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The "Computer as Assistant" Fallacy
Learning to use things that are hard is part of being human.
The strange goal of computers as "natural assistants"
There has been a lot of talk lately about how computers are too hard to learn to use. There is a longing for devices you can just pick up and use without training. Microsoft's Kai-fu Lee was quoted in The New York Times as saying, when discussing the more "natural and intelligent" user interfaces he hopes to create, "My dream is that the computer of the future is going to be an assistant to the user."

This type of thinking strikes me as strange. We don't ask for our automobiles to be more natural and intelligent, nor do we call for the next generation of cars to be like chauffeurs. With cars, we talk about responsiveness, comfort, power, cargo size, and safety. Tools are effective and appropriate to the task. Learning to use them is part of being human.

While a goal of simplicity may be worthwhile for many infrequently used devices that happen to use computing power, I have a real problem with this view of the computer in general, and especially the personal computer. I believe that the computer has a very important role to play in our society, and that that role will require us to continue to deal with its quirks and special needs.

Difficult things are part of life
This is not an unusual situation. The computer is no different than many other parts of people's lives. We trade the difficulties with things that matter against the desire for flexibility and effectiveness to the task.

This essay explores the space of human endeavors with difficulty in learning like personal computers. First, I want to define the type of computing I am referring to and those quirks and needs. Then, I'll talk about other human activities that have similar problems, yet are well integrated into most people's lives.

Things that we can just use without training or that act as "assistants" are usually things that are infrequently used, unimportant, or are peripheral to our main tasks. Things that are central to our lives are often things that require learning and practice.

The Personal Computer
The personal computer is a very special tool. It is a very general purpose device. It has no real specific purpose other than to provide a means for supporting whatever type of computing-aided operation that can be accomplished with whatever can be plugged into it. The dominant form today is something used by an individual while sitting at a table or desk, using a screen that takes up a large amount of that individual's viewing area and some personal input devices, such as a keyboard and mouse. The software that drives the devices is changeable, as are the devices to which the PC is connected. The user is free to mix and match for whatever purpose they'd like.

I talk about the evolving nature of the personal computer in an essay I wrote in late 1999 entitled "The Evolving Personal Computer".

I think this general purpose, mix and match, constantly changing nature of the personal computer is what makes it so special. It is a "platform" on which we can use computing power and digital equipment to do many things. It is customizable, and able to do things unforeseen when it was designed and built. An example of the power and importance of this nature are the fact that with the simple addition of a little software (Netscape or AOL) and perhaps an inexpensive piece of hardware (a modem or sound card), most personal computers bought in the 1990's were able to be used for browsing the Web, Instant Messaging, or streaming media. Netscape and RealNetworks, fledgling companies at first, didn't have to get people to buy much extra hardware (though they sometimes needed to buy a little), nor learn much more than their own service's special needs. Later on, Napster changed our view of navigating the world of music without planning on the part of PC manufacturers. Adding a CD burner made things even better.

Personal computing is filled with personal customization. Different people use it to do what they need, as well as what "everybody else" needs. Everybody has their own "special" needs and adds software and/or hardware for it. New uses come up, and people adopt them or not as they see fit. We can experiment without waiting for anybody else.

There are problems due to this general purpose nature. The components are not always engineered to work well together. There is always something new to learn. The details of getting something to work may take careful reading and trial and error. You have to become "PC literate" and keep up to date. In fact, this being able to get things to work is what it means to be "PC literate", it is not just knowing a particular existing tool.

The House
A comparable item in terms of its general purpose nature in everyday life is the house. A house is basically a shell into which we install devices like heating systems and plumbing, kitchens and living rooms. By changing the "software" (furniture, pictures, rugs, wallpaper), and "hardware" (electronic equipment, plumbing, appliances, walls), we can completely change the nature of a house. Most houses are basically "the same", but they're also each different in meaningful ways. We don't want to each live in a Holiday Inn in "little boxes on a hillside...all the same". Today's houses, even those that were built decades ago, are different than those of yesterday. For example, the role of the kitchen and the area around it changes from time to time.

The house, though, doesn't have the learning problems...or does it? New homeowners will tell you of all they had to learn to become "house literate". Things like maintenance, turning off certain pipes in very cold weather, insects, where to get services, and "home improvement" work. These "problems" are a barrier to many people, and they opt for "managed" living arrangements, but many, many people put up with the problems. Some suddenly widowed men or women will tell you the amount of new things they have to learn in order to keep their house running.

In order to maintain or "improve" my house, I've learned to use a variety of tools. Some of these are hard to use and required training or much practice to learn to use safely and effectively (thank you, Dad!). There are often much better "professional" tools, but I don't have them, nor have the training to use them. I'll use a hammer or ViseGrip wrench when it's not really the "right" tool to use, but it's the closest one I know how to use. My father's deformed nail  on one finger was always there to remind me what can happen when you make a mistake with the more temperamental tools that are still used today because they are the best way to do something.

Other "unnatural" parts of our lives
The personal computer and the house are not the only general purpose, "'unnatural' with lots of learning" parts of most people's lives. Here are a few others:

Automobiles. Driving a car is a very unnatural endeavor. Having taught several people to drive, I can tell you, it takes hours of training to just "get around". It takes years of experience to become a "good" driver. But there is so much more that you have to learn to live in a "car" world. Luckily, some of it you pick up over the years if you watch your parents. For example: How to deal with problems (or how to even identify that there is a problem)? What is a flat tire? How do you get it fixed? How do you drive on ice and snow? How do you navigate from one location to another? What way to go is "best"? How do you deal with traffic jams? What do you do if you get stuck in an area? What is a motel? How do you "get a room"? What is a "reasonable price" for things? These are not "natural". "Simplifying" cars by making the transmission "automatic" isn't all it takes. In fact, many people like the feel of manual transmission driving, so it isn't always a benefit to automate things.

