Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Power: Plus and Minus


I found this piece I wrote four years ago about what you need to know about computers. Still makes sense to me.

A computer, as hardware, is no more than potential. Combined with software it becomes a system, a tool of infinite possibilities. Hardware interacts with software (which controls the hardware). The total system can be productive, or it can be frustrating.

Nothing about computers is intrinsic. Their hardware and software reflect the intentions and idiosyncrasies, abilities and stupidities, prides and prejudices of their designers and builders.

Sadly, some software designers forget that users—first and foremost—expect computers to act like machines. Users count on computers to be consistent, predictable, and reliable. The less machine-like a computer is, the less effective it is as a tool.

Writing easy-to-use software is as hard as writing easy-to-read prose (see Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write). It takes a lot of work to make a product transparent, so that only the objective (i.e., the author’s ideas, the software’s purpose) is apparent.

While computers are extremely complex, they are neither mystical nor mythical. They are artifacts made by humans to be useful to humans. Think of their ability as mental leverage.

Physical leverage amplifies physical strength, whether smart and skillful or dumb and brutish. The computer’s mental leverage amplifies our mental strengths and weaknesses: from world’s greatest chess player to chaos beyond human comprehension.

The old conundrum of infinite monkeys banging on typewriters, now fits in the palm of your hand. In infinite time, will there be a Hamlet? In real time, it’s just waste paper and dead monkeys.

Try to remember the device you hold is just a computer. It’s very powerful, but it’s not the next Shakespeare. It’s fine to be awed by the power, but don’t forget that power can be perilous.

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