Changing Traditions

Changing Traditions

Why are we still stuck in the old ways?

What I see in the technology world is more continuation of the habit of going back to old solutions and making them more complicated and adding new features and squeezing them harder rather than considering the possibility of what can we do differently now that computers are so much more powerful than they used to be. Do we still have to do what we were doing in 1984 [when the Macintosh was introduced], or can we do things differently?

Technologists are by and large wedded to different varieties of spatial organizations. Whether it is flogging the hypertext model, or going back to the distributed object file system model that we heard so much about in the late 1980s and early 1990s, or talking about search engines and search engine technology, which has been a big issue throughout the 1990s. Or working in the conventional hierarchical file system in desktop GUI environments. Or asking questions like: "What has Apple been doing in the online context? What interesting new gimmicks can we add? How can we accommodate audio stuff, how can we accommodate video material? What new categories, what new special applications, what new gadgets and gizmos and features can we add to the new release?"

The problem is that nothing ever changes. Instead of reorganizing, instead of simplifying, instead of streamlining what we've got, we just add more paper to the pile and the pile totters higher and higher. I think the trends and currents that technologists seem to hit on today are retreads.

And there are more and more separate, hermetically sealed technical communities within the technology world, and it leaves the nontechnical user increasingly badly served. My desktop computer has all kinds of power that no one is doing anything with because the software hasn't changed in any basic way for almost two decades. And we get more and more elaborations and fancy features and technical details in applications that really don't do what I need to have done.

You can see this in the bad relationship between the public and technology. I think people are intimidated by technology, but they don't want to say it. I think there's very little enthusiasm or excitement out there in the world of users of new computer technology, and that's very different from what it was like five years ago.

The industry has managed to kill off a tremendous wave of excitement and enthusiasm and interest by its complacency and its unwillingness to broaden its focus and think about what actual users need from their computers as opposed to what great new features can be added to this already grossly overfeatured software package.

There are certainly some technologists who are interested in a design approach, who care about making things simpler and more powerful and better rather than just revisiting golden oldies again and again. But I think they're still a small minority, and I think it's too bad. I know it will change, but I don't think it's changed a lot yet. Desktop computers are still new, and we still don't know what role they're really going to play. They're like the airplane in the late 1920s, years before anything like a modern airplane design had emerged. That's where we're at in the evolution of desktop computing.

David Gelernter is chief scientist at Mirror Worlds Technologies Inc. and a professor of computer science at Yale University. He has written numerous books and textbooks on computer science, aesthetics and cultural history, and his articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Commentary, ARTNews, National Review, Time magazine and others.

This article was originally published on 10-10-2002
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