10 25 2020
| By Oliver Cox
The potential of technology to empower is being subverted by tyrannical user interface design, enabled by our data and attention.
My thesis here is that an obsession with easy, “intuitive” and perhaps even efficient user interfaces is creating a layer of soft tyranny. This layer is not unlike what I might create were I a dictator, seeking to soften up the public prior to an immense abuse of liberty in the future, by getting them so used to comical restrictions on their use of things that such bullying becomes normalised.
A note of clarification: I am not a trained user interface designer. I am just a user with opinions. I don’t write the following from the perspective of someone who thinks that they could do better; my father, a talented programmer, taught me early on that everyone thinks that they could build a good user interface, but very few actually have the talent and the attitude to do so.
As such, all the examples that I shall discuss are systems where the current user interface is much worse than a previous one. I’m not saying that I could do it better; they did it better, just in the past.
This is not new. Ted Nelson identifies how in Xerox’s much lauded Palo Alto Research Center (the birthplace of personal computing), the user was given a graphical user interface, but in return gave up the ability to form their own connections between programs, which were thereafter trapped inside “windows” — the immense potential of computing for abstraction and connection was dumbed down to “simulated paper.” If you’d like to learn more about his ideas on how computing could and should have developed, see his YouTube series, Computing for Cynics.
Moore’s law describes that computers are becoming exponentially more powerful as time passes, meanwhile our user interfaces — to the extent that they make ourselves act stupidly and humiliate ourselves — are making us more and more powerless.
YouTube’s Android app features perhaps the most egregious set of insulting user interface decisions. The first relates to individual entries for search results, subscriptions or other lists. Such a list contains a series of video previews that contain (today) an image still from the video, the title, the name of the channel, a view count, and the publishing date.
What if I want to go straight to the channel? This was possible, once. What if I want to highlight and select some of the text from the preview? I can’t. Instead, the entire preview, rather than acting like an integrated combination of graphics, text and hypertext, is just one big, pretty, stupid, button.
This is reminiscent of one of my favorite Dilbert cartoons. A computer salesperson presents Dilbert with their latest model, explaining that their latest user interface is so simple, friendly and intuitive that it only has one button, which they press for you when it’s shipped from the factory. We used to have choices. Now we are railroaded.
Do you remember when you could lock your phone or use another app, and listen to YouTube in the background? Not any more. YouTube took away this — my fingers hovered over the keyboard there for a moment, and I nearly typed “feature” — YouTube continuing to play in the background is not a feature, it should be the normal operation of an app of that type; the fact that it closes when you switch apps is a devious anti-feature.
YouTube, combining Soviet-Style absurdity and high-capitalist banality, offers to give you back a properly functioning app, in return for upgrading to Premium. I’m not arguing against companies making available additional features in return for an upgrade. Moreover, my father explained how certain models of IBM computers came with advanced hardware built-in — upgrading would get you a visit from an engineer to activate hardware you already had.
IBM sells you a car, you pay for the upgrade, but realize that you already had the upgraded hardware, they just suppressed it; YouTube sells you a car, then years later turns it into a clown-car, and offers you the privilege of paying extra to make it into a normal car. Imagine a custard pie hitting a human face, forever.
Obviously this simile breaks down in that the commercial relationship between YouTube and me is very different to the one between a paying customer and IBM. If you use the free version of YouTube, you pay the company in eyeballs and data — this sort of relationship lacks the clarity of a conventional transaction, and the recipient of a product or service that is supposedly free leaves themselves open to all manner of abuses and slights, being without the indignation of a paying customer.
WhatsApp used to have a simple, logical UI; this is fast degrading. As with YouTube, WhatsApp thwarts the user’s ability to engage with the contents of the program other than in railroaded ways.
Specifically, one used to be able to select and copy any amount of text from messages. Now, when one tries to select something from an individual message, the whole thing gets selected, and the standard operations are offered: delete, copy, share, etc.
What if I want to select part of a message because I only want to copy that part, or merely to highlight so as to show someone? Not any more. WhatsApp puts a barrier between you and the actual textual content of the messages you send and receive, letting you engage with them only in the ways for which it provides.
On this point I worry that I sound extreme — today I tried this point on a friend who didn’t see why this matters so much to me. Granted, in isolation, this issue is small, but it is one of a genre of such insults that are collectively degrading our tools.
That is is to say that WhatsApp pretends that the messages one the screen belong some special category, subject only to limited operations. No. It’s text. It is one of the fundamental substrates of computing and any self-respecting software company ought to run on the philosophical axiom that users should be able to manipulate it, as text.
