Straight Talk on Useability

by rthieme on August 9, 2001

Straight Talk

I write an column called “Islands in the Clickstream” that is disseminated over the Internet. It’s about our interaction with new technologies and the larger issues of our lives that they raise. One reader wrote that more and more of my columns were emphasizing sentiment, rather than technological issues.

He was right.

So I found myself asking, what are the issues occasioned by information technology, not as it is defined inside the disciplines that create and sustain it, but as we experience it fired at us every morning at point blank range from the barrel of a gun? How do we define those issues from our everyday human point of view?

The real issues of technology are human issues. Due to rapid changes in technology, the possibilities of our lives fan out like the paths of sub-atomic particles. The ones that become real are those we choose to make real. But in the meantime, the number of options confronting every task from choosing a new television to resolving complex issues of work, parenting, or being in relationship cause much of the underlying stress so many of us feel.

The changes in technology, after all, are not happening in a vacuum. We bring to them (1) our genetic heritage, equipping us to adapt to change at different rates as individuals and within a set of ranges as a species; (2) what we have been habituated to believe is possible by the experience of our lives, which will be different depending on our ages and points of reference.

My experience is that most people mean by the word “technology” what has been invented since we were about ten years old. That’s when we begin noticing what’s around us and that becomes our point of reference for what’s “normal” for the rest of our lives. We can adjust that baseline on the basis of reflection, but we can’t change the “feel” of what’s right. Since the technologies which define our environment, our habitat, our “space,” define also how we hold ourselves in the world as possibilities for action by disclosing the horizons of possibility implicit in those technologies, it is no surprise that a real contextual shift in what is possible for humanity will be a traumatic event to which we will respond – depending on our genetic code – with everything from excitement to a frenzied Luddite attack on the devil-machines that symbolize the coming of Armageddon.

Fritz Perls, one of the fathers of gestalt psychology, defined excitement as anxiety plus oxygen. The task of adding oxygen to anxiety and fear and pumping it up so that we can cross the invisible barrier between no! and yes! is a daunting one. Yet that adventure requires a focus on the human user and how he/she adapts, not on the technology that threatens or excites them.

We are all realizing that reinventing ourselves is not a one-time event, but an ongoing affair. The task of asking who we are and how we will work and live is serious business that requires time and energy – which is often the last thing we feel we have to give. It requires bracketing time and space and setting aside both as a kind of sacred spacetime which is inviolable once we enter it. A retreat is not merely getting away, it is getting into a particular kind of environment which triggers reflection, contemplation, or the wu wei (“not doing”) of being still and allowing things to evolve rather than trying to push the river toward the sea.

We can adapt to technology best by periodically stepping back or stepping down to an environment shaped by prior technology to recollect ourselves so we can come back to the brave new world that is emerging. Religious retreat centers often have wooden chairs, natural surroundings, less than state-of-the-art communication networks. That’s all intentional, all part of the design. Behind the scenes, the networks hum and God sings through the wires of a trans-planetary net. But in that space that we need in order to remember who we really are, it’s best to keep the foreground simple and spare.

Less is more.

The digital world is an evolutionary segment of the era of electronic communication. I don’t think the prophets of digital revolution have gotten it wrong so much as gotten it narrow. Digital technologies are linked to telegraph, radio, television, and other modalities of electronic communication which constitute the fourth great evolutionary era of the Word. The first was speech, the second was writing, and the third was printing. Printing was not a simple single event in the fifteenth century but an evolutionary trajectory which included the rise of commercial publishing and cheap portable books in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries no less than the invention of the Gutenberg press with moveable type. These eras overlap one another and each recontextualizes how we understand the prior era.

