“Blasts from the Past” is a collection of re-published articles dating from wa-a-a-y back to the time when I was publishing sf fanzines (1970s), through to some more recent articles published on (and about) the early days of the web (1990s).
I guess things haven’t really become much worse in the 16 years since I wrote this article. But on the other hand, they haven’t improved, either, either. Nanny is still going strong.
(First published in September 1993)
I suppose it was inevitable.
Back in the bad old days, computer software was of the “hairy-chested” variety. If you couldn’t work out how to use it, that was just too damn bad.
Computer programs had to be started up with a series of cryptic and hard-to-remember options from the “command-line prompt”. Even if you could recognise that as the set of bizarre “C:>” characters that stood blinking at you imperiously from the top left of a black computer screen — why “C” ? – why a colon? – why a funny right angle bracket? — you still had to remember and to be able to type such impossibly awkward combinations as “split -fmyfile.zip -wmyfile.000 -s720″ in order to carry out perfectly ordinary functions.
If you used the Unix operating system, it was even worse. You had to know that “cat” meant “show me the contents of”, that “grep” meant “search for this bit of text”, that “ls” meant “show me the files on the hard disk”, and that “kermit” was neither the name of Theodore Roosevelt’s son nor the name of a little green frog on television, but a modem communications program.
But as the years went by, software gradually became more “user-friendly”. Commands became less cryptic, programs started to sport “menus”.
We reached the era of the “graphical user interface”, and of control using those weird Camembert-cheese-shaped objects now known fondly as “mice”. Once you mastered the non-trivial skill of learning to move something around on the desk in order to see a little arrow moving around in sympathy on the screen, you had joined the era of “point and click”. The only trouble was, there were suddenly an awful lot of things to point and click at, and pointing at the wrong thing at the wrong time could be as embarrassing as it would be in public.
Eventually, programs started to come with “Help” systems, even — good grief — “context sensitive” help systems, which gave us advice about just what we were trying to do at that moment. Software at last became easy to use, and if only things had stopped there, all would have been well.
But now we have reached the ultimate in helpful software, and in my humble opinion we have finally gone one step too far. Now we have reached the era of what I like to call “Nanny software”.
Nanny software knows what is for your own good, and is determined to let you know about it.
Nanny software asks you “Are you sure you want to delete that file, dear?”, and when you say “Yes,” asks “Now are you really sure? You can’t get it back afterwards, you know.”.
Nanny software says “Do you really want to copy that file over there?”, and you feel like screaming “Well, why else would I ask you to do it?!”.
The ultimate point has been reached, I think, with software like Microsoft Publisher 2.0, which contains the most bossy nanny I have yet encountered. Until you find out how to shut her up (a non-trivial undertaking), the MsPub nanny will keep on interrupting you whenever you try to do something with messages like “I see you’re trying to print out this document. Now, let me just show you how to do it better, dear.” or “You’ve been working on this document for a quarter of an hour, dear, and I think it’s about time you saved it.”.
The nanny in Microsoft Word 6.0 is just as bad. This one even insists on fixing your spelling for you as you type. “Now I know you typed ‘teh’, dear, but I’m sure you really meant to type ‘the’, so I’ve just changed it for you, wasn’t that nice of me?” Or it fixes the capitalisation for you, so that you can’t work out why you can’t type names like ‘McDonald’ because Nanny keeps changing it back to ‘Mcdonald’. After all she knows, even if you don’t, that you can’t have a capital in the middle of a word, now can you?
It seems that the future holds even more of this kind of thing. People are talking about developing intelligent “agents” which do such stuff as tidying up your computer desktop for you by putting files in folders where it thinks you would like them to go. You know what the result will be, of course. It’s like when the cleaning lady clears up your real desktop. You can’t find a damn thing for weeks.
Already we have “scheduler” software which interrupts you in the middle of a perfectly entertaining computer game to remind you about something. “Don’t forget to write that article for The Age”, or “You’re supposed to be on your way to Aunt Mabel’s” or “You’ll be late for your doctor’s appointment if you don’t hurry up”.
And then there’s grammar-checking software! It’s bad enough to have spelling checkers telling us that there is no such word as “gafia” and that there are two ‘p’s in “applicable”, but now we have software to nag us about the passive and active voice, and to tell us not to make our sentences too long, like this one, because long sentences are too difficult to understand.
I tell you, things have gone too far, and it won’t be too long before we have software which tells us we ought to send a thank-you note to Aunt Jane for the lovely pair of thick socks she sent us for Christmas, or which nags us to sign up for that aerobics program to get our weight down instead of spending so much time in front of the computer screen.
Just one step further, and we’ll have robots which make us chicken soup and tuck us up in bed at the first sign of a sniffle. Shades of Jack Williamson’s horrifying story With Folded Hands.
In fact, I’m starting to realise what the word “personal” means in “personal computer”. It means “damned impudent” as in “if I may ask a personal question…”.
It’s true that I don’t want to go back to the days of “hairy-chested” computing, but I do think that we have to re-assert our dignity a little bit and get rid of software which pampers us to the point of irritation. In other words, it’s time we left the nursery for good, gave Nanny the sack and let her perambulate away into the sunset, never to be seen again.