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A science fictional idea, free to good home - Input Junkie
January 8th, 2012
08:02 pm

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A science fictional idea, free to good home
I was thinking it might be fun to torment people with visions of a future where computers work, and when I say work, I mean the simplicity, reliability, and transparency of an old-fashioned landline. You learned how to use a phone when you were a kid, the interface was fairly simple and intuitive, and then you knew how to use a phone. For decades.

The problem is, I have no idea how such a world would work. Would it take "do what I mean" capacity for computers, including the ability to make sense of vague and possibly incoherent desires? That would be the program which could write this story for me.

Greatly increased human intelligence, so that managing computers is no harder than counting to three is now?

Something else?

For that matter, I have no idea what would be a worthwhile story to set in a world where computers work, if the story is not going to be about computers ceasing to work. (Difficulties of interfacing with alien computers?)

The idea lacks dramatic tension. In fact, if there were such a thing as lacking dramatic tension on steroids, this would be it.

People would have to have a war or something.

I guess it's karma. A computer annoyed me (I can't even remember about what, there are so many things), so I thought I could annoy you folks, and I ended up annoying myself some more. Anyway, I hope this question offers some entertainment or annoyance or something.

There may be hope-- it's not quite a Do What I Mean situation, but it was reasonably easy to find out how to recover a file on a Windows 7 machine, and then do it. Who knows what wonders the future may bring?

I will probably outlive the need to reinstall the comments button for Facebook every time Firefox updates.

This entry was posted at http://nancylebov.dreamwidth.org/522608.html. Comments are welcome here or there. comment count unavailable comments so far on that entry.

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From:dcseain
Date:January 9th, 2012 01:26 am (UTC)
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A 6-month-old can use an iPhone/iPad. By 12 months, they can do it with intentionality and ease. My younger nephew learned to read by playing games on the internet. Computers have their flaws, especially as compared to the landlines of our youth, but are not insurmountable to those who grew up knowing no different.
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From:nancylebov
Date:January 9th, 2012 01:53 am (UTC)
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My dream is not to just have phones which are as easy to use, but the full range of computer applications. This being said, it sounds as though the iPhone is probably easier than an old-fashioned landline.
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From:ckd
Date:January 9th, 2012 01:58 am (UTC)
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Sounds like Murray Leinster's "A Logic Named Joe".
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From:ritaxis
Date:January 9th, 2012 03:45 am (UTC)
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For the very young, computers seem to me to be as easy as an old phone. I think there might be an element of comparing the wrong thing. A phone was easy to use, you learned to use it as a kid, yes, but a switchboard was another thing, and using the phone for complicated social endeavors was also another thing.

So today's kids learn to use the computer at a basic level very easily, but it's a whole other thing to think about accomplishing mopre complicated things on it.

To me, the science fictional ideas about computers ahve to do with interfaces and with biological computing.
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From:thespian
Date:January 9th, 2012 03:58 am (UTC)
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I do not know that it is just for the very young, though. *I* started programming computers 10 days after I turned 11. I have simply been using them all my life. I am one of the first to do it (and I was an exception; my brother and I were given the computer for Christmas, he was 8, I was 11, and though he is younger than me, he did not grow up digital the way I did. I was not, however, *alone*, and I know others comparable in age (40) who fall on both sides of that cusp).

But I generally learn computer things without even realizing that I am learning them; in part because the people who create them are, whether they are my age or 20 years younger, part of this generation (which is far more generational than the silly little 10 years that Gen-X was supposedly being born). I am in fact far more irritated when people put things between me and the machine; lots of computer interfaces these days are for people who came to computers as adults, and they interfere with me using the computer as intuitively as I can.
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From:dcseain
Date:January 9th, 2012 04:25 am (UTC)
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I am in fact far more irritated when people put things between me and the machine; lots of computer interfaces these days are for people who came to computers as adults, and they interfere with me using the computer as intuitively as I can.

Yes! That's why i avoided AOL back when, for just that reason, and used my CompuServe account just as a dial-up, rarely using their interface at all.
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From:ritaxis
Date:January 9th, 2012 04:51 am (UTC)
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From my perspective, if you were eleven when you had access to a computer, you are very young.
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From:thespian
Date:January 9th, 2012 05:30 am (UTC)
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I am 41. you seem to be 16-17 years older than me, so there is a generational one, but I am not a very young person by any definition of the word, and I am only young comparatively in that I am indeed younger than other people.

It was a Vic-20, and we got it in December of 1981. Regardless how very young you might thing that means, it is three *decades* since then. And the Vic was the first affordable personal computer, not the first home computer option. I grew up near the University of Waterloo, so some friends of mine had computers from age 7 or 8 because they had parents who taught at UofW, or were part of the computer industry that Waterloo grads support (my mother was a tupperware salesperson and secretary, my father was a mechanic, they were just both very forward thinking).
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From:ritaxis
Date:January 9th, 2012 06:49 am (UTC)
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I take your point, but to me the point is still that you were eleven when you began to use the computer. That's what I'm mostly interested in saying -- it's not necessarily people who are young at this very moment, but people who are young in their first exposure to computers, for whom interacting with computers is relatively easy and comfortable.
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From:matgb
Date:January 9th, 2012 07:00 am (UTC)
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That's close to my experience-Dad got me a Spectrum soon after they were released in 1982, so I was 8. It wasn't common at school to have a computer at home at all, let alone for it to be predominantly 'mine' but with Dad helping a lot (and helping me write playthroughs for games & learn to code).

