic engineering. While designing the genome for custom plants is not quite as simple as assembling Lego blocks, we will nevertheless be able to pick and choose from a wide variety of characteristics available from anywhere in the plant and animal kingdom. We are promised blue roses that smell of designer perfumes, grass that only needs cut once a year and ground cover plants that actually grow faster than weeds. By messing about with genes we can thus change the appearance and characteristics of plants enormously, and while getting a company logo to appear on a flower petal might be beyond us, the garden could certainly look much more kaleidoscopic than today’s. We are already in the era where genetics has become a hobbyist activity, but so far the limits are pretty simple gene transfers to add fun things like fluorescence or light emission. Legislation will hopefully prevent people using such clubs to learn how to make viruses or bacteria for terrorist use.
In the long term we are not limited by the Lego bricks provided by nature. Nanotechnology will eventually allow us to produce inorganic ‘plants’ . You might buy a seed and drop it in the required place and it would grow into a predetermined structure just like an organic seed, taking the materials from the soil or air, or perhaps from some additives. However, there is almost no theoretical limit to the type of ‘plant’ that could be produced this way. Flowers with logos are possible, but so are video displays built into the flowers, so are garden gnomes that wander around or that actually fish in the pond. A wide range of static and dynamic ornamentation could add fun to every garden. Nanotechnology has so many possibilities, there are almost no ultimate limits to what can be done apart from the fundamental physics of materials. Power supplies for these devices could use solar, wind or thermal power.
On the patio, there is more scope for video displays in the paving and walls, to add color or atmosphere, and also to provide a recharging base for the robots without their own independent power supplies. Flat speakers could also be built into the walls, providing birdsong or other natural sounds that are otherwise declining in our gardens. Appropriately placed large display panels could simulate being on a beach while sunbathing in Nottingham (for non-Brits, Nottingham is a city not renowned for its sunshine, and very far from a beach).
All in all, the garden could become a place of relaxation, getting back to what we like best in nature, without all the boring bits looking after it in our few spare hours. Even before we retire, we will be able to enjoy the garden, instead of just weeding and cutting the grass.
1998 is a long time ago and I have lots of new ideas for the garden now, but time demands I leave them for a later blog.
Another future of… blog.
I can play simple tunes on a guitar or keyboard. I compose music, mostly just bashing out some random sequences till a decent one happens. Although I can’t offer any Mozart-level creations just yet, doing that makes me happy. Electronic keyboards raise an interesting point for creativity. All I am actually doing is pressing keys, I don’t make sounds in the same way as when I pick at guitar strings. A few chips monitor the keys, noting which ones I hit and how fast, then producing and sending appropriate signals to the speakers.
The point is that I still think of it as my music, even though all I am doing is telling a microprocessor what to do on my behalf. One day, I will be able to hum a few notes or tap a rhythm with my fingers to give the computer some idea of a theme, and it will produce beautiful works based on my idea. It will still be my music, even when 99.9% of the ‘creativity’ is done by an AI. We will still think of the machines and software just as tools, and we will still think of the music as ours.
The other arts will be similarly affected. Computers will help us build on the merest hint of human creativity, enhancing our work and enabling us to do much greater things than we could achieve by our raw ability alone. I can’t paint or draw for toffee, but I do have imagination. One day I will be able to produce good paintings, design and make my own furniture, design and make my own clothes. I could start with a few downloads in the right ballpark. The computer will help me to build on those and produce new ones along divergent lines. I will be able to guide it with verbal instructions. ‘A few more trees on the hill, and a cedar in the foreground just here, a bit bigger, and move it to the left a bit’. Why buy a mass produced design when you can have a completely personal design?
These advances are unlikely to make a big dent in conventional art sales. Professional artists will always retain an edge, maybe even by producing the best seeds for computer creativity. Instead, computer assisted and computer enhanced art will make our lives more artistically enriched, and ourselves more fulfilled as a result. We will be able to express our own personalities more effectively in our everyday environment, instead of just decorating it with a few expressions of someone else’s.
However, one factor that seems to be overrated is originality. Anyone can immediately come up with many original ideas in seconds. Stick a safety pin in an orange and tie a red string through the loop. There, can I have my Turner prize now? There is an infinitely large field to pick from and only a small number have ever been realized, so coming up with something from the infinite set that still haven’t been thought of is easy and therefore of little intrinsic value. Ideas are ten a penny. It is only when it is combined with judgement or skill in making it real that it becomes valuable. Here again, computers will be able to assist. Analyzing a great many existing pictures or works or art should give some clues as to what most people like and dislike. IBM’s new neural chip is the sort of development that will accelerate this trend enormously. Machines will learn how to decide whether a picture is likely to be attractive to people or not. It should be possible for a computer to automatically create new pictures in a particular style or taste by either recombining appropriate ideas, or just randomly mixing any ideas together and then filtering the new pictures according to ‘taste’.
Augmented reality and other branches of cyberspace offer greater flexibility. Virtual objects and environments do not have to conform to laws of physics, so more elaborate and artistic structures are possible. Adding in 3D printing extends virtual graphics into the physical domain, but physics will only apply to the physical bits, and with future display technology, you might not easily be able to see where the physical stops and the virtual begins.
So, with machine assistance, human creativity will no longer be as limited by personal skill and talent. Anyone with a spark of creativity will be able to achieve great works, thanks to machine assistance. So long as you aren’t competitive about it, (someone else will always be able to do it better than you) your world will feel nicer, more friendly and personal, you’ll feel more in control, empowered, and your quality of life will improve. Instead of just making do with what you can buy, you’ll be able to decide what your world looks, sounds, feels, tastes and smells like, and design personality into anything you want too.
This blog is caused by an interaction with Nick Colosimo, thanks Nick.
We were discussing whether usage differences for gadgets were generational. I think they are but not because older people find it hard to learn new tricks. Apart from a few unfortunate people whose brains go downhill when they get old, older people have shown they are perfectly able and willing to learn web stuff. Older people were among the busiest early adopters of social media.
I think the problem is the volume of earlier habits that need to be unlearned. I am 53 and have used computers every day since 1981. I have used slide rules and log tables, an abacus, an analog computer, several mainframes, a few minicomputers, many assorted Macs and PCs and numerous PDAs, smartphones and now tablets. They all have very different ways of using them and although I can’t say I struggle with any of them, I do find the differing implementations of features and mechanisms annoying. Each time a new operating system comes along, or a new style of PDA, you have to learn a new design language, remember where all the menus, sub-menus and all the various features are hidden on this one, how they interconnect and what depends on what.
That’s where the prejudice kicks in. The many hours of experience you have on previous systems have made you adept at navigating through a sea of features, menus, facilities. You are native to the design language, the way you do things, the places to look for buttons or menus, even what the buttons look like. You understand its culture, thoroughly. When a new device or OS is very different, using it is like going on holiday. It is like emigrating if you’re making a permanent switch. You have the ability to adapt, but the prejudice caused by your long experience on a previous system makes that harder. Your first uses involve translation from the old to the new, just like translating foreignish to your own language, rather than thinking in the new language as you will after lengthy exposure. Your attitude to anything on the new system is colored by your experiences with the old one.
It isn’t stupidity that making you slow and incompetent. Its interfacial prejudice.