Are UIs making us stupid?
In an article in The Atlantic, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, author Nicholas Carr explores a number of ways that "the Internet" seems to be changing how we think—perhaps for the worse. While Carr's article covers many things, and there are many points one might mull over, I started thinking about what he's saying in terms of a different (and, I think, better) question altogether:
If something with computers or the Internet is making us "stupid," how much of that is a direct consequence of the user interfaces?
I don't want to talk about this much in terms of Carr's article, but I'll use it for one example. On the first (web) page of the article, Carr references a study that found:
[People] typically read no more than one or two pages of an article or book before they would "bounce" out to another site. Sometimes they'd save a long article, but there's no evidence that they ever went back and actually read it.
While Carr thinks about this in terms of "the Internet," this description, to me, points fundamentally to the role of user interface—altogether encompassing the roles of the display screens, the keyboards and pointing devices, the visual designs, the interaction designs and the information architectures. Or put another way: Carr's "Internet" is more like 10% Internet and 90% user interface.
(We might also add the "environment" in which we use computers, e.g., how much of our use of "the Internet" is in a cozy chair in a quiet corner of a room setup for reading?)
While we may be "reading less / skimming more" of the Internet on our graphics-oriented computers, we are "reading more / skimming less" of the Internet on reading-oriented computers like the Amazon Kindle. As reviewer Rick Tetzeli describes in his recent article about the Kindle in Entertainment Weekly, Reading with the Kindle:
I find myself reading more full-length articles, both mainstream features and off-point surprises, than I ever did with the print versions — the experience is totally different; instead of scanning a newspaper spread or busy magazine pages, your eye is focused only on the list of articles, making it easier to find stories you're interested in.
Tetzeli's point is that he's reading more in-depth on the Kindle than with the print editions of the same papers. And, this practically contradicts some of Carr's evidence for how digital makes us "stupid" compared with analog / print.
But, I wasn't fishing for an example like this to contradict Carr's article. Rather, I might agree with Carr, if he instead were talking about user interface: computer user interfaces might, in a way, be making us "stupid."
In many ways, the success of computers and electronic devices is connected with reusable user interface concepts. Because we can use the same mouse and keyboard whether we're composing an email, a symphony or a postcard, we can apply our mouse skills from one use to another. Likewise, with the role of digital interfaces: "windows," buttons, scrollbars, etc. And, most importantly, the web browser and HTML have given us a tremendously extensible interface for browsing information, watching videos, listening to music, writing blog entries, etc.
But, a flip side to all of this may be that we're using general, reusable interfaces that, for many specific tasks / experiences, make us do things worse than we would with other interfaces. For example, looking backwards at technology from the past and comparing it with our present, we can ask something like: would we write better letters in ink than what we type in emails, or on our blogs?
What's more interesting to me, however, is looking forward and backwards both, rather than simply backwards. We need to ask (and remember): what user interfaces worked well in the past? But also, we should ask: what new user interfaces do we need, beyond what we have with our current operating systems and computers?
The Kindle represents a big step in addressing one specific, big, computer user interface problem: typical computer monitors are hard on the eyes and not well suited for the activity of reading text. The Kindle, by starting to popularize an "e-ink" method of rendering text on a screen, may reveal that, in fact, not only do people still like to read, but that reading digital may be beneficial—may help make us "smarter."
I think a lot of about the user interfaces I see and use daily. Why can't these be (to use Writeroom's selling point) more "distraction free"? Why do iTunes and the iPod make it so difficult to listen to music the way I like? On my web browser and email client, why can't I just set a "dial" to turn down the volume of extraneous information when I want to concentrate on a particular subject or task? There are many others.
I appreciate Carr's article, in that is counters some of the utopianism of "features" that seems to be hard-coded into every aspect of the computer business. We talk a lot about what computers do well. We don't talk enough about what they do poorly. And, to Carr's credit, although I think he's missing the forest for the trees, he's asking why computers aren't making us smarter, more free of busy work, more relaxed, more truly connected with each other or, altogether, deeper.
But I wonder: how much are the user interfaces really to blame?
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