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A Few Words
      

Category:
Technology

False Needs, Forced Needs and Persuaded Perceptions

There should come a point where we begin to question what the techies push on us as *needs*. We should begin to question, for one thing, whether the so-called needs are real. And we should, cynically enough, question the motivation for selling us these needs. One might reasonably think that programs requiring greater processing power are encouraged by the proliferation of more powerful processors, rather than out of a desire for some form of efficiency or speedier applications. Or, of course, it could be the other way around. At root, the argument is fueled by cynicism. But the argument should not be dismissed simply on those grounds.

It might be of interest, in some context, to cite statistics about users' usage of various features bundled up with the newest web browser or with the newest word processing software or the newest spreadsheet or email client. That is not of interest here; the thesis is not the result of a particular, directed study or the result of *hard* research: it is the result of personal reflections on the directions of PC technology, in a very general sense, and reflections on the impacts of various technologies on our lives.

These are not completely unfounded reflections. In some sense, I am an insider. By trade, I am a programmer. By training, I am a philosopher. In dreams, I am a carpenter and an audio engineer and a writer, and so on. The thesis I advance results from all of those pursuits. It results from thinking about my needs as an audio engineer and guitarist as compared to my needs as a programmer. It results from thinking about connections between what I *think* I need in my workshop and what I *think* I need in my PC. My thesis is intimately connected with a wide range of thoughts, musings and conversations that go on through the rest of my life.

What concerns me is that, these days, keeping up with what PC and software vendors think *I* need, keeping up with the possible ways that my needs might be satisfied, evaluating what can *really* suit my needs, is itself a full-time job. In short, critically evaluating my needs leaves me with little time for other pursuits. An option would be to give in, in some sense, and jump on an OS bandwagon -- to let an OS writer define and install what I need on my PC. I will not hide the fact that I harbor animosity toward this kind of marketing and OS / software development. Expressed synonymously, I harbor animosity toward Microsoft. For now, I prefer using Linux, simply because everything is free and fully configurable to my tastes. But Linux is subject to the same criticisms that I'm leveling against *all* OS's that I have encountered in the PC (and Mac) markets. Certainly one might decide to discredit my comments and perceptions because I have not experienced *enough* OS's, or because I have neither programmed nor designed an OS. But I emphasize, this is not simply an argument about OS's and PC's; this is, in some considerable sense, an argument about how we understand and lead our lives and our work.

One thing that worries me is the pervasive emphasis that software writers and marketers put on *faster*. It is a tired thing to say that "faster is not necessarily better", or some such thing, but it is appropriate to reiterate the point here. In audio engineering, in woodworking, in writing, in doing philosophy, faster is certainly not tantamount to better. Should it be different in other walks of life, or in other facets of our lives? I think not. Sometimes, being able to do something faster is helpful. Sometimes you can get more done. However, sometimes what you do get done is not up to speed with specific expectations or needs. *Faster is better* works well *in certain contexts*. If we are not appropriately sensitive to the context in which one tries to sell us the *faster therefore better* product, we are, I argue, in danger.

If we talk about the speed at which a web page loads, few would deny that faster is better. If we talk about the speed with which a program loads, again few would deny that faster is better. If we talk about the speed at which we get our food at the drive through, then faster *might* be better, as long as the food is edible and lives up to our tastes. If we talk about the speed at which we can get from Los Angeles to San Diego, then faster *might* be better, as long as the route and the means are still reasonably safe and as long as we have little interest in what happens along the way.

The latter two examples rather clearly admit of clarification. In the first two examples, perhaps it is not so clearly the case that they admit of clarification. But I would argue that they do. In other words, I would argue that the first two statements are *incomplete* without further clarification. In either case, *faster is better* depends on where slow-down occurs. For example, if web pages load slowly because they are populated with graphics and multimedia presentations, one might reasonably first ask what value those graphics and presentations add to the information on the page. If a program loads slowly because it is populated with bells, whistles and buzzers, one might reasonably ask whether those bells, whistles and buzzers are worth waiting for. If the extra graphics, bells and doo-dads are not what we estimate to be worth-the-wait, then it is reasonable to closely consider whether adding speed to a processor is worth the effort, or whether the speed of the processor is what is really in question.