Being hard to learn, very dangerous (prone to crashes if we don't pay careful attention, and even then not totally safe), and in constant need of maintenance (like getting fuel and oil), etc., has not held our society back from becoming dependent upon the automobile. It's just one of the things we need to learn and keep up with. My grandparents never learned to drive, and were dependent upon their children and others to be taken around. Did they like to be dependent on their "assistants"? Were they better off? I doubt it, but they were afraid to take a chance and or didn't have the time to learn so much. They were not ignorant individuals -- they were educated and very capable people who were successful in their fields.

Today, to lose one's license and always depend upon assistants to drive you is something most people dread (other than those that live in very crowded cities). We don't want to feel the same way about computing. Are those that speak of having digital assistants that will take care of us like the now-paternal children of elderly drivers trying to get them off the road because driving is too hard and dangerous? I get the image of rich people with time on their hands calling to their servants to cater to their needs. Of course, we never talk about how long it took to teach that servant how to do things exactly the way we like...

Preparing Food. Cooking and baking are things that are shared by all societies. A very large portion of the population learns to prepare food. Many individuals do not become proficient at it, other than for narrow areas, but most families have at least one individual who does. It's amazing how much you need to learn to be "food prep literate". You have to learn how to choose ingredients, how to prepare them, how to estimate needs, proportions, methods of using heat, serving, cleaning, storing, and more. There are whole courses in school just for basic, home-level food preparation. Recipes need to be obtained. A normal home's library of "how to" computer manuals is probably dwarfed by its library of cookbooks. Whenever you need to cook something that you haven't made before (or even recently), it's off to the cookbook or a call to an expert (like "mamma").

I learned to cook the foods I liked for simple lunches when I was a child. When I went off to college, I learned how to cook the other meals I liked from frequent calls home and from friends and books and much trial and error. I've become relatively "cooking literate" and maybe even "cooking proficient" (though, sadly, you probably wouldn't pay any special premium to eat my food). I can improvise, and "cook with the Force" in certain areas. For special occasions I've tried my hand at baking, but I'm basically "baking knowledgeable" -- I can't improvise much. Years of learning and practice.

Societies have advanced quite well with food preparation being unnatural and requiring training and practice.

Reading. Literacy takes training, years of it. Enough said. Dumbing down language isn't enough.

Sports, Dancing, and Other Recreation. Learning to ski or throw a ball take time. They aren't natural. Nor are many dance moves. So many things, shared and loved by people the world over, are not things you "just pick up and do".

Etc., etc. The list of such parts of people's lives goes on and on. In fact, there are theories that our intelligence as a species developed because there are so many special cases to know to survive that it couldn't all be wired in. The beauty of all of this is that training works, and practice brings a mastery of the variations we encounter in the real world.

Things that matter
For many day to day things that we encounter infrequently or that don't matter to us much or in which we can be inefficient, ease of learning or using an "assistant" is the way to go. But, to say that there won't be a major computing-centric platform that we treat as something we are willing to take the time to learn to use is to have little confidence in it's importance.  I believe general purpose personal computing has proven its value.

Many people think that the barrier to some applications is how hard they are to learn to use and that they will only catch on when it's "brain dead simple" to learn. I think in many cases the real problem is that the application is just not that valuable to the people -- they have ways to do the same thing that are OK or they just don't care. The challenge is in creating the right tools that are appropriate to the task as seen by the individual, and having the use be worthwhile. Making it "simple" often is translated into making it less flexible but it is often the flexibility we look for in our tools as humans.

For example, people look to products like Quicken and say how easy they are. Quicken wasn't easy to learn if you didn't know about checks, checking accounts, bills, paying them, keeping track for taxes, etc., as well as booting a PC, starting a program, keeping a printer working, etc. An awful large part of your brain has to work to get that far. What it did was remove the unnecessary (to most people for bill paying) requirement to understand professional accounting's debits and credits used in other computer systems, and removed the tedium of retyping the same thing every month, filing, etc., compared to doing it manually. It also was customizable. You could name things as you wished. You could have more than the accounts a "normal" person has. You could make mistakes and fix them, just like when you did it by hand. It was flexible. Finally, you needed to do what it does, and it did it better than alternatives when it came out. People cared enough to take the time to learn a lot in addition to all they already had learned.

The forms of general purpose computing
I believe that, for the foreseeable future, general purpose computing platforms will be an important part of more and more people's lives. There will probably be at least three such platforms: big, medium, and small. The big platform will be fixed in location, and have specialized things connected to it. These "servers" will be the least common of these devices, mainly controlled by people whose job it is to work with them. The medium devices are those used on the table or equivalent -- the Personal  Computer as we know it today. It will probably go through some mechanical transformations, mainly related to ergonomics like being carriable ("laptop") and to make adding new devices and capabilities easier. It will be used by most people as part of their work and hobbies if appropriate and for personal communication, information gathering, and some entertainment. You'll spend minutes to hours at a time using it. The small platform will be "holdable" (e.g., fit in a pocket) and be used for work, hobbies, communication, etc., but for applications that are much shorter in duration, such as seconds to minutes. Smaller devices will be more special purpose.

- Dan Bricklin, 26 March 2001

I continue with these thoughts, describing what type of applications I think you should build, in another essay, Metaphors, Not Conversations.

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