This Christmas, we got my father-in-law an iPad. He’s basically never used a computer before now.
I knew that watching him start to get acquainted with it would highlight some interesting stuff. What I didn’t expect was exactly what stuff that would be. He’s been struggling to get the hang of it, of course – though he’s doing much better than he thinks he is – but one of the things that my husband and I have struggled with as we (mostly he) play periodic tech support is in getting my father-in-law to understand that he should learn by trying, that the device itself really is pretty much impossible for him to break, short of dropping it. That he shouldn’t be afraid of experimenting.
It was at this point that I realized the nature of some of what I was seeing: it’s not that Apple’s interface isn’t intuitive or simple to use for someone who’s not especially tech-literate. It is. The trouble is that my father-in-law doesn’t understand that it is.
In days of yore, dealing with computers was a fractious and frequently antagonistic affair. It could easily descend into a fight just to get the machine to do what one wanted. The relationship between the average user and the average piece of computer technology could probably be fairly described as hostile. Apple came onto the scene thirty years ago intending to change that, and they were a huge part of why it changed. Computers for everyone is now the core of the culture; we’re so used to the idea that our highly complex technology should be highly usable that, for the most part, I don’t think we’re aware of what a remarkable shift that was.
My father-in-law is still approaching his iPad as if it were hostile, breakable, and pretty inaccessible in general. On both sides, there’s a mismatch of assumptions about the other party. The iPad wants to be used. Our consumer technology wants to be used.
But is it really that simple? When we look closer at the ways in which Apple – and others – appear to have made their interfaces as accessible as possible, what do we really find?
“Technology wants to be used” is no more a normative statement than “information wants to be free”, though the latter often gets misused that way. Both statements are purely descriptive in nature, and what they describe is the tendency toward appearances or uses in the practical world. The phrase “information wants to be free” was coined by Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, in conversation with Apple’s Steve Wozniak:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
Brand is actually describing two opposing forces rather than a single tendency – a kind of natural law of information. What Brand doesn’t directly acknowledge – though he’d probably agree – is that one of the things that makes information valuable is that it’s powerful, and one of the things that makes information powerful is that it’s dangerous. That danger if, of course, neither simple nor uniform; dangerous (and powerful) information in the possession of one group could look like a fantastic opportunity for another group (as an example, think highly classified state documents). But in order to exploit the power of this kind of information, one usually has to know how – one needs a degree of technical skill or expertise. And the less powerful usually don’t have this, let alone a reasonable chance of being able to gain access to it.
Therefore, the point of conflict – or one major point of conflict – in this battle between cost and value comes down to accessibility and practical knowledge. In other words, one is technically capable of making use of powerful information, but is running up against restrictions to the access of that information.
So what does this have to do with design?
Apple has long been lauded as a company that gets design right, both in terms of their devices themselves and in terms of their OSs. But of course, it’s not that simple; tech enthusiasts have also long noted that Apple’s design is accessible but restrictive; Apple technology wants to be used, but only in the proscribed way that Apple itself determines. Sit down and shut up; Apple is controlling this pretty ride – and as a result the ride you get is very stable and safe, but only if you accede to Apple and stay on its tracks.
I should note at this point that for the most part, Apple gets this balance pretty much right for most people, and most people are happy. But after a new Apple release, there’s always the race to see who can jailbreak the device first and most successfully. In other words, Apple’s highly accessible but highly restrictive design runs into direct conflict with a user when that user possesses a particular level of technical knowledge and skill and a desire to control their technology in a way that Apple doesn’t want or doesn’t allow for.
Technology wants to be used, but technology also wants be restricted in order to protect itself from the user.
So it’s useful to think about design – in as much as it’s practiced by Apple and companies like Apple – as a kind of power struggle at its core, between the desires of users and the restrictions on that use. And this struggle is intimately connected to a much larger one, that of the increasingly problematic distinction between users and owners, between the freedom and associated risks assumed by someone who truly owns a thing, and the safer but more restricted use of someone who merely pays for the right to use a thing.
And companies like Apple make the ride so pretty that many of us are content to simply look out the windows and admire the view, and thank God this whole business isn’t a wrestling match anymore.
Sarah uses Twitter – or possibly allows Twitter to use them, they aren’t sure – @dynamicsymmetry