I would like to suggest that the present state of computer user interfaces is the outgrowth of the postwar ``do it yourself'' culture, which peaked around 1960, and is not consonant with the service economy which began to expand rapidly around that date.
Consider how a business letter used to be written. The author would scribble some notes on a piece of paper, or blither something into a dictating machine. A secretary would translate the intent into English and type a draft of it. The author would then review it, mark up desired changes (which might be as general as ``can you soften up the second paragraph so it doesn't seem so much like an ultimatum?''), and receive a final draft, which was signed and returned to be mailed. No wonder, as IBM pointed out in the early 60's, such a letter cost about $4 to prepare.
Now let's peek into the ``office of the future''. The executive's 50cm screen is festooned with icons. Picking the one with the quill pen opens up a word processor. The document is entered, pulling down menus to select appropriate fonts for the heading, address, and body. After the text is entered, a few more menu picks right justify the text. Dragging an icon of a schoolmarm into the window performs spelling checking and correction, allowing the user to confirm unusual words. The user then drags a rubber stamp icon into the window and places a digitised signature at the bottom of the letter (remember, you saw it here first). Finally, popping up the ``send'' menu allows the executive to instruct the system to send the letter to the address in the heading (electronically if possible, otherwise by printing a copy on the laser printer in the mailroom, which will stuff it into a window envelope and mail it), and to a file a copy under a subtopic specified by entering it in a dialogue box.
As we astute observers of the computer scene know, this is just around the corner and ``can be implemented today on existing systems as soon as the users are ready to buy it''. And what an astounding breakthrough it will be. An executive, who previously only needed to know about how to run a multi-billion dollar multinational corporation, analyse market trends, develop financial strategies, thread around governmental constraints, etc., now gets to be a typist, proofreader, typographer, mail clerk, and filing clerk. That makes sense, right?
Those involved in computing have discovered that doing it themselves is a far more productive way of getting things done than telling others to do it. They then generalise this to all people and all tasks. This may be a major error.
As we have developed user interfaces, we have placed the user in far more direct control of the details of his job than before. As this has happened, we have devolved upon the user all of the detailed tasks formerly done by others, but have provided few tools to automate these tasks. In the 1960's, engineering curricula largely dropped mechanical drafting requirements in favour of ``graphical communication'' courses. The rationale for this was that engineers did not make final drawings on the board, but rather simply needed to be able to read drawings and communicate a design to a drafter who would actually make the working drawings.
Now we're in the position of telling people, ``you don't need all of those drafters. With CAD, your engineers can make perfectly accurate final drawings as they design''. Yeah, but what do they know about drafting? And what help does the computer give them? The STRETCH command?
I have always taken personal pride in the statement ``I don't ask anybody else to do my shit work for me''. I am proud that I do my own typing, formatting, printing, and mailing. And as I have often remarked, I consider that I am better at doing these things than many of those paid full time to do them. I think that this is an outgrowth of the general ``do it yourself'' philosophy which goes all the way back to ``self reliance''. Although I often make the argument based on efficiency (I can do it faster by myself and get it right the first time, than I can tell somebody how to do it, redo it, re-redo it, and so on), the feeling goes much deeper than mere efficiency, and I think it is shared by many other computer types. I think that this is because those in the computer business are largely drawn from the do it yourself tinkerer culture. I do not have statistics, but I'll bet that the incidence of home workshops is many times greater among computer people than the general populace. Computers have, I think, largely absorbed the attentions of the do it yourself culture. Notice that the decline of the home-tinkering magazines (Mechanix Illustrated, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics) which had been fairly stable in content since the 1930s occurred coincident with the personal computer explosion and the appearance of the dozens of PC-related magazines.
As a result, we build tools which place more and more direct control in the hands of the user, and allow him to exert more and more power over the things he does. We feel that telling somebody else to do something for us is somehow wrong.
This shared set of assumptions is carried over into the way we design our computer-based tools. We build power tools, not robot carpenters. We feel it is better to instruct the computer in the minutiae of the task we're doing than build a tool that will go off with some level of autonomy and get a job done. So our belief that people should not be subservient to our desires may lead us to build software that isn't subservient. But that's what computers are for!
I'd ask you to consider: in a society where virtually nobody fixes their own television sets any more, where the percentage of those repairing their own cars is plummeting, where people go out and pay for pre-popped popcorn, and where the value added by services accounts for a larger and larger percentage of the economy each year, shouldn't computers be servants who are told ``go do that'' rather than tools we must master in order to do ourselves what we previously asked others to do for us? Recalling a word many have forgotten, aren't we really in the automation industry, not the tool trade?
Editor: John Walker