Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Careers and Sterling

Sorry I’ve been absent for so long, nine days, in fact. But in those nine days sixty three thousand people have died of AIDS, I have revised fifty pages-worth of maths textbook, read more pages of text than your average medieval scholar would have done in a decade, suffered from an overreaction on the part of my body towards a totally harmless tree pollen, discovered a competition that offers a top cash prize of £750 that is about writing about the future of technology of all things, decided I love the music of “Alabama 3”, I watched the sublime "The Godfather", I bought a copy of Charles Stross’ The Atrocity Archives and considered that a masters in chemical engineering, followed by a post-graduate course in nanotechnology from UCL (or Cambridge [a man can dream...] or Manchester) would be quite an acceptable decision careerwise, and have fallen in love with the new MacBook. I want one. It is perfection – and it can run Windows! Now the last bastion of my resistance to buying a Mac is finally crumbling! I can have all the benefits, and not have to worry about compatibility issues.

Anyway I’ve just popped in to apologise for not updating my blog (who the hell am I apologising to?)and also that I’ve found a number of interesting articles by Bruce Sterling (whose "Schismatrix Plus" I need to read). Here is a typically interesting excerpt:

So where are the human limits? What are we supposed to do with these peculiar twin minorities: the tiny minority who can program from the silicon up and who genuinely understand computation, and the other cyber-dyslexic community who won't have any truck with computers under any circumstances? If I were a eugenicist, I would suggest that maybe we ought to interbreed these populations for the safety of the rest of society. But that's just a conceit.

More practically, I would suggest instead that the problem itself is a phantom problem. Human intellectual limits, although very much there, don't really matter all that much. There are, what, 5.7 billion people on the planet right now? Let's assume that one percent of the population can really hack. One percent of that figure would be 57 million people. This is a huge pool of creative talent, it must be as big as the entire population of Europe at the height of the Renaissance. If we can't coax a few decent multimedia programs out of that group, I would suggest that perhaps the fault lies elsewhere.

And if that makes the market smaller, so what? We can just do what Microsoft does. Instead of selling an easy workable program to a vast popular audience of 20 million people, we can sell a difficult, treacherous program to an elite audience of two million people, only we'll sell them the very same program ten times over in different upgrades.

I have often heard people in computing fretting over the purported fact that their mental inferiors can't keep up with the deep technical skills needed for computation. It's odd that I've never heard this said about television (except for VCRs, that is). I've only rarely heard it said about automobiles. Most of us can't fix or understand our televisions, and we can't fix or understand our automobiles either, but this vast ignorance about television and automobiles doesn't seem to bother anybody. We'll let most anybody get behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle which can travel a hundred miles an hour and kill a dozen people in the blink of an eye. We never demand that they learn anything about the chemistry of oil refining, or about internal combustion. We just let 'em drive the car, and if they're no good at it and kill somebody, well, that's just tough luck!

I think it might be possible to design a computer that's as easy to drive as an automobile. Where you just rent one and sit in the seat and turn the key and get going, without getting enmeshed in the barbed wire of extensions and shells and bell-and-whistle hotkeys and all the rest of it.

I think the extremes of complexity in the human computer interface may be a passing phase. You shouldn't have to become a portly UNIX freak in order to manage a computer. I suspect, in fact, that it ought to be possible to design computers simple enough for animals to use. After all, do you really need a cellphone? Your cat, that's who needs a cellphone. Who knows where your cat is right now, anyway? Your cat needs a beeper. We already have gophers and lynxes on the Internet; on the Internet nobody knows you're a dog; is there any real technical reason why can't I put my dog on the Internet? I suspect this might be genuinely possible.

I suspect the ultimate Internet link is going to look and act a lot like a make-up case. You won't see any command-line prompts when you use it. It will be a social device, a social-relations technology just like a make-up case is. When you pull it out of your purse and open it and talk face to face to your friends on the other side of the planet, you will feel just about the same kind of glamorous intimate pleasure you feel when you are pulling out and using your compact mirror. The engineers will no longer be in control. Or at least, the engineers won't be trying to one-up one another by building and selling each other macho power-user desktop dragsters full of smoke and burnt rubber and oil fumes.

These words were spoken in October 1994 at the American Center for Design “Living Surfaces” Conference, San Francisco. It is extraordinarily prescient in what (as I read it) it says about intuitive graphical user interfaces and the move towards usability.

It also touches on a pet peeve of mine: people today are perfectly capable of operating cellphones, PCs, MacBooks etc without actually having the faintest idea of how the device they are using actually works. I can’t program “from the silicon up”, but I have no problem using a PC. My last rambling rant on this topic had me move from finding this state of affairs reprehensible to finding it a monument to humanities’ interdependency. Still, I think people should try to be slightly more technically oriented. Maybe we should all try and be like shands (plural shandi? – go look it up: reference to Strata by Terry Pratchett, one of his less critically acclaimed but nevertheless superb books) who simultaneously have several different professions. Below is a list of different profession-collections:

• Chemical engineer, meat animal herder, lift-attendant and bounty hunter.
• Solid state electrician, graphic-novelist, taxi-driver and cartwheel artizan.
• Film critic, private detective, cat burglar and insurance broker.
• Pharmacist, software technician and priest.
• Religious scholar, pro boxer, lithographer and architect.

It is clear that many people living today will live much longer than you (for the purposes of this conversation, you are “Joe Everyman”) might expect, and might retrain and follow a dozen totally different career paths over your active life, constantly hoping for the event-horizon of retirement to suck you down into the placid singularity of a halting state.
Speaking of which, I bought The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross, I hope it is as good as his other books.

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