I guess that's why I tend to relate more to people that grew up with computers younger than me than, say, my housemate who gets frustrated and shuts the lid every time his laptop does anything even slightly off, even if it's just reconnecting tot he flaky wireless network (he's 4 years older and got a computer at home as a teen, shared with his younger brother).

And yeah, stuff getting in the way has always annoyed me, ISPs that used to try to set your homepage as their annoying portal thing, any assumption I wanted their email account instead of the one I've had for ages, etc.

I watch my stepdaughter (8) pick up a new computing device and she just expects it to work-took me half an hour to figure out some features, by the time she'd had it for that long she was taking pictures and editing them on the fly. Impressive.
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From:subnumine
Date:January 9th, 2012 04:08 am (UTC)
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Sounds like this would be a useful background to a story about something else. Although the victory of the secret society of user-friendly programmers might drive one plot.

I'm not sure what you've actually said is possible; the "full range" of computer capability includes both writing stories and all of mathematics (at least as algorithmically manipulable strings of symbols). Coming up with an intuitive interface for those sounds awfully like violating Goedel's Theorem.

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From:agrumer
Date:January 9th, 2012 06:23 am (UTC)
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The interface for telephones changed several times over the course of the 20th century:

When my grandparents were young, making a long-distance call meant talking to an operator, and phones had rotary dials.

When my parents were young, phone numbers looked like: KLondike-5 6543.

When I was young, rotary dials were still common, but push-buttons were starting to catch on, and phone numbers were all numeric. You only had to dial seven digits for a local call.

By the time I was in college, push-button phones were so common that young children often didn't know what to do when confronted with a rotary dial.

Nowadays, I have to dial a full 1-plus-ten-digits number even to make a local call. And we've got a cordless phone, where I have to push a button to activate the handset before I dial or talk.

And I've not even gotten into the various ways of programming numbers into your phone, or setting answering messages.
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From:ritaxis
Date:January 9th, 2012 06:51 am (UTC)
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I had phone numbers with letters in them up until sometime into my early adulthood. The transition was gradual: some people prefered to keep using the letters even after the phone company said "it's all over now, no more letters, all numbers."
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From:agrumer
Date:January 9th, 2012 09:43 pm (UTC)
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And even today, the letters are there on the buttons, for backwards-compatibility. And you can use the Internet to look up the old exchange names.
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From:matgb
Date:January 9th, 2012 07:06 am (UTC)
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visions of a future where computers work, and when I say work, I mean the simplicity, reliability, and transparency of an old-fashioned landline. You learned how to use a phone when you were a kid, the interface was fairly simple and intuitive, and then you knew how to use a phone. For decades.

Sounds like Star Trek in the 60s, some fo the time travel stories had amusing scenes when they were stuck using then modern computers (one of the films, Journey Home I think) had Scotty pick up a mouse and talk to it when the computer didn't respond to his spoken instructions.

Then there's stuff like Stephen Baxter's flatscreens in a bunch of his stuff. Or hell, the crew of the Discovery had iPads in Kubrick's 2001. Clarke's novel had basically full web capability close to spot on, including using the pad to check the NYtimes while on the shuttle.

Off top of my head, can't think of a specific "it's all stopped" scenario that has it very central, but they're out there.
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From:andrewducker
Date:January 9th, 2012 08:45 am (UTC)
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The canonical one is The Machine Stops by EM Forster in 1909.
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From:andrewducker
Date:January 9th, 2012 08:46 am (UTC)
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If a computer is going to do what you mean, rather than slavishly do what you say then it's going to have to be sentient...
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From:ice_hesitant
Date:January 9th, 2012 08:16 pm (UTC)
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I suspect that there's quite a bit of difference in sentience required between it doing what you mean 90% of the time and it doing what you mean 100% of the time. Humans can be quite predictable in what they mean.
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From:andrewducker
Date:January 9th, 2012 08:23 pm (UTC)
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As someone whose day job is explaining what business people mean to computers, I beg to differ :->
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From:madfilkentist
Date:January 9th, 2012 11:04 am (UTC)
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An old-style phone did just one thing. There were incremental changes, such as touch tone and direct long-distance dialing, but the functionality was clear and simple enough that it could be made consistent and optimized. (Well, mostly consistent. For an in-state call in New Hampshire, I have to dial just seven digits or I'll get a loud beep even though it's perfectly clear what number I dialed, but in Massachusetts I have to dial ten digits.)

Computers perform an open-ended, very complicated set of functions, so there's little hope of standardizing a single way of interfacing to them. Part of their progress consists of creating new designs that are useful in new situations. There's no standard interface to humans, and computers intended to pass the Turing Test couldn't have one either.
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From:anton_p_nym
Date:January 9th, 2012 01:51 pm (UTC)
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An anecdote related via the Internet, so caveats apply, but still: apparently children in households with Microsoft's Kinect interface on their Xbox consoles are starting to give verbal or gestural commands to other household appliances and are disappointed that they don't work. (If you can talk to the TV and make it work, then why not the microwave?)

-- Steve thinks this does hint at a future wherein computing is transparent.

PS: But this isn't too far-future, given how many computers there are in cars that people don't even perceive controlling the fuel injectors, anti-lock breaks brakes, "smart" differentials...

(edited to fix a thinko... accursed homonymic anagrams...)

Edited at 2012-01-09 01:52 pm (UTC)
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