The digital world, like the print world before it, is assimilating us into its radical and powerful way of manipulating symbols, and since we are symbol-using creatures, every dimension of our lives is in transition. The digital world is interactive, modular, and fluid, which means that aspects of our lives that previously carried an illusion of fixity are becoming interactive, modular and fluid to a greater degree.  So what we once experienced as optional – the need to step back and see the Big Picture, taking “time out” to journey into the deep places of our hearts by journaling, engaging in intentional conversations with trusted others, or just having the courage to pay attention to the disruptive events in our everyday lives – is no longer an option. Some kind of personal or corporate retreat is as essential to intentional living as strategic planning is to business.

Because we often don’t know how to build in that time or do that task, that “space” in our lives is something more often talked about than created and used effectively. We hire personal trainers to build up our bodies but hesitate to employ coaches to assist us in clarifying values or refining our personal vision and examining how our behaviors do or do not align with them. Yet those deeper realities affect our day-to-day lives more than the incidents and accidents to which we pay so much attention.

The simple truth is, we can not have it all. No matter how many books are written pretending that we can … we can’t. Child-having and child-rearing – although we may be the last generation on earth to be merely born – still take lots of time and energy for our big-headed slowly-growing species. So do relationships. So do families and communities. We have to make hard choices and that often means real and painful sacrifice. So many popular modalities of spirituality and personal growth are popular precisely because they promise growth and fulfillment at little or no cost. But life is not like that. Life is not an endless cocktail party with gracious servants replenishing trays so we can eat whatever we want throughout the night.

In my sixteen years as an Episcopal priest, I often winced when people spoke of “heresy” and sounded like the judges of an inquisition, as if they alone knew right and wrong. Serious study of religious traditions reveals that heresies are a lot more subtle than that. Heresies are doctrines that are almost true, programs that are really really attractive, but miss the mark by just a little bit, leading those who follow them to miss the mark by a lot. One thing all real heresies have in common is that they make a disciplined or rigorous commitment sound a little easier. They take the guts out of the crucifixion myth, for example, by making it sound as if you can trot around the cross and arrive at bliss by a short cut. They make the journey of transformation sound like a trip to the spa.

In the world of religion and spirituality too, caveat emptor. Buyer beware. If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is, and the way we find that out is by trying it out and discovering in the crucible of our experience what does and doesn’t work.

Some older people felt secretly relieved and gratified by the dotcom meltdown. That wasn’t because they wanted to see a bunch of young millionaires get their comeuppance – not exclusively, anyway – it was in part because they were hearing on all sides that the rules of reality had been suspended. Those who had been through manias before know that isn’t so. But when the mania is building and the stock prices are soaring, the force field of greed and unreality becomes intense. It sucks in people who know better but can’t help hoping it’s true, this time. And it never is.

But none of that takes away from the fact that a real revolution is taking place that is changing life in fundamental ways. It just means that the implementation of some of those technologies must evolve in lockstep with the social realities that will enable them. That means, once again, paying attention to the human dimension.

Take WebVan, for example. It wasn’t a bad idea, it was just an idea that couldn’t quite work that way at this time. When I was a child I used to telephone a grocery store and ask for food to be delivered. No one thought anything of it. But if someone had suggested doing that when the telephone was invented, it would have sounded preposterous. The telephone was not understood to be a personal communication device even by its own inventors. Telephony needed time to teach us, its users and its nodes, how to be telephonic. Once that had happened, groceries were ordered over the telephone just as they will be ordered over the web. But it will be a subset of the grocery business, not all of it.

Choices about technology begin with choices about people. Technology is about technology only in the abstract. Even technophiles, the people we used to call “hackers” before that word was hijacked and used to mean vandals and break-in artists, can live within their constrained domain because the rest of society allows and enables them to do that, just as Hippies once crowed about “living off the land” because a capitalist society generated sufficient surplus to enable them to eat without working too hard to produce what they ate.

Technology in fact is always about people – people who are changed by it, people to whom it discloses new ways of being human. Yet it is precisely the human dimension that is often ignored as we distribute workers into simulated nodal space in cubicle cities, where they sink into the quiet desperation of interfacing only with simulated digital humans over telephones and networks.

