is as stupid does...
technology make me feel stupid? I thought technology was something that
was supposed to make me smart, not make me feel like a moron. And this
would be ok if it was a relatively rare phenomenon - on the contrary it
happens so often that its not funny. Now if it were something hi-tech
like a computer that brought about this feeling of inadequacy that would
be fine, or at least acceptable. But to be made to look foolish by a dish-washing
machine? Well, on second thought, maybe that's acceptable too these
gadgets are almost like computers anyway. But how about a detergent bottle?
Now that's something else altogether.
It was our first dish-washing experience in the US of A. We had just moved
into graduate student housing at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. We
completed our first visit to the grocery store and once we had gotten
over all the varieties of food we could buy (as well as the quick mental
calculations of the scandalous amount in Indian rupees we had spent) we
cooked and ate our first Indian meal in America. Then came the dishwashing.
And I am not talking of using a dishwasher, we did not have one. (That
is another story for another day.) Strange though it may seem today, I
could not open the detergent bottle. After twisting and turning it for
a while, I turned to my wife, who in turn, gave it her best. Well it was
obviously not good enough. I took over again, and tried whacking it gently
against the edge of the table wondering if something would give. I peered
at it closely. I pondered if it required some special gadget, some dishwashing-liquid-bottle-opener-thingy.
I seriously considered prising the lid open with a knife. In India I would
have done so without any qualms, but this was America. The land of user-friendly
things. There had to be a better way. So I left the knife alone. Finally
after approximately fifteen minutes of trying Smita said, lets go and
ask our neighbor. I was hesitant, let me try a bit more, I said. I did,
and it got me nowhere. I gave up and both of us walked over to our neighbor's
apartment, neither of us wanting to miss the moment when the magic would
be revealed. Muhammad, our neighbor, was an imposing deep voiced MBA student
from Sudan. He appeared at the door and we told him our predicament. He
did not wait for us to finish our detailed descriptions of our futile
attempts to open the bottle. He just took the bottle from us and gently
pulled the stopper up. That's it! That's it! He looked at us, and bless
his soul, he did not laugh. Now I would be liar if I did not admit to
feeling rather ashamed and stupid that moment. This, is why, I guess,
I still remember this incident.
Now, of course, the question remains, so what? I mean it's a relatively
funny story, I can imagine you saying, but what's the big deal? The rest
of the essay attempts to understand our interactions with technology in
light of this rather simple personal example. To summarize the argument
that follows, I argue that I am not an idiot. Which, of course, is always
a nice thing to know.
As time passed, and the more I thought about this incident the more it
seemed to resonate in my mind. It revealed to me just how easy it was
to be made to feel shame or to feel stupid when we cannot use a piece
of technology. It revealed to me that even the most simple and everyday
of technological artifacts embeds, within it, entire cultures of practice.
Just as the fish is unaware of the water it lives in, we move around in
our world, unaware of these hidden conventions and assumptions. And it
is only the fish is removed from water, or when there is a mismatch between
how we usually act (our personal culture of practice) with that of a piece
of technology that we feel stupid. We feel stupid when we do not "fit
in." We feel ashamed when the fact that we do not fit in or our inadequacy
becomes public (or can possibly become public).
Of course this is compounded further when we look at something like the
computer an artifact that is physically opaque. It outward appearance
reveals nothing of what it can do. The electrons that race through the
myriad pathways on circuit boards are forever hidden from us. So are the
bit and bytes that obey complex laws first invented by George Boole a
hundred or so years ago. Also invisible are the strangely foreign commands
in C++ or assembly language that work at the next higher level, converting
our keystrokes, mouse-clicks into things that happen on screen in front
of us. Yet, at another level, the computer can be quite malleable. We
can give it whatever personality we choose to give it. And this, is where
its greatest strength lies. And also the greatest scope for breakdowns.
When we talk of a hammer (or a detergent bottle) the potential for breakdowns
or communicative fracture is small. Of course this does not mean that
cultures of practice do not impact it as the story indicated, they
do. However, the potential for such breakdowns or mis-matches is small.
For instance, I would not try to open the bottle of detergent from the
bottom. However, the computer is a different story. It is a protean machine,
capable of taking on any form we want, exhibit any behavior we want. This
of course means that it can embed in it very complex cultures of practice
assumptions and configurations that may be extremely hard to tease
out. This is turn means that the possibility of people feeling stupid
while working with computers is that much greater. Why does dragging a
file-icon to trash delete the file while dragging a disk-icon to the trash
just ejects the disk? Why do we have to double click to open a folder
(or file) on the Macintosh desktop but single click when we are within
an application or when we are browsing the web?
Users are not stupid. They are not irrational and I say it with
confidence because I am one of them. If they have a concern it must be
a valid one at least it behooves us to treat it as being valid
till we have evidence to the contrary. Now one can argue that statements
like these are easily made but they are extremely hard, or maybe even
impossible to achieve. But this does not mean we should not keep them
What is sad is that very often software designers do not even attempt
to think of these issues. I once met a programmer who worked for a Chicago
based educational software firm. I asked him (thinking then, rather narrowly,
of the possibility of getting a job in the industry) if his firm employed
any "educational psychologists." He said that they did but that
the programmers rarely listened to what he had to say. He also added,
and this is the scary part, "If saving the user one keystroke implies
an extra half day of programming for me, I won't do it. I refuse to do
so." I think the lesson we have learnt over the years is that such
an attitude just will not do.