I cite AbiWord as an example (not meant as an endorsement of the product). On my PC, AbiWord loads faster than it takes the splash screen to disappear. My PC is a (now clunky) Pentium 733 with a 5400 rpm IDE hard drive and 364 MB of RAM. That's a pretty fast load time for a machine worth, at best, a couple hundred dollars. AbiWord has every feature that I've ever used in any Microsoft product or in OpenOffice.org or StarOffice or WordPerfect, and so on. In this case, a faster machine buys me very little; a product whose features match my needs is a better solution than a humdinger of a processor.

It could be the case that, were I to use the nifty features bundled up in mainstream wordprocessors, I would be more productive. Perhaps. That, however, would only be the case if (insert *speed word* here) were valuable to my work. I would argue that my work, being largely a creative pursuit, is not dominated by a need for speed. Hence, AbiWord is the most advanced word processing product that I ever use. (Typcially, I use a text editor. Currently, I am quite enamored with gedit; I like the fonts. Back in the day, I only used vi. On the job, where Microsoft products are the norm, I favor Wordpad.)

Perhaps I'm the odd case, in this case. But I think not. I know of few people who have used, for example, a mail merge. The letter wizard, at this point, borders on cliche (and ostensibly substitutes for a fundamental knowledge of how to format a letter). Tables are, in my experience, usually poorly used and cumbersome and they make printing a disaster. Bullets and numbering usually work well, but I prefer to use my own numbering systems anyway (a la Wittgenstein's "Tractatus"). The default auto-correct features, though sometimes helpful, seem more a substitute for good spelling and grammar; I prefer to know how to spell and how to write. Anyway, I do not mean to complain too harshly. There are certainly some good points to word processors and the what-you-see-is-what-you-get paradigm. They prevent users from having to *know* anything about text processing or layout (However Tex and LaTex are vastly more powerful if what you are looking for is a *professional* presentation). They do a huge chunk of work that most folks aren't terribly interested doing, and rightly so, might I add. So in some sense, they save time. But the time they save comes with tradeoffs. (I'll say more about those tradeoffs below.)

What I really find troubling is how we have been sold on the *look and feel* of a program, and on how much *faster* we can get things done, as if that is what has been in question all along. I prefer to think that stronger *content* is worth more than stronger *form* (presentation). I prefer to think that an employee capable of generating more meaningful memos or more meaningful presentations is a more valuable employee. To cut through it all: producing crap quicker does not make the crap any better.

choice

This is, I suppose, all well and good to those who already agree with this sort of position. And I am a ranting, regressive, reactionary lunatic to the rest. To try to soften the point: producing *more* stuff *faster* is all well and good *if* the most significant component of your task is *production*. That is a big *if* though. What is dangerous, I contend, is adopting the *more* stuff *faster* model of technological advance as the default model. I think that it is, and has been, time that we re-address what we *really* need to get out of our technology, and cast a skeptical eye on the *faster is better* model.

Oftentimes we think to ourselves, especially, I think, in the technology industry, "I could do this faster". Why would we venture to think this? Why would we think this as opposed to "I could do this more slowly"? The answer is, of course, obvious, on its surface. The obvious answer is that we just want to work more efficiently, or faster. That answer, however, is too superficial: the question is, really, about that answer. The question is what got us to think, by default, that doing things faster or more efficiently is *the* paradigmatic yardstick of our performance? Why should it be this instead of the obvious contrast, "I could do this more slowly". A perhaps less obvious contrast might be "I could produce higher-quality results". Or maybe "My work could make a greater impact". Neither of these latter two thoughts depend on "speed words" -- words that are tied to the *pace* of work, as opposed to some other component of work (such as quality or impact).

It is an interesting exercise to evaluate one's dependence on "speed words" when describing one's role on the job. It is an interesting exercise to force oneself to describe his or her role *without* using speed words, so to emphasize other components of the work. For example, I might characterize my programming job as "providing efficient solutions and services". But that depends on speed words ("efficient"). Instead, I can emphasize other aspects of my work by characterizing it as "creative development and problem solving". This does not depend on speed words; I can creatively develop software and solve problems at any pace.

