Do you own a desk? A real desk, a flat surface where you do thinking-type beats? Do you put wallpaper on your desk top? Icons?
My desk is a classic drafting table, a pure white rectangle pinned atop black metal crossbones, studded with coffee rings and decorated with the paraphernalia of my lifestyle. Every so often I give a wide sweep of the arm and relocate a heap of sweaters, books and camping crap to the floor.
You know who clutters their desks with a bunch of icons? Cubicle workers. Stuffed dolls and family photos and gold-foil Jesuses encrust their meager territories like barnacles on a reef of broken ships. This tiny act of rebellion and identity makes sufferable the grey carpet world they otherwise inhabit. If only they could deface their desks with wallpaper.
The desk-top computer is a product of the technocratic pyramid scheme of the 1980s. This inflection point, the moment when we became a world-hive of cyborgs, coincided with the peak of the cubicle mentality. It didn’t have to be this way.
If we had achieved clockwork computers in the days of Babbage and Lovelace, or irrigation computers in a remote mountain range, what metaphors would we use to operate them? We wouldn’t imagine ourselves sitting at desks, shuffling documents and windows.
(Why are windows even a part of the desk metaphor? Who shuffles windows? Is this a glazier’s desk?)
We might use farming metaphors for computers – raising algorithms, breeding them, planting them in guilds that help each other function. Humans have farmed for thousands of years, and despite a lot of mistakes along the way we’re pretty comfortable with it. It’s much more intuitive than opening menus in windows on desk-tops.
(What’s with all the menus? Is there a food court? Can I get delivery?)
Before the graphical user interface and the point-and-shoot-window-desk-bistro metaphor, there was the command line interface. It’s not gone: coders work in the command line every day. It’s just hidden under the layered cubicles of the GUI.
The command line is a mysterious place. You start in a dark room of indefinite size, your only guide a little floating alphanumeric character. This fae creature is at your command, if you can learn how to speak its language. It’s more than happy to reveal its secrets, but you don’t know what to ask.
For those familiar with the CLI it’s like having a fairy godmother and a million wishes. You can make the computer do anything you imagine, by fiat. For those who aren’t, it’s like having your head up a chimney.
The magic of the CLI is that it’s so fluid. You need only translate your ideas from thought-language into computerspeak. There’s no intervening metaphor to burden your mind. The problem with it is its subservience. The idea of “commanding” the computer is older than the desk-top “managing” mode. It comes from the original buyers of computers: the military. Warmongers didn’t invent computing but they did implement it. W’re still living with the technical lock-in of their decisions.
Treating a computer as a subordinate under your command makes two toxic assumptions. The first is that you’re in charge, and the computer follows your orders. As we’ve learned in the last few decades, it can be the computer that controls the human (and they certainly aren’t the most obedient machines).
The second bad premise is that the computer is a person. People have agency and motivations and petty grudges. They require direction, coordination, management. Especially if you’re trying to get them to kill a lot of other people for no obvious reason.
When the longhaired geeks started building PCs, they copied the logic of mainframe computers. Complete with “master-slave” drives, and “killall” instructions. The command line still ruled. Graphics might happen within programs, but not outside of them.
Then came the GUIs, with their typewriter-plus-gun peripherals, and their customized desk-tops. The arcade and the office blended into one. Now we’re all trapped in cubicles, yanking on slot machines, hoping for pictures of our friends.
To write this letter I have to use a keyboard designed to keep the most-used keys far apart because typewriters used to get stuck if you pressed two keys at the same time. To program the computer itself, I have to learn a terse, obtuse language, and structure my thought into a series of instructions. I have to treat the computer like my servant: follow this recipe, go to that location, bring me this information. For most people, accessing the internet from their phone or their TV or their surveillance speaker, there’s no option to change the way things work. They’re only allowed to consume content.
Of course we create anyway, invent new mediums, memes and vlogs and voice memos. But the structure is still oppressive: only those who can think like a military-industrial bureaucrat get to decide how technology works. And the more you learn to code, the more you train your brain to that attitude. This is why Goofle keeps going back to the DOD teat: their mission to “organize all human information” is inherently matched to the needs of the state. Command-based hierarchies tend to reinforce each other.
The desk metaphor is slowly shedding its skin. Phones and tablets made gestural commands a reality, and voice UI is finally maturing. But the mindset is the same, as we see in the rise of “personal assistants”. We’re supposed to treat our pocket supercomputers as sultry secretaries. From ELIZA to Lisa to Alexa, computers have been given the same role as women in the patriarchy. They do all the real work, and the guy with the gun and typewriter takes the credit.
In voice interface design, the opposite of this command-and-control mode is conversational UI. In conversational mode, your smartspeaker might ask you how you are feeling, suggest a few albums you may like based on your reply, and give you your pick. It doesn’t have to pretend to be human to do this. Better you treat it as a talking dog, or an intelligent houseplant. You can get predictable responses when you do certain things. It’s not plotting against you. It’s not going to fall in love and run away. But it can still be conversational, allowing you to explore options and circle around topics in a natural way, rather than issuing stilted orders through your tight-clipped mustache.
There’s a function in code-editing programs called the “command palette”: a search box you can invoke anywhere, that allows you to type whatever you’re trying to do in the app and reach it within a few keystrokes. Rather than hunting through a series of menus organized by someone’s idea of topics, you just ask the computer and it grants your wish. This, combined with the context-awareness and intent-parsing we already have in “personal assistants”, could revolutionize the way we interact with our machines. The human and the computer could adapt to each other’s quirks in the way that long-term friends do. Little AI genies would hover at our ears, listening to our ramblings, dispensing predictions and seeking patterns and carrying messages.
With AR glasses you could open a Door instead of a Window and walk “outside” into your program farm. Feed your social media, throw some search terms in the webcrawler bin, train the baby AIs. Walk always with a virtual Jiminy Cricket, a Holy Guardian Angel reminding you to live your best life. Or, hell, live in a VR castle with hundreds of zombie minions doing your memetic dirty work. I don’t care. Just stop putting all those little icons on your desk-top, because the world is way bigger and weirder than a cubicle can contain.
Thanks for reading,
###### SCIOPS is a weekly letter about farming and other stuff. Feel free to forward it, or share it, or fill it with ash and plant at midnight it on a full moon. You can find a web version of the latest letter here , or view the archive here .
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