Monday, 31 March 2008

Why does productivity software still ask us to save our own work?

In a technologically advanced world, there isn't exactly a paucity of disk space. Disk is cheap.

True, this was not always the case. Fifty years ago, hard drive storage cost around US$10,000.00 per MB. That's right, ten thousand US dollars per megabyte. (That was a lot of money in those days, what with the US kicking the crap out of the Nazis not too long before that... those war reparations went a long way, not to mention all the clever boffin Germans that the Yanks poached.) Compare that to today's prices, where you can get a 1-terabyte external hard drive for US$229. That's 22 US cents per gigabyte!

We can see that hardware is making advances in leaps and bounds. Not a day goes by that some gadget is released that's smaller, cooler, faster, and pretty much better than anything that's gone before. The changing technology is causing societal changes, in the individual and the collective... not a decade ago, disk space still cost around US$20 per gigabyte. There's no way that the majority of people could have kept more than a couple of small games and a few office documents on one of those old drives; it's just too prohibitively expensive for the average consumer.

But what do we see now? Schoolkids, students, even office ladies... pat them down and you can find between 1 gigabyte and 80 gigabytes of memory on their person at any given time. What do they use all that space for? Not just spreadsheets, baby. Movies and entire TV series. Dozens of albums worth of music.

Frankly, I see no reason to be stingy with disk space. Even the smallest cheapest laptop harddrive has a capacity 60GB or 80GB. You can store a lot of documents on that much hard drive space, even if you leave space for your operating system, a couple of TV series seasons, and your mp3s.

That's why I get irritated when a text editor in which I am editing a 5-kilobyte file asks me "Would you like to save this document?".

If I didn't want that information around for a little while, I would not have taken the time to type or paste it in a text editor, now would I? Is it worth breaking my concentration, interrupting my train of thought, for 5 kilobytes?

I say, NO. I say that that entire mode of thinking is outdated. If I close a window and my work is unsaved, then save it for me, there's a good program. If I haven't given the file a name, then by all means use the first 5 words of my document. If the same document hasn't been accessed by me or any other programs for a week, then compress and store it somewhere. Stop asking me stupid questions, I'm trying to think here. The answer should be obvious. I'm having enough trouble concentrating as it is; I don't need additional distractions from the bloody software I'm using too. We are too set in our ways; we unquestioningly accept this as the norm. The entire "conserve the scarce disk space resource" model of thinking and programming, is an anachronism.

The scarce resource in our world of today is attention. Concentration. We live in a world of distractions, with every waking moment full of things that want our attention.

The entire point of any productivity software is to make you more productive. Why, then, do I often feel like I spend more time battling with the software than concentrating on my work? I'm sure that's not the way it's supposed to be.

I want to propose a few rules for interface design:
  1. If you notice the interface, then the interface has failed in its purpose.
  2. Software should be designed to make the best possible use of these scarce resources:
    1. The Zeroth resource is Concentration.
    2. The First resource is Time.
    3. The Second resource is Memory Usage
    4. The Third resource is Hard Drive usage.
  3. Software should simplify the life of the User.
  4. Software should simplify the life of the System Administrator.
Please feel free to leave comments with rule additions. I'll write the rules up sometime soon.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Privacy = Civilisation?

Everything you'll read in this post is true.

Right now, the only objects that I'm aware of are my laptop, the chair I'm sitting on, and the cigarette between my lips. I'm sitting outside, naked, smoking and typing this. These facts may seem only tangentially relevant to my thoughts in this post, but bear with me.

What if you had to write your own brutally honest autobiographical Wikipedia entry? How much would you leave out? How much would you exagerrate? What would you not mention, for fear of hurting the feelings of others or for fear of not endangering your future career?

Let's postulate that you have, indeed, written your own Wikipedia entry. Let us also postulate that your article is published online. Now, the world can not only read your article, but edit it. People can remove intimate facts about themselves, add wild allegations and wild exaggerations about you and others.

Worse still, anybody can change your own (completely unselfconscious) semantic evasions of your life's truths, to reflect the hard facts.

How many of us can withstand such levels of scrutiny?

Benefit may be gained from such an approach. Seeing yourself reflected through the eyes of everyone will almost definitely help you to a greater level of understanding about yourself. People will criticise, sure... although I wonder how many compliments you will receive from totally unexpected directions.

Let me use my current situation to illustrate.

I am sitting naked in my darkened back garden. Should I suddenly be sitting here in broad daylight, still naked, would make me start looking over my shoulder to make sure the neighbour kids won't see me through the hedge. But they are strangers, and besides momentary embarassment on my part (and possibly emotional scarring on theirs) this won't change my life overmuch.

But what if everyone I knew were suddenly transported here as well? What if the encounter were mediated in such a way that they felt free to offer any criticism and compliments that they saw fit? Would I be able to continue with my day-to-day life as if nothing had happened?

What if everyone was all together, naked, in one room, discussing each other in such a way, all the time?

The knowledge that each of us are naked at some part during our day doesn't make it harder to deal with people. We take things at face value, deal with (clothed) people as we see them. But how honest and complete a picture is that of any of us?

How much of our sense of self-worth is based upon illusion, self-delusion, and outright deceit?

What is privacy, except a way for each of us to otherwise uphold the lie that is our public image? A place to be naked and alone, honest and yourself?

If your entire life was published to the Internet, all the time, that is your big room full of naked people.

So next time you think of sending me that application request, imagine being in a room with me. Naked.

I'll show you mine if you show me yours.