A softer future

This piece caught my eye today. It details a book by Ted Nelson (read the good chapter summaries here, if you can be bothered), who has been trying to influence software design since the 1960s. I can only sympathize, and find myself agreeing with a lot of his complaints about the state of computer applications today. The main point is that the underlying structure of software hasn’t changed since the introduction of UNIX in 1970, and that its way of dealing with data is completely unable to meet people’s true needs.

A lot of this makes sense to me. While the development in hardware has been insane, doubling in strength every 18 months (Moore’s law), software has only been able to make very small improvements on the original architecture [1]. Of course, aesthetically, we are a lot better off than in the 70s, but the same basic limitations are still there. Most users are still unable to do more than a very few basic operations on their computers. It’s probably not nice to use coworkers as examples for these things, but just as I was reading the chapter summaries to the book, a colleague popped in to ask why all the extended symbols on his keyboard had switched places. It’s actually quite simple, but how can you know that when it suddenly happens because you accidentally enter an easy-to-hit key combination?

This applies to all levels of computer applications today, from operating systems (MacOS is a pretty cage with almost no possibilities of modifying, Windows is a bloated mess with serious flaws but more modification possibilities and Linux is either an ugly copy of these two or an ivory tower you need programming skills to master), to basic office programs (Excel and Word are still almost exactly the same as they were 20 years ago), to web browsers (basically a pretty copy of a paper page with some added features). There is no way to easily link information bidirectionally, no way to make connections outside the limits of the current web page or word processor. Yet that is how our mind works. The day I can easily organize information on the web (with links going both forward and backward, and extended, personalized editing possibilities) or in a word document (today, these basically present data as if it were already in its finished, edited and published state) in a way that resembles how I would organize it in my mind is the day that the development in software has started to catch up with Moore’s law. Here’s hoping it happens soon.

[1] See this article for more discussion of software architectural weaknesses.

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