I was thinking about my own naïveté in all matters computer-related just after I bought my first computer (a MacII, OS 2.0, circa 1987). I distinctly remember my profound disappointment when my shiny new computer did not live up to the myth that I had created for it! I was raised on the Jetsons and, dammit, computers were supposed to be powerful and simple to use.
I bought my first copy of Microsoft Word (I think it was v.3). I fired up the program and soon learned that in order to do a simple mail merge (to send out identical, but personalized letters, to my mailing list) required me to read a brick of a guide book and spend many hours in frustrating trial and terror.
Similarly, I recall my first impression of hyperlinks, hypertext and hypermedia. It was such an utterly cool and liberating idea — that the organization of information need not be linear or strictly hierarchal, but could be determined by the clickstream of the operator. The idea of siloed content was anethema to this concept and was unimaginable to me at the birth of the Web.
AOL, Prodigy and Compuserve came along and changed my mind about that in a hurry.
Fastforward to 2009. Unless something comes along to derail the future, it seems pretty clear that the internets will develop into an environment with more open protocols designed to let you and me use whatever platform, device or application to play with our stuff. Our digital assets will be accessible via multiple pathways driven by our own intents and commands.
The point is that we are just now building the architecture worthy of a newbie’s dreams, fulfilling the original promise of hypermedia as conceived by Ted Nelson.
In order to get there, we need to be a lot more radical in making things that are easy to understand; they need to respond to who we are as creatures. Nelson said, “a user interface should be so simple that a beginner in an emergency can understand it within ten seconds.”
Looking at the state of the Open Stack (and here), and this is not to diminish the hard work being done by a lot of talented and well-meaning people, we seem light years away from this goal. The mashup tools allowing us to cross-post, to participate in and aggregate conversations, to deeply manage our social graphs and online identities are very primitive, and unusable by most people who have access to the Internet.
I am trying to recapture that blessed state in which computer-mediated actions seem magical and, most of all, useful and fun. It’s strange that the more supposedly advanced I become, the more easily wowed I am by new features that are not really all that cool to anyone outside of the high tech crowd. We spend way too much time talking among ourselves.