Meatspace still permeates cyberspace. We still live in our bodies as well as our heads.

Think of the other evolutionary changes in the technology of the Word and you’ll see that this challenge isn’t new. When I was a child, people warned me not to read too much or live in books alone. One of the first novels of the world, Don Quixote, is about a man who went crazy reading all those newfangled printed texts about knights and believing what was in them. Cervantes lived on the cusp of a new era just as Shakespeare did, which is why they could see so clearly what was emerging. They could see it in contrast with what was already passing the way the terminator on the moon illuminates both darkness and light at the edge where they meet.

But Cervantes and Shakespeare were artists. That means they saw into the life of real people, not their enhancements or attachments. Not everybody can do that.

Before the millennial shift, at a meeting of representatives from various organizations working on Y2K issues, a COBOL programmer said:

“I have been working on Y2K for three years, but until I saw today’s topic, ‘the human dimension of Y2K,’ it never occurred to me that there WAS a human dimension of Y2K.” The programmer surfed the Internet and was astonished to discover a cottage industry spreading FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt) in order to increase their short term profits. They had never noticed before that it existed.

Think of it … three years working on code without ever thinking of how those lines of code would combine into massive structures of behavior-changing modules that would constitute a distinct culture and demand of human users significant changes in thinking, feeling and behaving.

Implementing enterprise software like SAP restructures a human culture as radically as a merger between different businesses, yet in the old days of a few years ago, the culture of the software – often implicit in the assumptions it brings to the humans who will use it – always won. It was easier to dismiss employees who could not adapt to new software than adapt software to the humans who use it.

Only now are we seeing corporations bite the bullet, absorb immense losses when enterprise-wide software doesn’t work as planned, and search for new solutions.

In the short run, the technology has the upper hand. But in the long run, humans do. The technology must facilitate generally better ways of working or living or people will stop using it.

Take computer security, an area where it’s easy to see how widespread our unacknowledged commitment to “invincible ignorance” has become. Computer security is a contradiction in terms. Those who work in the dark heart of the global network manifest an “appropriate paranoia”  because they know, they really know. Yet again and again, real security is the last item on corporate priority lists. Quick fixes like firewalls or intrusion detection systems will cover the buns of anyone called to justify procedures after a theft or major act of espionage.  But those in the know know that firewalls and intrusion detection systems in and of themselves do not do squat for real security because the weakest link in a network is the human user, how humans think about security, how humans love to outwit the electronic network. Every study of “security events” tells us that insiders, not anonymous attackers, are the biggest threat to the network. It’s people who are angry, greedy, or unhappy that act up or act out, not the technology, and it’s always motivated by the same old human emotions that have motivated us from the days of the Neolithic.

Most users operate out of an obsolete trust model that is not congruent with how intelligence and counter-intelligence, disinformation, espionage and sabotage is done in the digital world. It is the difference between showing an ID to board a plane in the United States and showing up in Israel hours early to be interrogated. Israel knows what shadows lurk in the hearts of women and men and acts accordingly. Israel knows it is Israel, whereas the United States still thinks it’s the United States.

But that too is changing, albeit slowly. The pressures from the marketplace are enforcing demands for security that stern lectures couldn’t accomplish. Businesses in the financial sector increasingly require compliance with stricter security or they won’t do business with a company. Just as automobile manufacturers did not provide seatbelts or airbags until the marketplace (and regulators) demanded them, the human needs of the human network for security in order to be functional will drive network security too.

As the digital world assimilates us more and more into its looking-glass ways, we ignore the human dimension to our peril. We human beings, digitized and distributed, are not who we used to be, nor is human civilization. The real issues of computing are issues of identity and self, and that’s where planning and strategy, personal and professional, should begin. To fulfill its promise, usability must cease to be a separate discipline or domain of expertise. Usability must disappear into the network and its interfaces just as security will disappear. Usability must become transparent to the user on whose behalf it must ultimately become the essence of the act of computing itself.

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