June 28th, 2014

Today’s Skunky goes to the entire computer industry as a whole. Collectively, it makes impossible demands on my memory. I present a list of the applications that I use at least once per month, along with the number of verbs that I must memorize in order to fully utilize the application, and the number of verbs that I have actually memorized. 

Table of Verb Counts

Now, these are just the applications that I use with some frequency. There are plenty more on my Mac that I simply refuse to even open, because I just don’t need to learn all those features.

You might object that I have overestimated the number of verbs in the applications, so let me take you through an example to show you just how complicated our programs have become these days. Let’s start with Preview, Apple’s PDF viewer. All it does is allow you to view PDF files. That sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Here’s the menu structure:

Menu Structure 1
Menu Structure 2
Menu Structure 3

(I couldn’t figure out how to get this god-damned program (Sandvox) to enter the text properly with unspaced line breaks, so I had to take screen shots of the properly formatted text and enter the screen shots here.)

I won’t add in the icons that appear on the toolbar — most of them merely replicate menu items. The above list amounts to 101 verbs, and that excludes all the standard items such as Open, Save, Cut, Copy, Paste, etc. 

Other demands on my memory
But these are just the applications on my desktop computer. Now let’s throw in my iPhone — I keep it pretty clean, and have a total of a mere 44 apps on it. These necessarily have fewer verbs than the desktop apps, so let’s conservatively estimate that there are only about two dozen verbs per app; that adds up to a thousand verbs. 

Let’s not forget programming languages. I currently use Java, HTML5, CSS, and JavaScript. Java alone has at least a thousand classes, but I’d guess that I have memorized a mere thousand methods and parameters. HTML5? Let’s put it down for a hundred verbs to memorize. CSS is a bit smaller; I’ll put it down for 50 verbs. JavaScript? That’s a little harder to guess, because I have yet to master the language, but I’ll guess 300 verbs. Together, these add up to 1450 verbs. 

Then there’s the Web. Now, most people think that using the Web is a transparent operation; you don’t have to memorize anything to use it effectively. Ha! Sure, the great majority of web pages are no-brainers, but there are a LOT of web pages out there, and not all of them are easily navigated. Easily the worst is the website for my ISP, Network Solutions. I urge you to take a look at this monstrosity. The home page bristles with links, popups menus, and hotspots. Most are easy to figure out, but many rely on rather terse. What is one to make of such items as “Site Seal”, “Reputation Alert”, or “Take a payment”? There are more than a hundred hotspots on that webpage. For me as a client, it’s much messier. Logging on and navigating to the pages I want to use is always a tricky operation, especially because they’re always trying to sell me something. These intermediate sales pages or popups are always changing, so using the website is never an automatic process: every page must be read to insure that I’m going to the right place. It’s ridiculously easy to get to the wrong place. For example, my most common need is to check my site statistics. In order to accomplish this, here’s the procedure I followed just now:

1. Go to bookmarked login page
2. Dismiss popup trying to get me to renew some of my services — which are set to expire a year from now.
3. The page contains about a hundred options. Select ‘’ from a menu and click on “go”.
4. “Web Hosting Dashboard”: Once again, about a hundred hot spots. Select button “Web Hosting Toolbox” 
5. Again, at least a hundred hotspots. Scroll down to “AWStats”. 
6. This page gives me a choice between disabling AWStats and launching AWStats. Click “Launch AWStats” 
7. At last I get to see my site usage statistics!

Of course, there’s also the television, the TV program recorder, and various other electronic devices scattered around the house. I won’t count them.

The Grand Total
Toting up all these, I get over 5,000 verbs that I must keep active in my memory in order to utilize my technological devices. 

Think about that for a moment. Most people have a working vocabulary of only about 10,000 words in their native language. Our computers demand that we memorize half as much stuff as we use in our everyday language. Let’s face it: it’s just not possible to handle all those demands. We cannot keep up with the load.

How have we come to this sorry state? The answer is a variation on the tragedy of the commons. The mind of the user is the common territory of the computer industry, and every software vendor wants to hog as much of that mental resource as possible; the more mental resource the user commits to the software, the more the software can accomplish. But nobody is looking at the big picture. The user community is broken down into two broad groups: general-purpose users and “power users”. Each application has its cadre of experts who have devoted huge amounts of time to mastering that application. Most users, however, have not the time to learn all the ins and outs, so they rely on the experts to help them. The establishment of “user-driven help forums” had greatly eased the problem while simultaneously encouraging software developers to keep making their software messier. 

An Aside on History
Before the Web rose to prominence in the late 90s, these user-driven help forums didn’t exist. If a customer had a problem using an application, their only recourse was to call the Customer Service department of the software vendor. Software companies found themselves swamped with calls, so they expanded their Customer Service departments. The Customer Service departments grew so large that they ate up profits. This forced software companies to give serious consideration to how they might reduce customer service costs by making their programs easier to use. 

Thus, there was a concerted, industry-wide effort to clean up applications throughout the 90s. But the rise of user-driven help forums killed off this effort. The customers themselves provided customer service! A software company typically assigns one person to monitor the forum and handle special-case stuff. Apple doesn’t even bother to read any of the posts on its user-driven help forums. 

The situation is worsened by the peculiar dynamics of the relationship between software vendor and users. The user-driven help forums also provide companies with marketing feedback. But those user-driven help forums are dominated by the power users, who are, in effect, “know it alls” and therefore command a lot of respect. So what happens if a hundred people can’t figure out who to use the software effectively? Do they get onto the forum and post long, angry comments complaining about how hard the software is to use? No, because they figure that they’re too dumb to make informed commentary. I once had a problem with a program for which there was no apparent solution. I scoured the documentation trying to figure it out. Finally I asked about it in a user-drive help forum, and somebody gave me the solution. It was a magic keypress combination mentioned nowhere in the documentation. I don’t know how that fellow found the solution. But the program was so poorly designed that a useful feature was simply invisible to the average user. Here’s the kicker: nobody from the company jumped in to apologize and promise immediate rectification. So far as I know, they never fixed that problem. 

Mea Culpa
By the way, I must confess my own sins in this regard. My interactive storytelling technology, as manifested in the development environment, Swat, is so complicated that nobody ever mastered it, and only about four people ever got a solid grip on it. It had too many verbs, too many concepts, too much stuff in it. Had I simplified it, it would not have suffered so ignominious a fate. But I defend myself with the claim that I went to extraordinarly lengths to simplify it. The Sappho scripting language was designed to be easier to learn than any conventional language. Swat bristled with clever features that made a complicated subject easier to grasp.

Sad Conclusions
I don’t think that the computer industry will ever address this issue, because they do not perceive the overall problem. Everybody believes that their own product is reasonable and doesn’t demand overmuch of its users. Nobody takes into account the overall effect. In many ways, this is akin to our civilization’s problems with smog produced by automobiles. No single car has any significant effect, but when you put a million cars into a basin like Los Angeles, you get dangerous levels of smog. Eventually the government stepped in with regulations that reduced smog to acceptable levels. But we’ll never have a “Software Environment Protection Agency”. Learn to live with the smog.