Sunday, 6 April 2014

a last desperate clawing at the touch-screen

I've had a vision of the computer future, and it is this: a single, interface-less screen; a touchpad, that is neither off nor on, like a Kindle. And it is powered by the human shriek.

Previously, I thought my parents' failure to operate technology invented after their birth was because they grew up without it. At about 25, your brain apparently shuts off that little valve marked "incoming" and sets itself to "shrug". You've passed the point of learning. -- you're done.

After this point, we're just juggling around the things we already know, reconfiguring past skills (such as going to bed) to deal with new situations (such as lying down to die). 

As a teenager, I learnt loads of stuff. I made levels for the crap games I played, I made shitty websites out of html and I got the world's oldest CD-R burner and did all manner of illegal CD burning activities with it. I fiddled with emulators. I designed 'skins' for WinAmp. I learned how to edit videos and music and made little clips -- I even made rudimentary animations by banging together hundreds of MSPaint images into a GIF animator and then saving it as a Quicktime file for some reason. I was constantly learning new things, discovering new things, adapting to new things. Anything I didn't understand, I'd gamely fiddle about with until I got what I wanted from it. 

So here I am, at that  threshold, about to march proudly into a world that I will refuse to understand.
25 years of learning followed by about 65 years of baffled ignorance. But it turns out it's worse than that: what I hadn't even considered was that not only do we struggle with new information after this point, but previously-held skills (like using a computer) suddenly start to drop off. 

I have here, on my lap, the tiniest laptop I've ever used. It is mostly too small for me -- to type at it I have to sit as if I'm crushed between two people on a train, legs together, shoulders hunched, elbows in. This is the only way to accurately type on the minuscule keyboard -- and even then every second backspace attempt is a + or a 0. Sometimes I bring up the Help menu. Sometimes I just stare impotently at my hands.

The other thing to contend with here is Windows 8. To ease functionality and provide an intuitive, user-friendly interface, Windows 8 helpfully does away with at least half the buttons you've become accustomed to. It's like someone's bricked up your front door. Instead of being able to click through your start menu to find things, you're now using 'search', like going to the supermarket and finding they've been taken over by Argos. Or someone dumping all your clothes out of your drawers in favour of rummaging through piles on the floor. Or having someone remove a fundamental part of an OS you've used since 1995.

It's not just the start menu -- some programs, instead of having the usual file menu, now have baffling glyphs and icons, like a tree or a little car. I just made that up -- they're even less semiotic than that. They're usually three little dots in a line, or three little dots in the shape of a triangle, or maybe just a star. Could be settings, that star. Or it could be your profile. Or it could be a newsfeed of some kind. It might even turn the whole fucking thing off. Who knows? 

Some of these programs are so user-friendly that they cease to have any buttons at all, having been rendered into 'Apps' -- there's no file, no bar along the top: most of the time you can only exit them by pushing alt+F4, which always feels like the dirty way out. Apps! It's a laptop, not a phone.

The Sega Master System II appeared in my dad's life when he was in his 30s, and was forever beyond him. I might as well have been playing a microwave. Watching Alex Kidd fall off the bottom of the screen to his death was the same to him as watching the SEGA logo seize up. He didn't care for it.

I'm only 26. I still care. I still want to learn. But I can't even see the scroll bar. Why is it light-grey against a light-grey background? Why can't I figure out how to change this without screaming? Why does every day herald another exhausting descent into Google diagnosis? Everything grinding to a halt, the mind turning to a bloody mush, a last desperate clawing at the touch-screen as Bing pops into life--

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