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Where some ideas are stranger than others...

Lesbians embody the substance for which the rest of the world must have symbols.
- Carolyn Gage

Webmaster was in on:
2024-07-14

The Moonspeaker:
Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...

"You Keep Using That Word. I Do Not Think it Means What You Think it Means." (2024-04-01)

Excerpt from the cover of a 1987 edition of apple computer's *Human Interface Guidelines: The Apple Desktoop Interface,* published with addison-wesley. Excerpt from the cover of a 1987 edition of apple computer's *Human Interface Guidelines: The Apple Desktoop Interface,* published with addison-wesley.
Excerpt from the cover of a 1987 edition of apple computer's Human Interface Guidelines: The Apple Desktoop Interface, published with addison-wesley.

There are no doubt many other quotes from the 1987 cult hit movie The Princess Bride than the one featuring as the title of this thoughtpiece, but there are few so well known and so useful. The word, or strictly speaking, words, that brought this quote to mind again was the unfortunate "computer literacy." It has all the qualities of the most fatuous marketing-speak: tries to co-opt a real term to achieve a patina of authority, then uses the pseudo-authority to try to persuade people they should be anxious about something. From there of course the next step is to offer an expensive solution to the supposed problem conjured up to create the feeling of anxiety. Nevertheless, I am not unsympathetic to computer programmers who complained vociferously about computers and software aimed at a "consumer" market rather than exclusively at them. Not because I agree with such an attitude, but because many computer programmers despise mendacious market-speak, and in this they share a perspective with the majority of the world. This actually helps make some sense of the widely shared ire among many in the computer science crowd against apple, which by now is grudgingly recognized for its consistent advertising prowess. Yet this did not help explain the depth of feeling against not merely the corporation, and not just its wares, but also much of its software philosophy long before its turn of the twenty-first century mutations. There are certainly solid critiques of apple computer as a corporation, its stance on matters of free/libre software and its now completely despicable record on repairability and upgradability. Indeed, I have touched on some critiques myself in other thoughtpieces, especially An Unsurprising Worm in the Apple. Still, I think there are some things about the early apple computer that deeply annoy older computer programmers because the path it took decentred their values and interests – it is not coincidental that the most annoyed of these programmers seem to be male. It is fascinatingly telltale that an early insult nickname for a macintosh computer (repurposed from its earlier reference to poorly programmed microprocessors) was "toaster."

I do wonder how many people, including many of those annoyed computer programmers realize GNU/linux was barely available to the broader public until the mid-1990s. It was far from trivial to purchase any of the most readily available computers at the time, not least because they were all expensive. The most readily available were not so available for people who did not live in cities, and even less so for people who were not living in wealthier countries. Supposing you were willing and able to acquire a computer of some type by mail order, or by going into a city to pick one up, after that you were pretty much on your own. It bears noting as well that in the mid-1990s, dial-up internet access was the rule, and then almost exclusively through universities or corporate offices. In other words, you had to be a student in the one or an employee of either to have easy access to the internet without necessarily having any computer, or without having your own dial-up modem if you had a computer. Some developers and engineers could see potential for computer sales beyond corporations, universities, and the steady but small hobbyist niche. Among the problems pursuing such possibilities besides cost, was figuring out how to create a computer people would be willing to have in their homes. They would certainly have to be able to do something with them. These were some of the challenges the developers of apple's human interface guidelines dealt with, and love the guidelines or hate them, they solved many significant problems in still unsurpassed ways.

First, it was necessary to design an interface for people who are not programmers. Programmers need and use manuals, and for historical reasons it was not unusual to need to read circuit diagrams and similar to complete common tasks even into the mid-1990s. However, for people who were not already motivated to literally build and program computers, manuals are a critical barrier. Nobody wants to study in order to do what they want on a device presented to them as a useful tool. Therefore the interface has to facilitate exploratory learning, trying things out to see if they would work and how they worked. Professional programmers seem prone to interpreting this type of design as an insult to their intelligence, perhaps because so much of how they demonstrate that intelligence is by making computers work via their skilled use of circuit diagrams and manuals. Nevertheless, if people need to take a course or study a massive book to do much with a computer beyond plug it in and turn it on, the vast majority of people simply won't. A good analogy here is learning to play music. It is possible to figure out how to play any musical instrument by ear, and play happily with friends and for family gatherings without ever "going pro" or taking up more elaborated musical forms calling for more study. The majority of people take this route. A minority opt for studying music so that they can play the more elaborate works typical of classical music.

The second necessity after the interface was to provide software and peripherals supporting tasks of interest to a broad range of people outside of the office. The decision to focus on word processing and simple artwork turned out to be a cleverer idea than the more dour, business-machine oriented crowd like to admit. There was already a long tradition of home and small-scale publishing of zines, posters, booklets, and so on. Acquiring or otherwise accessing early copy machines was difficult and expensive in its own right. Typewriters had come a long way and were fairly inexpensive, but correcting typos was probably the worst issue. The ability to buy a home computer and small printer to compose and print documents was a genuine revolution, although at the moment it is a somewhat stymied one. Regardless, at the time this meant people could see a practical day-to-day use for such a computer. These were the sorts of tasks a person generally needs to start from in getting familiar with an operating system on a computer, as well as the behaviour and quirks of the computer as a machine.

The more recent attempts to claim that in retrospect the "techbro" dislike for apple was really because Steve Jobs was a nasty human being should be embarrassing the people who claim it. They are fine with all sorts of jackasses, from Eric S. Raymond to Elon Musk. They are all about "separating the artist from the work" as long as the work is something they like, but in this all humans have the same difficulties with consistency. In the end though, I think a deeper reason for the common programmer hostility against apple computers originally came from the company's contradictory approach to computers and software. On one hand, apple led a trend towards a remaking computers into ordinary things, machines more akin in position to household appliances than mysterious ones "computer wizards" somehow made work. That certainly raised the ire of "techbros" who have sadly accepted the sex role stereotype of brainy men as "effeminate" and therefore always having to shore up or prove their masculinity. On the other, apple tried for a different sort of mystification by playing up the notion of the computer as a magic box, one the eventual owners of the computers were discouraged more or less subtly from seeking to make and run their own software. There are undeniable "bake the cake and eat it" and condescending qualities to this strategy that would reasonably piss off anyone on those grounds. It's really too bad these issues were not better expressed and therefore discussed at the time, because it would probably have put rockets under support for free/libre software and helped forearm people generally against attempts to prevent them from repairing or upgrading their computers.

Copyright © C. Osborne 2024
Last Modified: Sunday, July 14, 2024 02:07:27