Why computers are still no good

When friends of mine profess frustration with the technology in their lives, I remind them who to blame.

Picture the scene: It’s 1982 and some kids are asking their friend to come out and play. This 10-year-old has a choice to make. He can either solve the problem he has on his VIC-20 home computer, or go out and play in the sun.

The choice is between fixing software or being with humans.

The problem of how to program a computer can be solved. If you are smart enough, you can make the computer do what you want. If there is an error, you can find it. Eventually. Computer output can be predicted based on all the inputs. That’s the problem with humans. Their ‘output’ can’t be predicted. Even if you give them the same input, they’re always acting in inconsistent ways. There is not accepted way of understanding human actions and reactions. They can be difficult to deal with.

This decision wasn’t very difficult for many of those who went on to create the hardware and software we use today. It was simpler, more elegant, more satisfying to stay in their bedrooms learning Commodore machine code, CP/M, the Phoenix BIOS, dBase.

The irony is that the very people who find designing hardware and software so appealing are the ones that find it the hardest to identify with those who use the products of their labours.

So, when you next get a ridiculous error message, or your work vanishes for no reason, remember that you’ve done enough work in understanding how all this stuff works. It’s time for all this expensive technology to meet us at least half way. At least don’t feel you should know what went wrong. Understand that the creators of this technology barely understand the daily lives of the people who battle to use their products every day.

That won’t bring your work back, but at least you shouldn’t feel that you’ve done something wrong. Grit your teeth, hold on for another few years, and wait for the time when computers and software are good enough for you to use.

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