(Suppose I come up with a game where I try to describe my work without using speed words. What is left? What is the significance of the words I choose? Are they simply the words I have learned in conjunction with speed words? Or are they significant in some other way? If an advertiser tells me that I can produce quality results in less time, what is that advertiser selling me? The quality or the time or some combination of both? It will be a matter of my concerns. However, if my concerns have always been about time, I can be tricked into thinking that my concerns can *now* be about quality as well. This is a trick.)

However, this exercise is really frivolous. The fundamental problem with the exercise is that it asks an unmotivated question and expects a general and widely-applicable answer. This is an unreasonable expectation. I think that we are, in a sense, trained to think like this: to think that there are general, deeply meaningful characterizations of our work and that things like "productivity tools" can help us actualize what we express in our (erroneous) speed-word-laden characterizations of our work.

I argue that such characterizations are of far greater interest when articulated in an appropriate context. Establishing that sort of context is difficult; it requires asking good and meaningful questions at the right times. I think that the whole process starts with understanding not an individual's role, but the role of an organization.

For example, I work for a mortgage lending bank. Generally, our role is to provide services for savings, investments, and loans. At this point, I have used neither speed words, nor quality words to describe our business. So the question is open: how do we intend to actualize this general characterization of our business? Two clear directions are: to focus on quality, and to focus on speed. Or, we might suggest some balance between the two. Or we might suggest a completely different direction. Whatever the case may be, the way we characterize how we intend to actualize our role will directly impact our job descriptions, or our characterizations of our individual roles.

I offer that most institutions try to balance quality and speed. Most institutions want to produce the highest possible quality in the least time. If this is the case, then it is still in question what counts as an acceptable level of quality and what counts as an acceptable timeline. There is little doubt that as we strive to reduce the timeline, there will be a negative impact on the quality of our product. Software giants like Microsoft market their products in such a way that they explicitly offer the possibility of improving quality while at the same time, shrinking the timeline to that quality. In other words, they play on the simple fact that we realize that, generally, shrinking timelines corrleates with reduction of quality. They try to show that their products are capable of reversing this inculcated correlation.

In an institution that tries to balance quality and speed, "faster *would be* better" or "faster *could be* better", if there were not a significant tradeoff in the quality of products or services. Again, faster is better under certain circumstances.

If it were the case that my interests lay in higher quality, and that speed was only a secondary concern, then "faster is better" would not entice me. But "productivity tools" that promise that I can generate products and services of higher quality might. We might reasonably ask, at this point, whether the latest and greatest feature-laden productivity tools (e.g., Microsoft Office, OpenOffice.org, StarOffice) can actually deliver on a promise of higher-quality products.

If productivity tools promise "higher quality", we are right to wonder if the designers' conception of high quality matches with our conception of high quality. If there is no match, or theirs and our conceptions are not significantly similar, then there is an immediate problem. Importantly, the more general the articulation of what "high quality" amounts to, the less likely it will be useful to a specific business need. For example, I might say that one aspect of what I mean by "high quality" is that loan and financial documents be accurate and easily readable. Microsoft Word claims to provide the ability to "read with greater comfort". I might ask, does this match what I mean by "easily readable"? In this case, no. No because I am interested in easily-readable and professional-looking printed documents; Microsoft means that the document looks nice on the screen. This is a small example of how, without thinking carefully about both what I expect in a quality-enhancing piece of software and what a software developer expects his or her product to deliver, I might be misled into thinking that our expectations match. In the case of Microsoft Word, this is not the case. A savvy enough software seeker might, in this case, investigate the merits of TeX, which claims that it is "intended for the creation of beautiful books - and espcially for books that contain a lot of mathematics". This is, essentially, an articulation of what "high quality" means, insofar as we can connect the design goals of TeX with tangible examples of "beautiful books" and "books that contain a lot of mathematics". If it is the case that I want to generate documents that are graphic intensive and layed out in a book-like fashion, then TeX is more likely to meet my expectations than Word. In short, what the makers of TeX think of as high quality is closer to what I think of as high quality than what the makers of Word thought of as high quality. (This is not necessarily to detract from the usefulness of Word: it is a convenient program and simple to use, but its printed output is less than book-quality, and hence not up to speed for the particular example I had in mind.)

Again though, my point is not to pick on a particular piece of software. My point is to say something about about expectations and evaluations. Underlying everything I have said is a suggestion that we have been lulled into such a sense of complacency about quality that we have largely ceased to notice when things really *do not* work particularly well.

In my workshop, I have two table saws. One was purchased at an estate sale in Wyoming and given to me years later. It is an ancient, belt-driven device with a small, cast-iron table and a steel rip fence. The clamping mechaninsm on the fence is tighter than any mechanism I've seen on a comparable modern saw. My other table saw is a higher-end Craftsman with just about the best fence and table system they offer, but it is littered with difficult-to-align plastic guides and a power switch that makes me more than a bit nervous. The advantage, for my purposes, is that the Craftsman is larger than the antique, so can handle larger pieces of stock. But for all the years newer that the Craftsman is, the rip fence and table absolutely pale in comparison to the antique's cast-iron inertia. Generally speaking, the antique is a much higher quality machine. The question that haunts me is "what happened?" Can it really be the case that in the intervening years we have made zero progress in *quality*? Or am I missing something subtle and crucial about the new Craftsman machine?

Certainly, technological advances in manufacturing have made it *possible* to produce a large number of Craftsman table saws at a low price. This is, without question, a positive advance. But the advance came at a cost of quality-of-product. I say this, in this case, because the antique saw is a low-end tool (lower-end in its day than the Craftsman today), but is a superior product, on crucial levels. I wonder, again, how it is that this has happened. How has this deep reduction in quality slipped under our consumer radar?

The philosophical side to my thesis is that, I think, we have learned (or unlearned) how to perceive certain things. And as a result, we "settle" for what, in the past, would have been unacceptable. Consequently, we pile more and more needs into the mix in an effort to make the unacceptable palatable. Tangibly: early Gibson electric guitars are highly prized. They are highly prized for their incredibly rich sound and sustain. They were hand-made instruments, including the electronics. A 1957 Les Paul plugged into an old tube driven amplifier is, arguably, the most beautiful electric guitar sound available. (I am an unabashed Gibson fan.) These days, we can get high-end Gibsons and they sound quite nice and have phenomenal sustain. But there are nuances once found in the old pickups that are simply absent in the new. To remedy this, the music world offers us solution after solution: there are devices that will introduce noise modeled on what the old pickups used to do. There are amplifiers that attempt to model the sounds of the classic tube amplifiers with onboard digital effects. And so on. But all one *really* needs is an old Les Paul and an old tube amp. The real problem is that they simply don't make them like they used to.

Conveniently, an absence of a warmly recorded guitar sounds in the mainstream has helped us forget what things used to sound like. The digital age has helped us forget the deep and subtle charms of tube-driven, analog equipment. For all its so-called flaws, the old-school equipment has a sound that is unmatched. One might say, the sound is unmatched *because* of its flaws; it has just the right flaws, that is. This, I suppose, is the throwback reactionary romantic in me. Or maybe I'm becomming a stuffy historian of perceptions. But in the end, I find it quite regrettable that the sterility and cheapness of modern recording has taken control of mainstream perceptions.

There is a simliar point to be made about furniture making and wood construction. Briefly, the introduction of lumber warehouses with pre-fab *everything* has helped us to lose our skills at perceiving all that was good about furniture and architecture many years ago. Lately, I've studied the Craftsman movement in both furniture and home construction. It is of great interest to me that Stickley and his followers had a *philosophy* of what it was like to create furniture and homes. It is difficult to discern a philosophy, or an pervading idea that underlies the construction of a modern tract home or an IKEA table. I suspect that, if there is an underlying philosophy, it has something to do with balancing speed with quality, where the scales tip in favor of speed.

