I recently had the opportunity to listen to another amazing podcast from 99% Invisible, a program about “design, architecture and the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” It got me thinking about how my world is shaped by the way I engage with computers. The podcast is a story about a computer scientist named Doug Engelbart who was, in essence, a crazy brilliant genius. He thought of ways to change how we interacted with computers and, most famously, was the inventor of the computer mouse. He also invented a specialized companion device to the mouse that worked like the one-hand equivalent of a keyboard.
His mouse caught on when his idea was taken over by Steve Jobs and Jobs removed two of the three buttons on Engelbart’s prototype, making the one button mouse Mac users are familiar with to this day. The keyset device never caught on, but the idea of it is still among the more hackery of computer users. Essentially, Engelbart thought computers could be built in a way that would, as Engelbart’s daughter, Christina Engelbart explained “allow us to work with computers more fluently and efficiently,” and beyond what he called “grunt inputs.” On the other side of the tracks, Steve Jobs held the contrasting philosophy that computers should be easy to use for the lowest common denominator or the most simplistic level of engagement. To Job’s credit, his approach of ultimate simplicity has created accessible user interfaces for millions of people who would have otherwise shied away from the wonders of personal computers. However, Job’s philosophy largely falls short of opening up innovative strategies for users to engage with the art of computing.
For me, nose-diving into the world of computer science and more specifically web development was far from a graceful, easy experience. Many, many, mistakes were made and the uphill battle to proficiency has been a long and hard winding road. I could have picked other paths that were much more accessible, but programming intrigues me; it makes me feel good, and I get a lot of fulfillment around the projects I can complete with this ever-growing experiential knowledge. From a million false starts in every programming language under the sun, I finally found comfortability with Ruby in its ease of use and the extensive community of people basically saying “if that doesn’t work, here, try this out.” It was this close-knit collaborative milieu that drew me in and continues to keep me deeply engaged. I bring up this Podcast, and Engelbart specifically, because I am inspired by the idea that computers can change the way we process the world, and more so, computers can assist in alleviating oppressive societal systems, if we know how to use them right. The Steve Jobs cheerleaders of the world seek to keep the public content and entertained; yes, you’ll be able to text all your most complicated feelings with emojis, sure, you can watch netflix from bed and flirt with your sweetie halfway across the world, but does this make us more effective people? Does this make us more ingenuitive? Does this make us smarter?
Engelbart had an intriguing idea: let computers have a learning curve steep enough to give people a new way to work so they are faster and more efficient in the end. But how many people will be left behind from such a steep learning-curve? Things should be hard, but in the right ways. Input devices should be easy, drawing apps should be easy, programming languages should be easy. The basic elements should be simple to pick up and run with, but its the ideas that should be difficult. We should solve harder problems. We should attack the structures around us that try to trade ease of use for giving up our agency to create our own paradigms and ways of engaging with the world. Even more, we should be teaching our friends how to program, how to encrypt their hard drives, how to use Tor, and how to rise above in a world that would rather have us grunt and click our lives into oblivion.
In many respects, the cybernetic techno-dystopia is already asserting itself into the future we never wanted. So where does that put us? By and large, we are at a crossroad between those who know and those who don’t. And once we get better at teaching ourselves how to navigate through the rigid, deceptively simple structures that permeate our lives, we can in turn become the ones who do, the ones who imagine, and the ones who create meaningful, complicated, and beautiful worlds into existence.