Re: Technology as Dribble Glass

Steve Witham (
Thu, 11 Dec 1997 12:06:50 -0500

Eugene Leitl asks-

> Very well, what should we do? Autodafe the designers? Wipe out criminally
> pointy-haired decision-makers, and the mob which adapts to broken designs
> stampedeing all over the marketplace? Pass me that torch, please.

Mob vs. mob :-) ?

Anyway, my intent was really on the level I wrote about: awareness as
users, inhabitants or (gulp) consumers. Which of us has never said
"how stupid of me," having backed into the sharp edge of some bad design?
The reason I wrote that rant is that I actually find it hard to
explain why it's so bad to blame ourselves in such situations. The
assumption of adaptation-as-virtue is subtle and insidious.

The worst thing about techie culture is the people who take to
detailed rules like fish to water, who soak up Windows .DLLs and
modem control strings... To the uninitiated these look like the
smart guys. We the smart people (this is one of those sentence
structures where you get to decide whether you want to be included in
"we") need to stop acting the technerd so much, at least not without
a clear disclaimer. Knowing how to set a VCR clock (okay, it's a
metaphor--or is this synecdoche?) is not smart, it's monkeysheepish.
And a certain percentage of *those nerds*... but wait.

The problem, but also the opportunity, is that we smart people often
have nerd abilities. The problem is that by displaying them we
spread the association among ourselves that nerds are smart and well-
adapted. The opportunity is that we can have the clear attitude that
having to do nerdy things is a stupid imposition of stupid designs by
actual people who have done something wrong. By being smart
and having that attitude we can spread the association that it's
*more* smart to be critical of technology, designs in general, and to
resist the role of the frenetic self-dribbling sheep-monkey.

Anyway as I was ranting: a certain percentage of those clever but not
smart nerds graduate to a position where they're actually designing things
and the cycle is perpetuated. Oh boy more complicated toys to be the
expert at! We have to saw them off from membership in the smart club, but
give them (and ourselves) a path to redemption. We have to isolate them
from the general populace until the fever dies down and some sense sets
in, or else...

...Everybody's got an uncle who knew nothing about computers (for instance--
computers seem to be serving as the point of this nerdification wedge)
and then got one, and now he reads all the magazines and comes to
Thanksgiving dinner and can't talk about anything but cache memory and
local bus.

In this uncle-at-Thanksgiving sense we're right in the middle of an
insane culture (& p.s. I love people who pick up new enthusiasms and take
things into their own hands. I just hate that we have such piss-poor,
sheep-monkey enthusiasms to give them.) and so we're right where things need
to be changed, and we're just the people who would be paid attention
to--if we would wake our own selves up from the trance and start pointing
out the stupidity.

That seems like a big step to me, the switch in attitude. From there it
can't help reflect back on design as something done by people, which
should be (but isn't) done for people, etc. But you have to start with
an awareness of what the problem is, where it hits home, how deeply.