Do People Really Get How Computers Can Be Useful To Them?


Wednesday, 8.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Most of the time spent wrestling with technologies that don’t quite work yet is just not worth the effort for end users, however much fun it is for nerds like us. – Douglas Adams

I have spent a lot of time playing with computers – mostly because time has just passed without really taking any notice of my opinion on the matter.

Throughout that time the terminal has been my friend – the command line and plain text – have been all I have needed for my own purposes.

To work with others, however, I’ve had to slow down, to use graphical user interfaces and do things more than once – which if you have spent any time programming is not the kind of thing we like to do.

We’d rather spend three hours coding something that will do something you could do in five minutes manually.

My thoughts on this were sparked by a Twitter comment by Paul Graham, the founder of YCombinator, on the lines of tech people don’t really use that much tech – we only use what’s needed for the problem we’re working on.

And I think that’s true – we have more computational power for the jobs we have to do most of the time.

Problems that really need some heavy duty computational hardware are probably not ones being addressed by the average individual or business.

The problem is that most of those individuals or businesses don’t really get the real power of a computer.

A lot of people use applications that help them do the things they would do using paper pretty much the same way using an application.

And I guess that makes sense – I wrote a few days ago about how tech companies build tools to let people do things the way they do them now – and why should that be different for individuals?

Why wouldn’t you design software that helped people take notes the way they would on paper, or let the write in the way they would longhand?

The point I’m reaching for is that technology builders build things that people can see themselves using – and as a result they don’t really get that much more productive.

And, in real life, they don’t get much faster but they’re also restricted by all kinds of security policies and technology shackles that they end up worse off than before.

There are lots of people out there who have spent much of today in critical roles – jobs that involve protecting and saving lives – trying to make their technology work rather than doing their job.

But one problem is that for many people it’s not worth their time trying to get better at understanding and using the technology – and they’re comfortable doing it the long, hard way.

Now, I don’t know what makes someone go one way or the other – I suppose it has something to do with temperament.

Today, for example, a small person wanted to use a computer.

If you give one of them a regular machine, with a browser and everything else – they’re onto some kind of website with games in a second.

So I fired up one and logged into a terminal.

And the small person was fine, pressing keys and making letters scroll around – and along the way he invented a game – hiding a word inside that random bunch of letters.

It took a while but he did it.

So, the next time round, I got him to write a program – one that generated random strings of a certain length for a certain number of lines – and then replaced a set of characters with the words he wanted to hide.

And I watched his eyes.

They didn’t really tell me anything – he went through the task and then wanted to do something else.

Which was fine.

The thing I was wondering, however, was whether he “got it” – whether he could do something in a few minutes that had previously taken ten or fifteen – whether he could do it again and again in seconds – now that he had created a program that did what he was doing manually.

Because that’s the real power of a computer – not in helping you do the things you can do but in doing things that you can’t.

But I’m not sure people really get that yet.


Karthik Suresh

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