Harold Thimbleby: Not everything your computer does is magical

Taken from a lecture delivered by the professor of geometry at Gresham College, in the City of London
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The Independent Online

In 1965, Intel's Gordon Moore made a famous observation, now known as Moore's Law: computer power will double every 18 months. According to Intel, the law is still true today, 36 years later. Today's computers are much smaller, more powerful and versatile than anyone could have imagined.

Hitachi's mu chip, while not strictly a computer, is only 0.4mm square and includes a radio transmitter. It is small enough to embed in paper, say in money, or even to inject into things. Combine these gains with the scale of the world wide networks, and we can harness power and convenience undreamt of. Napster's music library used about 50 million computers.

Yet something is not quite right. The recent dotcom collapse shows just how mistaken some people were . The "productivity paradox" is the recognition that despite the introduction of computers everywhere, GDP has not gone up as expected. There are some conventional answers: computers are not as easy to use as they are made out to be.

Your video recorder is the classic example, but anyone who has used a desktop computer will understand that productivity does not happen automatically, particularly if you have to learn something incomprehensible and then spend your time rebooting it, or installing upgrades. Why did my local hospital have to spend £750,000 fixing y2k problems? In our capitalist society, I might use computers to be more efficient, but so do my competitors. I have to work harder to keep up. The promised gains evaporate.

Moore's Law promises exponential growth, but we can only take advantage of it if we are prepared to upgrade everything we do. And the computer science of every day things is now a fashion industry. Last year it was WAP, this year 3G. Last year it was the internet, this year the Grid. Last year it was web delivery, now it is automatic checkout. All of this exponential progress means, and in fact relies on, exponential wastage. Britain currently throws away about a million tons of electronics every year, which ends up as landfill. We have about the same amount of rubbish in our lofts and children's bedrooms that is no longer used, and is just waiting to be thrown away. Most of this electronics waste is difficult to recycle, and it contains many pollutants.

Even if we do not worry about the environmental impact, which is largely unknown, it's plain that exponential growth means our landfill sites will be completely full in about five years' time. What will we do then? Or now?

The simplest thing is to realise that we are all accepting shoddy products and services, and most of us think these are magic. As Arthur C Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Computers are sufficiently advanced technology to be indistinguishable from magic. And we are like the sorcerer's apprentice, so entranced by the promise of magical power and an easy life we are no longer in control.

It's not difficult to make everyday computers easier to use and more reliable. Given it's possible: why isn't it happening? Because it is not good business. Manufacturers can employ poor programmers, poor designers, poor usability people if they can easily sell products to undemanding consumers. They work to the standards we require of them. While we think anything they do is magic, they will sell us anything. And they do. The magic is they make a profit out of gullibility.

How can we become less gullible? Here are two simple rules. First don't get a demonstration of anything; try to figure it out. It is so easy to give a demonstration and make it look really easy – the demonstrator knows how to do it. Second, ask for the user manual. Shorter manuals are better.

Making things better for people is going to happen not when we ask for more magic, but when we ask for a proper computer science of everyday things.

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