Another quasi-aphorism from my father. We were shopping for a card for a friend or relative, in the standard Library of Congress-sized card section in the store. Looking at the choices, comprehensively labelled 60th Birthday, 18th Birthday, Sister’s Wedding, Graduation, Bereavement, etc., he commented, Why do they have to define every possible occasion? Can’t they just make a selection of cards and I write that it’s for someone’s 60th birthday?
This is about the shape of it. The Magnetic North to which UIs appear to be heading is one in which all the things people think you might want to do are defined and are given a button. To refer to the earlier automotive comparison, this would be like a car without a steering wheel or gas pedal. Instead there’s a button for each city to which people think you might want to visit.
There’s a button for Newark but not for New York City? Hit the Button for Newark then walk the rest of the way. What kind of deviant would want to go to New York City anyway, or for that matter what muddle-headed lunatic would desire to go for a drive without having first decided upon the destination?
I work in the Financial District in Manhattan. Our previous building had normal lifts: you call a lift and, inside, select your floor. This building has a newer system: you go to a panel in the lobby and select your floor, the system then tells you the number of the lift that it has called for you. Inside, you find that there no buttons for floors.
This is impractical. Firstly, there is no way to recover if you accidentally get in the wrong lift (more than once, the security guards on the ground floor have seen a colleague and me exit a lift with cups of coffee and laptops, call another, and head straight back upstairs). Meanwhile, one has to remember in order for the system to function. I don’t go to the office to memorize things, I go to the office to work. Who wants to try to hold in mind the number for your lift while trying to talk to a friend?
More importantly, and just like WhatsApp, it’s like getting into a car but finding the steering wheel immovable in the grip of another person, who asks, “Where would you like to go?” What if I get in the lift and change my mind? This says nothing for the atomizing effect this has on people. Before, we might get into a lift and I, being closest to the control panel, would ask “which floor?” Now we’re silent, and there’s one fewer interruption between the glint of your phone, the building, and the glass partitions of your coworking space.
My father set up my first computer when I was 8 or 9 years old. Having successfully installed Red Hat GNU/Linux, we booted for the first time. What we saw was something not unlike this:
This is a list of the processes that the operating system has launched successfully. It runs through it every time you start up. I see more or less the same thing now, running the latest version of the same Linux. It’s a beautiful, ballsy thing, and if it ever changes I will be very sad.
Today, our software treats us to what you might call the Ambiguous Loading Icon. Instead of a loading bar, percentage progress, or list, we’re treated to a thing that moves, as if to say we’re working on it, without any indication that anything is happening in the background. This is why I like it when my computer boots and I see the processes launching: there’s no wondering what’s going on in the background, this is the background.
One of the most egregious examples of this is in the (otherwise functional and inexpensive) Google Docs suite, when you ask it to convert a spreadsheet into the Google Sheets format:
We’re treated to a screen with the Google Docs logo and a repeating pattern that goes through the four colors of Google’s brand. Is it doing something? Probably. Is it working properly? Maybe. Will it ever be done? Don’t know. Each time that ridiculous gimmick flips colors is a slap in the face for a self-respecting user. Every time I tolerate this, I acclimatize myself to the practice of hiding the actual function and operation of a system from the individual, or perhaps even to the idea that I don’t deserve to know. This the route of totalitarianism.
I’m not pretending that this is easy. I understand that software and user interface design is a compromise between multiple goals: feature richness (which often leads to difficult user interfaces), ease of use (which often involves compromising on features or hiding them), flexibility, and many others.
I might frame it like this:
They have to draw the line somewhere. It feels like software creators have placed too much emphasis on prettiness and ease of use, very little on freedom, and sometimes almost no emphasis on letting the user know what’s actually happening. I’m not asking for software that provides for the totality of all practical logical operations, I’m asking for software that treats me like an adult.
All this matters because the interfaces in question do the job of the dictator and the censor, and we embrace it. More than being infuriating, they train us to accept gross restrictions in return for trifling or non-existent ease of use, or are a fig leaf covering what is actually going on.
Most people do what they think is possible, or what they think they are allowed to do. Do you think people wouldn’t use a Twitter-like “share” function on Instagram, if one existed? What about recursive undo/redo functions that form a tree of possible document versions? Real hyperlinks that don’t break when the URL for the destination changes?
We rely on innovators to expand our horizons, while in fact they are defining limited applications of almost unlimited possibilities. Programmers, systems architects, businesspeople and others make choices for us: in doing so they condition in us that which feels possible. When they do so well, they are liberators; when they do so poorly, we are stunted.
Some of these decisions appear to be getting worse over time, and they dominate some of the most popular (and useful) systems; the consciousness-expanding capabilities of technology are being steered into a humiliating pose in a cramped space, not by force, but because the space is superficially pretty, easy to access and because choices are painful.
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