User, Understand Thy Device

With each upgrade in technology, our experience of the world is further reduced in complexity. The more advanced and predictive the smart-phone interface, the less a person needs to know to use it—or how it even makes its decisions. Instead of learning about our technology, we opt for a world in which our technology learns about us. It’s our servant, after all, so why shouldn’t it just do what it knows we want and deliver it however it can? Because the less we know about how it works, the more likely we are to accept its simplified models as reality.

—Douglas Rushkoff, Program or be Programmed

I just finished Rushkoff’s Program or be Programmed and was struck by much of the book. It’s a short-yet-important read for anyone interested in technology. But the above section seemed especially important to me, because of how it set up the case for Linux: control versus convenience.

Traditionally, most Linux distributions have been about giving users full control of their systems, but as competing systems have become increasingly restrictive, some users have come to expect that same level of control (or lack thereof) from Linux.

After all, why configure something yourself, when your computer can do it for you?

I myself am guilty of this. I recently moved to an Android phone and discovered that by logging in to my Gmail account somewhere within the device, all of my Google contacts were synced to the phone, meaning I wouldn’t have to re-input all of the numbers from my old phone, which lacked a SIM card.

I knew it was very dodgy from a privacy level, but from a convenience level, I just decided to roll with it.

And even now, I don’t really have a strong sense of what data is being pulled from me and my phone. I looked into CyanogenMod, which seemed like it might give me finer control of the device, but it’s not available for my handset.

With the rise of smart phones and tablets, it feels like we’re coming to a critical juncture with technology. As users, we want everything to work flawlessly, but the price we’re willing to pay for this smooth experience might be too high.

We’re trading knowledge for convenience.

But what happens when the convenience disappears? What will the loss of knowledge have gotten us? What happens when our devices don’t do what we want them to do?

The Times just had a great article about how less people leave their banks because their lives are so tied up in online banking. The banks have given their users convenience and users are discovering the price of that convenience is that it’s very hard to separate themselves from their online banking features, like automatic bill pay. People don’t want to set everything up again someplace else.

I recently moved to LXDE as my desktop environment. I really appreciated the simplicity of LXDE’s interface. But also, I wanted something that wasn’t overly complex. In my GNOME experiences, things tend to break because of dependencies. One thing depends upon another, so when something small no longer works, the whole desktop experience falls apart.

Since LXDE seems to be more discrete parts, I was hoping that would provide some protection against breakage. It might be slightly inconvenient that there’s no baked-in screen capture tool tied to the Print Screen key, but I never have to worry about the dependencies associated with something like gnome-screenshot possibly breaking my system. scrot, a command-line screen capture tool, is slightly less convenient, but has the advantage of being self-contained. If it ever breaks, it’ll just break itself, and I can move on to another tool until an update fixes it (such is life with a rolling release).

Maybe this idea of control is just an illusion. Maybe I’d be better off turning control over to my distro and letting it worry about breakages. But even as good and as tight and as integrated as something like Ubuntu is, I’ve never used it without having to make some tweaks and do some configurations.

And I use Linux because I can make those tweaks and configurations.

But as these tweaks and configurations get harder to make (if not impossible), users might just stop trying to make them. If they can’t uninstall an app, they’ll just let it stay. If they can’t create a certain keybinding, they’ll just do without it.

It’s not too late, though. As users we can demand simpler interfaces. We can root/jailbreak our mobile devices.

It’s a little more work right now, but it will save us a lot of effort in the future.

Because as much effort as it might be right now, it’ll be even more effort if we do nothing and are trapped by our devices in the future.