“WE’RE ALL SLOWLY DYING IN FRONT OF COMPUTERS”: UX LESSONS FROM POMPOUS SONG LYRICS

passenger, the musician, sitting in an alleyway, playing his guitar

I heard a song once, by a singer/songwriter who calls himself Passenger. I don’t know if it’s my thing or not. Some of the lyrics can tend to be too preachy for me.

And in keeping with his borderline-preachy style, in the song Scare Away The Dark he sings the line

We’re all slowly dying in front of computers

And it makes me think, “Why’s that so bad?” and “Why ‘in front’?”

 Why’s it so bad to slowly die in front of a computer?

A computer is technology.

Technology.” ? Woooo! It’s almost like the word “chemicals.” People don’t say these words to refer to all technology, or all chemicals. They say them to refer to the complicated types. The types with questionable positive impact on health and society. Pesticides, Facebook, unpronounceable ingredients, smart phones.

But these words mean much more than that. My body is made entirely out of chemicals. And my brain is programmed thoroughly with the technology of language.

So let’s think about some kinds of technology that Passenger definitely wouldn’t mind dying accompanied by.

Well, those things sounds wonderful! I’d love to live in a society where that was true!

So what’s the difference?

 “in front” vs “behind”

In his talk “Design, Composition and Performance”, Rich Hickey mentioned that the way we interact with instruments is far more human than the way we interact with computers. That is, classical instruments have astounding user experience (UX) design.

And even to think about the phrasing of “in front” vs “behind”: When I’m behind a guitar, I face the world still. Both the instrument and I face the world together. Perhaps it helps me face the world.

But when I’m in front of a computer, it blocks off the world. It forms a barrier between the world and me.

a violin made out of fractals

 Production vs Consumption

We can probably think of lots of counter-examples, but what I think the “in front of” vs “behind” language describes is production vs consumption. Musical instruments are seen as tools used primarily to create, to express, to produce. But computers are seen as passive consumption devices.

 But computers are amazing tools for creativity!

I’d guess that I use my computer to create, learn, or collaborate with others 90% or more of the time that I’m on it. Actually, I don’t have to guess. I use RescueTime.

49% Software Development, 35% Communication & Scheduling, 5% Reference & Learning, 3% Business, 3% Entertainment

That’s how I spent my time this past month. Ok, ok, that’s how I spent the time between 8am and 6pm, Monday through Friday this past month. But in evenings and weekends, I generally just do different sorts of creating. I read books on programming, or I build my own apps, or I build a robot (the computer tells me how), or interview people and make animated videos, or I write.

There are so many ways to create things on computers!

But it’s still true that someone working on a computer looks pretty much the same as someone slumped in front of a TV.

Which brings me back to Rich Hickey’s thoughts. Is there a way to design hardware and software so that computers feel as human-tuned as the frets and strings of a guitar?

Probably.

Tablets seem like they get us closer.

Tactile and holographic interfaces seem like they’ll get us closer yet.

A blacksmith's workshop, with an anvil, a fireplace, and an astounding number of tools

 Unique hardware for each application?

When I start thinking about how the experience of creating a movie (or a presentation, or any creative thing one can do with a computer) could be made maximally emotive, even performative, like playing a guitar or piano, it starts to seem like each different application would need its own unique hardware. And heck, there could even be multiple kinds of different hardware just for creating movies—we certainly have many kinds of musical instruments that all create similar sounds.

And that seems like a possibility! Hardware is getting cheaper to make. Maybe different industries will have different custom-built computers, with interfaces suited to their specific needs.

And I don’t just mean novel interfaces for general-purpose computers, although that seems like a first step. I imagine that the screen itself would somehow need to disappear. That the computer might me remade entirely for specific applications: keyboard, trackpad, screen—all of it could be thrown away.

 Or maybe it’ll all be in the software

Maybe we won’t need custom hardware for each application. Maybe we’ll figure out a way to imbue holographic or virtual reality interfaces with tactile feedback. Maybe we’ll be able to actually touch and interact with our virtual environments. And then we can make all-software interfaces that feel as life-giving as playing a guitar. We can make those same sort of tools that I talked about in the previous section, but we won’t need real hardware.

But we’ll still need soft-hardware design! It’s just that the cost would be reduced, compared to doing it with unique hardware.

Things like Myo and Leap seem like they could help. But they still leave out the part where we actually touch something. We’re just flailing our arms in space. It’s more theramin than harp.

 In conclusion: Go make more human-friendly interfaces, and don’t feel bad about slowly dying in front of your computer

If you’re like me, this makes you want to figure out how to make computer-based technology as joyful to use as a guitar or piano. That sounds like a really interesting conversation. Let’s talk on Twitter about it.

And finally, when I hear the phrase “we’re all slowly dying in front of computers,” I choose to think that the lyricist meant that:

We’re all slowly dying, yes. While being really human. Thank you for being in front of your computer right now, and for sharing your humanity with me.

 
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