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Ineffective Automation

I would give anything to be able to pay $28,500 for my computer. Anything! And I can’t, I can only buy these frigging $1000 computers that don’t do what computers are really good for. If you think about it, this is completely fucked up. People are valuing their cars more than their computer? They don’t have any idea what a computer is, they’re just using it to play movies. If you think about this, this is the corruption of consumer electronics and that the computer is basically for convenience rather than for actually doing primary needs.

Alan Kay interviewed by Adam Fisher in Palo Alto, August 2014 – Valley of Genius podcast Season 1, Episode 5 (https://twit.tv/shows/valley-of-genius/episodes/5)

It’s hard to ignore the persistence and flourishing of printed books despite an abundance of digital alternatives. Since computers have had screens they’ve had text. Yet MP3s killed CDs and only the most dedicated buy their movies on discs instead of online.

This difference between books, music, and movies, poses a question; what makes digital automation effective for us?

The easy answer is that automation makes things easy. It takes the laborious bits away so you can enjoy the bits you want.

The easy answer makes sense for music and movies because most of the laborious bits of physical media are peripheral to the listening and watching part, not part of it. But reading a physical book is different, it’s not quite as passive. The physical attributes of the printed book are intertwined with the reading part.

Here’s what I mean by that; to listen to recorded music, physical media or not, you use your hands—or voice—to start and stop the music, but your ears are all you need in between.

Printed books, though, need to be held up and open and you can’t stop holding them until you’re finished reading. So the digitisation of physical media for music and movies is effective for us because its only change to the listening and watching part is the potential for higher quality audio and visuals. It automates away the peripheral bits between us and the good stuff because that’s where the physical media was most problematic.

For reading there’s an effectiveness of the printed book that no amount of paper-like display and skeuomorphic interface has managed to fully capture. E-Readers still need to be held like a book. They have pages like a book, and can be bookmarked too. You can highlight passages and write notes. They also do things books can’t do like having internet connectivity, instant purchases, and the ability to hold hundreds of books at a time; none of which have much to do with reading.

Consider the fact that it’s very difficult to do something else while reading a physical book because your hands are required at all times. It’s a binding that makes reading a deliberate activity, you can’t do a Sudoku while reading a book. Yet almost every feature an E-Reader brings to the party is an invitation to do something other than read.

So, what if that binding to the book is what makes the printed book effective for so many people?

This is where automation—or computation—can be seen from a different perspective, a counter-intuitive one. It’s what I think Alan Kay is referring to in his frustrated quote. What reason does the average person have to be interested in the potential of a computer when hardware upgrades are prompted by software that tells you to upgrade, either explicitly or implicitly. Outside of video game and 3D graphics, the computing power of a device does not correlate with any increasing or decreasing amount of tangible effectiveness. We are being sold speed but without any concrete reason for why we need it.

It’s easy to say that automation is what makes things easy because it’s a lazy way to describe the potential for computation. It ignores the potential for automation to make things more involved, more purposeful, more effective. It opens friction to being something more than a UX dichotomy of being good or bad and instead as being varying degrees of effective.

This doesn’t mean that E-Readers should have a spring loaded cover that requires extra effort to hold them open. What it means is to recognise any exertion of energy as being everything it is in addition to being an exertion of energy. A fish swimming against the current could save plenty of energy by turning around, but they aren’t thinking about the swimming.

The effort exerted while reading a printed book minimises awareness and access to any potential outside of what is being read. The book wants your attention, it doesn’t work without it. We don’t long for some device that will hold the book and turn the pages for us because our hands are effective. We’re only aware of things that interfere with whatever we’re trying to do; obvious problems.

It’s not about having a sentimental attachment to the way things have been done. Far from it. This is a design concern; a way to design with a purpose constrained by the circumstances that are relevant rather than the ones that seem relevant.

Printed books live on because digital books automate all the things that seem relevant about reading a book. E-Reader technology is a collection of features that satisfy an array of purposes related to reading—the peripheral concerns—instead of having a purpose of making reading more effective. If we strip away the internet connectivity, bookmarking, highlighting, and dictionary lookups, we’re left with an inferior imitation of a printed book that needs to be recharged.

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