The Tyranny of Typewriters

An internal combustion engine is a hideous thing.

It’s basically a container for an explosion of toxic fuel that produces a noxious gas, the energy of which is converted into torsional motion.  We created it to power, among other things, personal conveyances known as automobiles.

To hide the ugly, noisy business that a motor does, we begin by burying it deep in the body work of cars.  There, it can remain ugly or be covered by a piece of plastic, but generally we don’t care.  If we get a little more creative, we give the motor a good coat of paint and cover it with pretty chrome bits.  Take it a little further, and we might create a smaller conveyance to showcase the beauty of the artful job we think we’ve done at hiding that violent process.  This is called a motorcycle, and it might be the pinnacle expression of our cunning skill at prettying-up and taming that oily, filthy combustion process.  Some may even revel in the loud ugliness and create a totemistic temple for it.  This is called a dragster.

But in the end, all of this is done to accomplish one simple thing – move a human from here to there. We may tack on all kinds of ornament and flair, but only because we have to and we can, and it’s our nature as a creative, expressive species.  We do this to make the intrusion of technology into our lives more palatable and compatible with our minds and bodies.

Cars have evolved to solve these problems in as many ways as are practically and financially possible, but we haven’t quite figured out how to move each other around without brining hundreds or thousands of pounds of metal, plastic, and oil along with us.

Computers have had a similar evolutionary process in terms of interface design. The Reason for a computer is to help us organize and work with data.  The motor is the CPU, and it does hideously complex calculations at mind bending speeds in order to serve, store and manipulate that data based on our input, but it’s still just another bit of machinery in the chain that connects our minds with our data.  Most of us can’t talk directly to a CPU, so we create code and pictures to help us translate 1’s and 0’s into things we can cope with.  On top of that processor and software, there is a chain of machines that get that data to our eyes and hands.  The state of the modern desktop computer is a study in the tradeoffs we have had to make within the limitations of those machines.

So what’s the best kind of computer?  Well, the simplest kind.  The kind that makes the route from my brain to my interaction with data as short as it can possibly be, and stays out of my way as it does so.

Up until now, the ways in which we’ve had to reach that data have been largely mechanical, with mice and keyboards adding a layer of abstraction between the user and the actual application data.  The problem with computer design has been that these interface problems have been solved indirectly, with more and more complicated pieces of machinery inserted between the user and their data to cover up the ugliness of the technology.  A mouse sits on your desk, but it really represents a pointer that is floating in space in front of you.  This is a convenience over trying to place a pointer with a keyboard, but its still an abstraction that physically divides the user from the work being done.  The keyboard/mouse barrier is inherited from the typewriter paradigm that has largely shaped our conception of how we should communicate with computers since computers were invented.

But now this model is changing, and it’s changing fast.  Suddenly we’ve found a new kind of interface in our lives – touchscreen technology, and more specifically, multi-touch interfaces.  This is a major shift away from the gadget-chain, and one that has the ability to revolutionize how we talk to our machines.

Take photography for instance. I learned photography long before digital cameras existed in any consumer sense, and in my many years of working with film, enlargers, light tables, matte cutters, etc, I never once thought that it might be fun to edit my photos on a typewriter.  Yet that’s what we all do now.  We do everything on a typewriter every single day, and we do it because the problem of human interface has been stuck on the typewriter-gadget-chain concept for everything.  Computers may come in many shapes and sizes, but they follow the same paradigm of a typewriter with a big bit that we look at and a little critter that we push around to point at things.

Why should this paradigm apply to photography?  Or graphic design or painting?  Or 3D modeling or engineering?

It doesn’t have to, and it looks like it might be ending very soon.  When data is sprung from the shackles of the desktop typewriter model it will be free to be used in more direct, efficient ways, instead of forcing us to carry around something as ergonomically nightmarish as, for instance, a laptop.

The iPad isn’t the answer to all this, but it’s the next step on the right road to an answer. It remains to be seen how big of a step, but the road itself is clear – data will be moving closer to our fingers and our minds, and the mechanical barriers will continue to diminish until they no longer force us to adapt to uncomfortable, inefficient, repetitive motions.

Imagine what we’ll be able to do when those barriers are gone.

-c

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~ by ChrissyOne on February 2, 2010.

One Response to “The Tyranny of Typewriters”

  1. I’m both hopeful about, and terrified by, the fact that we are becoming figuratively “jacked in” to our computers. Gibson’s vision of highly specialized hackers accessing the net sans keyboard was only far off in that EVERYONE will access it and do so all of the time. In “The Dumbest Generation,” Mark Bauerlein points out that despite billions spent on technology for education, students are doing worse, not better, in school. M.T. Anderson’s “Feed” is a brilliant cautionary tale which builds on “Fahrenheit 451’s” theme of the loss of intellectual capacity, culture, community, if people stop accessing the rich and static information and accounts of life and history found in books. But in Anderson’s dystopian future, people CAN access any books they want, but like too many of today’s Americans, they don’t want to read, learn, research. They use access to the net almost purely for social interaction and for commerce. Just like the vast majority of students who come into the library where I work.

    I am very hopeful, however, that devices like the iPad will encourage reading and revive the life of the mind for at least some people while re-invigorating the publishing industry. Magazines, books, and textbooks could take on entirely new forms, be profitable, and reach the people they’re intended to reach.

    BTW, I did not type this while wearing a prosthetic nose.

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