Do Graphical User Interface Make People Dumb?

By Xah Lee. Date:

This post dispels the belief common among tech geeker circles that user-friendly software make users dumb.

On , David Kastrup [d…] wrote:

I think the point was that the manual was not deficient concerning the information it provides, but in not making Xah Lee want to read it.

In a way, it is a losing battle. People expect software to just work without reading manuals. 95% of all Word users, for example, create their documents by mostly visual manipulation of their text without having a clue about underlying structures like references, style sheets and so on.

that's called progress.

vast majority of people who makes a living by coding, don't know any assembly language. They use scripting langs such as PHP, Visual Basic, JavaScript, Python, Perl, and probably a significant number of them don't even know a language proper, for example, they are HTML, CSS, Dreamweaver, Flash … web monkeys.

often there's complaint heard in the form of a sigh that sneer upon the younger generation, thinking they are uneducated and idiotic, but quite the contrary. (For example, slide rule vs electronic calculator, check vs credit card use, hand writing vs typewriter, typewriter vs word processor, etc)

The result is unmaintainable crap, but they would not know better. Word tries keeping up in this battle of computer illiteracy by doing things like enumerations, styles and so on “automagically”, second-guessing the user, and the user tries second-guessing Word in order to get around that.

yes, there's something to be said about learning the tools well for a profession.

however, this must be differentiated from requiring users to understand the implementation or the science behind a tool. Many tech geekers unconsciously confuse this.

Also, if you take a look from the other side of the coin, the stereotypical “Microsoft using idiots” may create incredibly crappy documents, but overall, the technology made it possible for a thousand fold more people to contribute to this world in diverse fields. In fact, many of these “idiots”, are professors and scientists and engineers. (in a similar way, a typical hardcore tech geeker, who can drill down on tech detail of {C, C++, Java, perl, …}, but are a complete idiot to psychology, legal system, history, basics economics….)

i'm a friend with few older generation mathematician professors, who run conferences or are chairman or presidents of universities or large well known academic organizations. These people's IQ, are probably above all emacs developers (counting Richard Stallman). These people, won't even be able to grok what emacs is actually used for. It'd be hard pressed for them to understand what a embedded scripting language in a application really means. In fact, most won't even try. Here we can actually see a phenomenon that might be interesting to tech geekers. In many professional mathematician's minds, programers are considered inferior brainers, that programing field is something trivial, a mere matter of some typing and dicing and fidgeting to implement their theories.

It is an escalation of mutual cluelessness. The more user friendly a piece of software becomes, the more this becomes a problem for _competent_ people willing to learn about their tool.

This train of thought, is prototypical of tech geek thinking. It comes in a chantable form too that we often see these idiots put in their sigs.

It bears nothing to reality. It amounts to something equivalent to, say, something as factual and meaningless as “the world has become more dumb.”.

It's incredible how this mentality tickles the tech geekers, as we can see already a bunch following heartily praising this summary. The thought that easy-to-use or GUI based software creates a vicious cycle of more idiots, is a pleasing thought to tech geekers.

Psychologists have studied this. In one example, different people perceive different aspects of identical things. (For example, flashing a photo, and guys remember it as a photo of a beautiful chick, while others don't remember there's a woman in it.) And or people will have opposing conclusions given a identical article. (For example, the leftist will perceive a concrete evidence for leftist ideology, while rightists see concrete evidence of rightist ideology (while the “‘Free’ Software” camp see confirmation of the need for software “freedom”! [see “Free” Software Morality, Richard Stallman, Paperwork Bureaucracy])) People will defend to death their (irrational) beliefs. The severe case is a form of self-deception, from beliefs in God to politics to love relationships.

It has to do with protecting one's own mental image and with that generating the juices for to go on. This may seem all illogical… but you know how there's many personality disorders and psychological illness and the phenomenon of mental breakdown? A gist of it is that human animals are just not logical machines, the working of the mind, the constituents to go on living, is filled with seemingly illogical complications.

