Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Bricklin on tools

Dan Bricklin, walking his dog, ponders the difference between an "agent" that decides what you should see, and a tool:
It isn't the end result (e.g., only reading what I want to at the time I want to) that's the problem but how the tool interfaces with me. The missing difference, I realized, is "transparency."
Nontransparent countries have ministries that say "everything's fine -- trust us." ... If you don't know the details and can't find them out, it's hard to develop trust. ...
To me, a transparent user interface is one in which the user is presented with all the information he or she wants in a form that makes sense in light of their mental model of what's going on. The operations of the program should be consistent within the constraints of that model. One that isn't transparent just provides data with little context or model of where it came from or how it was derived or how to make adjustments. Bricklin on Technology, p. 244-45.

The deviser of VisiCalc knows something about tools. This difference he describes is playing out in the fates of Bing and Search, Microsoft and Google, Iphone and Android, etc.

Especially Microsoft, which never built a tool without an internal GPS homing device (where "home" is Redmond). A secret agent. One that knows what you want because you can only consume, never simply use. All this thinking is on fire now that a corporate form is developing that has a more liberal idea of tools. Not that Google isn't in a position to enjoy worrisome control. But Dan is looking at ultimately what borders on an ethical distinction -- involving a sense of the other, a recognition of otherness. If the other is merely there to consume, a host of assumptions about control come into play. Interesting, Dan offers an alternative to "markets are conversations." Markets, he suggests, are metaphors.

Anyway, Dan's book is full of searching fruits of many a dog walk on everything from tech to healthcare to economic theory. If the builders of tools would take it in, they would build better tools, and connect to user base that responds to its ethos.

(Disclaimer: Dan's book includes a short piece of mine along with contributions by AKMA, David Weinberger and a multitude of others to help convey the context of a decade ago with regard to peer-to-peer.)

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