Computers are hard. Who's to blame?

On January 27th, Apple announced the iPad. And even though the device isn't even on sale yet, it's sparked a lot of debate over the future of computing. In the latest WIRED, Steven Levy says the iPad "represents an ambitious rethinking of how we use computers. No more files and folders, physical keyboards and mouses."

Indeed, the iPad (and its little brothers, the iPhone and iPod touch) abstract much of the computer away. Apple watcher and former Spark guest John Gruber says it's a bit like the automatic transmission in a car:

Used to be that to drive a car, you, the driver, needed to operate a clutch pedal and gear shifter and manually change gears for the transmission as you accelerated and decelerated. Then came the automatic transmission. With an automatic, the transmission is entirely abstracted away. The clutch is gone. To go faster, you just press harder on the gas pedal. That's where Apple is taking computing. A car with an automatic transmission still shifts gears; the driver just doesn't need to know about it. A computer running iPhone OS still has a hierarchical file system; the user just never sees it.
And from the standpoint of the vast majority of computer users, this abstraction can be a good thing. It makes computing simpler, easier, friendlier. Why should I need to understand what's going on under the hood of my computer if all I want to do is send email to my friends? According to Jono S. Xia from Mozilla Labs:

computer interfaces have traditionally had a huge amount of unnecessary complexity to them. There's no reason a user should have to know the difference between POP and IMAP email protocols, so we quite rightly try to hide that difference away to simplify the interface.
It's true. I have absolutely no desire to know how my microwave works. I just want it to heat up my leftovers.

But I wonder, is the same attitude towards computers dangerous? Does oversimplifying technology --removing necessary complexity -- have a downside? By making technology simple, easy, and convenient, do we risk a generation of people who can't tell the difference between this blog post and the Facebook login page?

As I ponder this, I'm a bit torn. The technology populist in me wants to say, "Of course, make computers easy! What's wrong with making computers as simple and friendly as possible?"

But another (geekier, snobbier) part of me wants to say, "Yes, computers are hard, and that can be a good thing. I don't want to use technology designed for the lowest common denominator."

So then, this week on Spark, we're going to try and tackle this question: If I don't understand how to use my computer, whose fault is it? Is it my fault for not wanting to read manuals or spend time learning a new technology? Or is it the fault of the designers and engineers who build the technology we use?

 

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