A number of times, recently, I’ve made an assertion with which nobody has disagreed. The assertion is that if we invented no new information technologies for the next five or ten years, we could nevertheless move the ball significantly forward by consolidating gains that we should have made by now, but haven’t. My argument is that what people don’t know and seemingly cannot learn about computers, software, and information systems represents what Amory Lovins, speaking in terms of energy, calls negawatts, a resource whose value springs not from new production but from the rethinking and improved utilization of existing resources.
As the software pendulum swings back and forth, we alternately hail the simplicity of interfaces that do very little but are easily learned (Google Docs), and the power of interfaces that do much more but are much harder to master (Microsoft Office). Arguments for the former presume that the latter are doomed because most people never learn to use most of their power. That’s true. But does that mean that most people will never be able to make better use of that power? If so, if we assume that people are simply uneducable in this regard, then it’s a problem across the board. Because even the simplest online application can do much more than people know or appreciate.
For example, del.icio.us looks to be bare-bones simple, and in a way it is, but to use it effectively you have to master some strategies that today elude almost everybody. In a comment on that entry, Tessa Lau writes:
In order to accomplish your #1 and #2 above, people need to both realize that they can do that database query, and that they can refer to the results using a stable URL. I’m coming to believe that both those operations are still way beyond the capabilities of mainstream web users.
Here’s a related example from Gmail. Recently, the application’s URLs became more RESTful. A message URL now looks like this: https://mail.google.com/mail/#inbox/116edd484f4ca72e. Why? So that you can bookmark it, exchange it, compose it with other things. Almost nobody will, of course. But are these operations truly beyond the capabilities of mainstream web users? Or are they just skills that aren’t easily transmissible in the current environment, but might be in a differently-designed environment?
Tessa Lau’s CoScripter is, of course, a beautiful example of such a differently-designed environment. It enables people to share experiential knowledge about the use of software in a relatively frictionless way. In the realm of screencasting, Jing is another way to reduce the friction of sharing such knowledge.
My point holds no matter where the pendulum happens to be at the moment. Across the spectrum of application styles, software can do a better or worse job of augmenting human capability. Simplification is important and useful, but it’s not all that matters. Mastery of the more complex matters too. And people can handle that.
As Lucas Gonze notes here, reading and writing musical notation was once a much more common skill than it is today. The 19th-century parlour music that he’s recovering and bringing back to life was, Wikipedia says, “intended to be performed in the parlours of middle class homes by amateur singers and pianists.” Were those amateur singers and pianists more capable than their counterparts today? No, they were just embedded in a culture that was attuned to a certain sort of peer production.
The peer production of our era is based increasingly on software applications and online resources. If we aspire only to the common denominator, and assume that no forms of mastery will matter, then we do ourselves a great disservice. People can attain mastery in an environment that encourages it. Creating that environment would in fact be a major innovation, albeit more social than technical.