Sooner or later, new tech turns us all into old fogeys
Computer systems are constantly evolving and changing; our brains, and our expectations, not so much
While browsing the magazines in my local supermarket the other day, I came across a publication entitled iPad for Seniors. Jokingly, my wife suggested that I ought to buy it. I didn't find this as amusing as she did.
You see, I'm acutely aware that I'm not the technical whizz kid I used to be. There was a time when you could plonk me down in front of any sort of computer and I'd quickly intuit my way around it. I used to feel sorry for people who needed big friendly picture-books to guide them through the world of technology. Nowadays, as I find myself struggling to get to grips with the latest apps and websites, I wonder whether I've become one of them.
The frustrating thing is, it's not me that's changed. My technical skills are as sharp as they ever were. The problem is that I developed them in an age when computing was all about the keyboard and mouse. I may have considered myself a prodigal polymath because I was happily able to hop between Windows, Macs, the Amiga Workbench and the X Window System, but the same fundamental interface elements draggable windows and clickable icons, that sort of thing underpinned them all.
On top of this, there was a good degree of consistency within each platform. They all had their standard controls and interface guidelines, and while this gave a lot of early software a certain identikit appearance, it meant you could fire up a program you had never seen before and instantly know how it worked.
Then the iPhone came along, and broke everything. It's hard to overstate just how seismic its impact was, in the context of interaction design, partly because it wasn't obvious at first. Apple's first go at iOS made a virtue of simplicity, as befitted the limited ambitions of a small-screened smartphone.
It certainly didn't look like an interaction model capable of overturning thirty-plus years of evolved convention, and I don't suppose for a second that actually was intended as one.
Unfortunately, that's what it quickly had to become. As the productivity potential of the smartphone (and later the tablet) became apparent, Apple felt obliged to find ways to replicate the conveniences of the desktop.
One of the first concessions was the arrival of Find and Replace, and what I chiefly remember about that was how clumsily it was implemented. That set the tone: through a decade of successive updates, the touch interface has become ubiquitous, but at the same time, it's been progressively bodged and extended in all sorts of arbitrary, illogical ways in order to cram in more and more features it was never designed for.
It adds up to a big cultural shift. I accept that the keyboard and mouse that I grew up with are no longer where it's at. What's hard to swallow is the loss of the consistency and structure they embodied. When Microsoft set out to challenge iOS with Windows 8, it cheerfully discarded its own rulebook; then came Windows 10 which, with its eternally evolving front-end, is more or less defined by ephemerality. And when I'm baffled and frustrated by today's smartphone apps, it's because I find myself faced with unfamiliar icons, illogical layouts and 11 different ways of doing the same thing.
I realise that I must sound like the stereotypical parent, moaning that modern music isn't a patch on the stuff we had back in my day. However, when it comes to interface design, some ways really are objectively better than others. I find it very telling that, ten years after the arrival of the iPhone 3G, the most expensive and advanced mobile devices the iPad Pro, and the Samsung Galaxy Tab S4 are still the ones that try their hardest to mimic conventional laptops.
So perhaps what's most galling is the fact that none of these transgressions seem to be doing the perpetrators any harm. Case in point: the Instagram app, which I've always thought is one of the worst offenders when it comes to clear, intuitive design. Even my friends who use it regularly admit that they find it confusing and illogical. You already know the punchline: it's one of the most successful pieces of software in history, with over a billion regular users.
While it's a bit sad to realise that the world is moving on, I do find one point of reassurance in all of this. I used to assume that getting older meant losing one's mental faculties after all, why else would old people need their own special guides to technology? But I'm coming to realise that the axioms and expectations you grew up with make a life-long impression, and it's simply helpful to have new ideas framed in terms your generation is familiar with. If things continue the way they're heading, it may not be long before I go seeking out a few such titles myself.
Which leaves only one lingering concern: what technologies will future Darien be learning about? If the kids today are internalising the idea that every digital interaction we have can be singular and arbitrary, that's going to have an effect when they grow up and start creating apps of their own.
If I hope to remain on top of the world of technology, I picture myself staggering home from the shop with a huge, telephone-book style copy of Apps for Seniors, a 50-chapter journey through the unique, individual workings of each of the day's most popular downloads. Frankly, I suspect I'll be greatly envious of those who had nothing more complicated than an iPad to contend with.
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