(personally, i have struggled with a quest to become a machine-like being, for example, like those of Mr Data or Spock in the StarTrek scifi. Been fret with this for some 20 years. Part of it is inborn personality, a inclination towards what's called a schizoid personality, and part of it is a quest to have the most powerful, logical, mind without emotion. It'd be a booklet to write about my experiences in this. (most tech geekers will probably think if it can done then wow that'd be great… (it's not what you think!)) (and besides a personal tale, there's also many scientific aspect of this. On the computer science side: can machines think? When circuits becomes sufficiently complex, will it develop emotion? (the likes of indecisiveness, anxiety, qualms) Emergent phenomenon, complexity theories, cellular automata… and on the psychology/neuro-science side: is it possible for a human animal be totally emotionless? (note that many Hollywood movies depict such (fascinating!) character to various degrees.)) )

At least Emacs is at its heart and in most of its modes a WYSIWYG system with regard to the actual file contents: regardless of the crap people do, what ends up on disk is that what they see on their screen.

I have no idea what to do to make people lean towards looking at the documentation. Emacs has a help menu, and those also point to tutorials explaining the basics in most local languages.

But people look at documentation mostly when they run into problems they can't deal with on their own. And the more user-friendly Emacs becomes, and the better its menus and interactive helps become, the less people become inclined to bother looking for help.

been writing already long… so i'll cut short here. All of the above is actually not exactly relevant here. We can go on philosophizing about whether people are getting more dumb or whatnot… (in fact not, according to statistics of SAT scores of the past decades.)

but the issue here is the quality of emacs's documentation. A documentation, has a aspect of quality. This quality can be measured. It can be measure in many ways, depending on your purpose. For example, how good is the use of the English language in conveying information? how easy is it for readers to understand? how impeccable is the style with respect to logicians? How well is the grammar? How well are the over-all structure organized? will people LIKE the manual? … so many and so many.

but in short, here's one thing to consider: i think emacs manual is well written (generally speaking), but it is largely written in the 1980s. The bulk of it, the organization, the style of what things are presented, the verbosity of the words to convey a idea, … are all geared in the computer of a era 2 decades old.

i wrote something about this aspect, it can be seen here:

for a glimpse of the era of computing that emacs's manual was in, see:

Flame War

B T Raven wrote:

Maybe at the end of that “Road Ahead” there is the final Borgesian data base that contains all possible compositions. Then if you want to write a piece of expository prose arguing for the healthfulness of Twinkies, you can just pick the document from a menu. Voila! Magnum opus determined, dared, and done.

you mean like: World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics?

and Larry Wall's post-modern stuff? like the following chantable quote?

The difference between theory and practice in theory is much less than the difference between theory and practice in practice.

See: Perl: Theory vs Practice .

and “The three principal virtues of a programmer are Laziness, Impatience, and Hubris.”, right? See: Larry Wall and Cults .

and the unix philosophy KISS right? See: The Nature of the Unix Philosophy .

My point that you were replying to, was about how tech geekers ignorantly attribute laziness or stupidity to non-tech-geekers. And my method used to convey this, is by a analogy, that indicates that computing tech geekers are in general too idiotic about everything other than computers. That, when you sneer non-techies for their cluelessness about using emacs or applications, you should look at the mirror and think about how at this very moment those business people, lawers, politicians, are laughing at you about how eternally-clueless you are of basic social matters.

The moral of this is that, if a businessman concludes that your lack of social skills is due to you being too stupid or too lazy, then he's a idiot, just like when you conclude that the businessman's clumsiness in operating a computer is due to stupidity or unwillingness to learn.

the reason i wrote in such a style and comparison, is due to, a reaction from the idiotic style widely purveyed by the tech geekers, as, if you will, a retaliatory refutation, which, mirrors and puts a dagger right in the heart of matter. Did you enjoy reading it?

This article is originally a post in, which turned into a flame war.

See also: