Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Alien computer system


Suppose you are abducted by aliens at a surprisingly convenient time, and they show you their alien computer (which they have localized for humans) and how they use it. Fascinated, you see that "files" and "directories" as you know them simply don't exist on the alien system. Perhaps they're working with "lists", "collections", and "cells" instead. Instead of creating documents in applications, they're putting together machines from interchangeable parts.

Most importantly, you notice that the aliens automate just about everything they do. They build mini-programs to do things rather than just doing them. Why? Well, this layer of abstraction means they never have to "undo"; they just tack on more machinery to short-circuit what they had before, and if they want to "redo", they just short-circuit the short-circuit. As you watch, you ponder the distinction between a "user" and a "programmer", wondering if it even exists on the alien homeworld.

On day two (after having eaten the best replicated chicken teryaki dinner orbiting earth and well-rested from zero-gravity sleep), you continue watching them play around with their on-screen contraptions, and you find that certain things show up over and over again. Sort of like how Earth computers have windows, icons, menus, and the pointer, you see a lot of the same things over and over again on the alien system, but they seem to have much more to do with semantics than with presentation.

By the end of the week, you've been using the alien computer and have gotten the hang of it. You learn to do some really advanced things, and the aliens are astounded by your progress. Moreover, some of the things you're doing on the alien system in minutes would be month-long projects on Earth computers.

However, you still can't do the vast majority of things you could do on your Earth computer, such as browsing the web, writing documents, managing files, etc.. Also, if other humans saw you working on the alien computer, they'd be just as clueless as when you looked over the aliens' shoulders the first day. Practically speaking, these alien computers would be completely useless to most humans.

Back on Earth

You are returned to Earth (with some cash and leftover teryaki chicken for compensation) and go back to your daily activities. However, you can't shake the feeling that there might be a radically better way to do computing that only takes a week to learn (if you're a fast learner). But, bringing "computer programming" into the user experience just seems like the wrong way to go in terms of making something both user friendly and easy to learn. Then again, you cannot deny the fact that computers are really hard to learn anyway.

I believe that learning how to become a computer "user" isn't easier than learning a programming language, but actually much harder (granted, you'll want to learn how to use a text editor and web browser before learning how to program).

Why, then, don't we teach grandma Python? I think it's because (most) users don't use Python to send and receive e-mail and browse the web. However, even grandma might find Python's interactive command line to be a handy desktop calculator... that is, until she tries to divide integers. The thing is, programming languages (well, except maybe the shell) typically don't make it easy to automate the day-to-day tasks of people who haven't devoted their lives to computing.

Higher-level programming-ish facilities integrated into operating systems would be useful to a lot of people, in my opinion. However, it would involve a learning curve, but users have to learn how to use computers anyway. Something can be simpler, yet harder to learn than something that is familiar.

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