The Ukraine, democracy and civil rights
le Monde/six apart

Faites simple

This was the watchword of Escoffier and it's surely the way all things computing have to go. Back in October, The Economist had two articles: 'Make it simple' and 'Now you see it, now you don't'. The latter was sub-titled, 'To be truly successful, a complex technology needs to “disappear”', and the former, 'The next thing in technology … is not just big but truly huge: the conquest of complexity'.

Behind many a "simple" UI lies so much thought, inventiveness and deliberation: my work is not in software design, but I've learned a lot from listening in on discussions such as that generated by Matt Jones writing about the design of Technorati's UI. (His bookshelf has also set me thinking, in the spirit of what Chris Allen calls 'integrating different domains of knowledge in order to better understand … human behavior'.) I'm composing this in TypePad's new WYSIWYG editor, of which Matt Haughey says:

When I first read about the new wysiwyg interface to Typepad, I didn't think it was such a big deal. I've seen dozens of wysiwyg forms before and few were anything but annoying. The Typepad UI is amazing though. It goes way beyond making text bold, italics, or 64 different colors. Today I created a post where I uploaded a graphic, aligned it to the right, and filled in text around it. I didn't think the UI would handle it … It was capable of uploading the image, storing it, and displaying it via CSS and I could continue writing text around it. Fantastic. I've never seen a wysiwyg interface that could do something like that and my hat's off to whoever wrote the monster javascript this application must have required. It's as close as you can get to actually writing posts in their final format.

The smart TypePad editor is one kind of "simple" future and it's a kind with which I can readily identify. It's the same future I hope I hear in Russell Beattie's impatience when he sets up and knocks down a view that says, 'What you know now is really all you need to know and all this new fangled mobile stuff is just so much hype and buzz'; or in his comparison of the relative "richness" of Yahoo Mobile Search and Google SMS.  UIs and devices that people can take to, use, not have to wrestle with — but actually enjoy. Teaching needs UIs and devices like this and their lack is perhaps the greatest impediment to enthusiasm for IT amongst students.

Everyone will benefit from 'a focus on computing for people … After all, when we put place before people, we put structure before agency, and technology before sociality' ('On Cities and Technologies', Anne Galloway). Again and again, be it blogging tools (Om Malik), CMS systems (McGee), mobile phones (where is the iPhone?), we all need reminding that our 'intelligence should be used to accommodate really simple user and programmer models, not to build really complex ones' (Adam Bosworth).

Footnote: RSS feeds haven't worked the revolution in simple living originally envisioned by some — telling laments by, inter alia, Jeffrey Veen and Danah Boyd. A suggested solution is to fall back on sites where algorithms/editors filter and select feed items (Scobleizer). Buried in all this is the question of whether RSS is opt-in authenticated Email. In the absence of any better suggestion, I take the Dave Winer approach:

It's not like email. Let the river of items flow through your queue, scroll over them with a scroll bar, and don't let the software tell you you're falling behind. Your time is what's valuable, there's no value to the items you didn't read. If it's important it'll pop up again. RSS is not email. Don't sort them out into little boxes that you have to go to, make them flow to you, in a river, unsorted. I wish people would just listen to this simple idea, so many people are using RSS the wrong way.

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But then there's the really simple, really useful future which has a lot to do with supplying tools that can make a substantial difference to the lives of those who have much less than we do — "we", the relatively wealthy, literate blogging community whose lives afford us enough time and the technological wherewithal in which to write and read online.

Maslacak wrote a short piece, The Future of Communications is Ignorance, which concluded:

… regardless of how far we've all gone with technology, and regardless of the fact that I can call any place in the world for as little as 3 cents a minute, there are still those on this planet who cannot feed themselves, let alone use the Internet to write idle thoughts on some journal. It would seem that every technological progress serves as another barrier between us and those who are really suffering in the world. It's as if we are creating more and more walls, layers of abstraction, so that we may continue living in ignorance, so that we may never have to wake up from our self-induced collective commas. And while we may dismiss it with great ease by saying to ourselves that we are merely a single human being who cannot truly change the world, it is such thoughts that keep us all in this collective technological prison. This harness of our adulthood. That, my friends, is the real ball and chain of our lives. Our collective ignorance.

And earlier this month, Don Parks wrote: 'Other than greed, I can find little motivation to make the life of brats with six thumbs who go around taking photos just so they can keep in touch with friends.  For me, it's more rewarding to address (and) think about … the forgotten people: people who are struggling with life everyday, people who don't know how to use a computer let alone type, people whose lives might be improved with down to earth application of the latest technologies.' I loved his vision of blogging in the near future:

Futureblog

Futureblog2

Whether it's a small store owner in France or a grandmother selling fish off a cart in China, their customers are increasingly addicted to information at their finger tip yet they are ill prepared to provide their customer's need for information.  Their 'content' are typically valid for just hours or even minutes yet they don't have time to update homepages. So handblogging comes to their rescue.  Original version of this idea was audio-oriented using telephones as the update device but I think cellphones equipped with a camera will be easier to use.

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Holding all this together will be a challenge for the young whose education is now in our hands. Educators need to be up to speed and able to discuss the range of issues technological development brings with it.

Let the last note be up-beat:

Got very annoyed at the Design Council the other night. They were pitching their series of talks on 'Humanising Technology'. Strikes me as a very odd phrase: 'humanise technology'... To separate and demonise 'technology' seems false. It's what makes us human. It's our evolutionary distinctiveness. And anyway, what's so bad about technologising humans? Matt Jones

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