To make the point a little clearer: to paraphrase a text on Craftsman furniture, leaving joinery exposed makes a statement about the builder. In Craftsman furniture construction, two primary components of the design are simplicity and exposed joinery. Simplicity evolves from a reaction to such things as Victorian furniture, and exposed joinery evolves from a desire to display a mastery of the fundamentals of furniture making. Both of those are, indeed, statements about the builder and about the designer as well. Such things as choice of wood species, hardware, durability of the product, functionality, and so forth are deeper statements. IKEA-style, piece-together furniture, for example, leaves no joinery exposed, for there aren't any interesting joints; the joinery is designed so that *anyone* can assemble the piece; there is no need to know anything at all about the fundamentals of furniture construction. Furthermore, gaps and separations in the material are covered by moldings, stickers or cardboard. True, the furniture is cheap and fast, but it does not last and, though it is of course a matter of tastes, its asthetic value is questionable.

I think that the pervasive onslaught of IKEA catalogs and Home Depot cabinets and the like have altered our perceptions in such a way that we are *unable* to discern the sorts of details that make the stuff of our lives interesting. This is a strong point, and I mean it to be a strong point. *Unable* to discern details. I realize also that this is a vague point. The important lesson to derive from the generalization is that many of us do not even know where to begin thinking about what is *important* about the things around us. Clever marketers and speechwriters leverage this fact to great advantage. They generalize advertisements and public talks, introduce key buzz-words, convince us by provoking us to generate our own palatable, detailed arguments in favor of their suggested conclusions. We buy IKEA furniture because it is sleek and chic (and so are we). We shop Home Depot because it is convenient and has everything we need (so they tell us). We have modern whirling toothbrushes because, until this point in human history, nothing has really succeded in cleaning teeth. We need draw-string garbage bags that don't slip into the garbage container because every time we use a regular recyclable bag, trash and slime spills throughout our lives.

Alternative marketing schemes might go like this: IKEA furniture is cheap and won't last, but like Tom Sawyer encouraged, you can be a part of the excitement of building it. Home Depot: Our lines are long and our part-time staff, to whom we don't have to pay much in benefits or vacation time, know very little about the products they push. Our wood is warped and bowed because, in order to save space and overhead, we don't correctly stack or rotate the stock. And our selection might be of the lowest quality hardware and pre-fab fixtures available, but there are more substandard products from which to choose than any other store. The new Reach Tooth Powerwasher: saves you all the trouble of moving your hand to brush your teeth. Hefty Super-Cling-Zip-Lock-Trash-Toters: we save you the time (so that you can subject yourself to more advertising?) of having to actually *tie* a trash bag before you dump it in your convenient receptacle (provided by your local trash monopoly -- Burrtec Industries in my area.)

But my taking pot-shots at specific businesses and specific marketing strategies does not directly help my point. The point of these examples is to focus our attention on a) what we are taught to take for granted; b) our propensity to *not* consider alternatives; c) stepping back to evaluate the costs of balancing so-called convenience with so-called quality. And again, I want to assert that, as slaves to (so-called) convenience, we are systematically extirpating our ability to perceive, pursue and live healthily high-quality lives.

To fill out this point a little bit: I want to assert more than simply that advertisers and marketers control *what we see*. I want to assert that, *because* of their profound control of what we see, they have established a sort of control over *how we see*. That is, marketing, advertising, etc., is able to sell us more than a product: they sell us (or teach us) how to perceive the things around us -- the foods, the cars, the clothes, the houses, the books and television programs and so on. Specific to the thesis here: a constant diet of advertised needs tricks us into thinking that we *actually* need to consume and enjoy x, y and z. We are tricked into thinking that life without x, y and z is somehow substandard to life with them. Thus many of the things of our lives become false needs.

In the technology industry, it appears that *everything* needs to be automated. Given all of the work I have done on the back-end of this business, I sincerely believe that this is not the case. Stronger: I believe that attempting to automate *everything* actually has severely negative effects. For one thing, these attempts distract us from focusing on the quality of product or service that we offer. It is my feeling that commerce and consumers would benefit from shifting the balance to a stronger focus on how good our output is rather than how fast we put things out. This will require rethinking the role of technology in our businesses and carefully reconsidering what we really *need* in order to produce the best possible results.

Finally, it is my feeling that the primary concern in our technological lives should not be processing power. Rather, we should consider how to thoughtfully apply our skills and selves to generating long-lasting products and results whose impact will out live our modest technological victories.

© 2003 Sorrell