This article is going to come as a shock to computer engineers. Unlike the Grinch, who set out to steal Christmas, engineers not only had no intentions of stealing the web, most don't even know they pulled it off.
In the late 1970s, a great flood of creative talent, drawn from the ranks of people who had never before touched a computer, took to the keyboards of the early microcomputers and started a revolution. The early programming environments and languages were simple, natural, and accessible. Within five years, that group had been disenfranchised by the advent of serious computing environments, such as Pascal and C, and software settled back down to being the business of professionals.
With the advent of the web, another even greater flood of talent was unleashed, but this time the end came sooner. Within two years, the originally simple HTML environment had become clouded with hacks on top of hacks, as the C++ boys moved in and took over. The new talent could only continue to produce pretty pictures, while the traditional priesthood again took up the real work of programming. The web has stagnated ever since.
How were the creative types pushed out, in favor of the engineers? By a surprising, if traditional, technique.
Enforced illogic: The key to stealing the PC
Engineers in effect stole the personal computer by building cumbersome, illogical development environments that no one other than an engineer could possibly understand.
The key to all of this is enforced illogic. If you asked one hundred programmers what sets them apart from the general populace, they would probably claim superior logical abilities. They do have superior logical abilities, but that is not what sets them apart. Millions of people have been able to learn and apply logical languages, such as BASIC. They may not be as good as many engineers in manipulating that language to its fullest, but they can muddle through well enough to create some really marvelous programs.
What common folk are not good at is memorizing totally illogical systems. The early personal computer converts did really well as long as they could work in an interpreted BASIC environment, but that environment was soon ill-supported in favor of UCSD Pascal and C.
Programming languages themselves are not typically the main source of illogic. the source more likely lies in the environment in which the program must be developed. The most inconsistent and complex environments can still produce perfectly logical compiled code. And the more complex and illogical the environment is, the more likely engineers will flock to it, not because they intend to exclude anyone, but because they really love the challenge of complexity.
Niklaus Wirth designed Pascal to force students to follow his philosophy of strictly-structured, top-down design. Those like me who naturally favored the fast, fluid interactivity of the state machine had to expend inordinate energy getting around his enforced discipline. Pascal was no place for the interested amateur.
Other advanced languages, such assembler and C, were not terribly complex in themselves, but the environments in which applications were to be developed were downright weird, with mines scattered about everywhere, ready to blow the inattentive programmer out of the water. They, likewise, were no place for anyone but the professional to tread.
By the time the Macintosh and its mimics came along, people who could have radically advanced the breadth and depth of software had been effectively excluded, and the explosion of creativity that had occurred at the beginning of the PC revolution failed to reappear.
Stealing the web
The web propelled the world forward with an accelleration never before seen. However, that explosion was fueled with tools more primative than have been seen in thirty years. HTML was designed to produce only pretty pages, with crude linking between. It lacked the most rudimentary capabilities of the early micro. If the web were to do anything useful, a language that would support traditional computer logic would have to emerge, and emerge quickly.
Let's hide it!
Putting quotes around an integer variable flies in the face of what those millions of BASIC users learned. It also requires the developer to shift logical gears several times a minute as the site is worked on. Enforcing maximum self-inconsistency knocks out everyone but the most die-hard engineer.
And from whence arose this new syntax? It was derived from, and I am quoting here, "the familiar C++ syntax." Familiar to whom? Certainly not the millions upon millions of people who know BASIC. Certainly not the millions upon millions who know HTML. It was familiar to the select cadre of engineers at Netscape, along with all of their friends. Did they set out to be exclusionary? I'm sure not; they just simply adapted the tools with which they themselves felt comfortable.
(VB Script is based on the familiar BASIC syntax but, inexplicably, it doesn't seem to be cross-browser, cross-platform. Go figure.)
What occured resulted from an emergency need to provide somethinganythingthat could enable ecommerce and other weblications. However, this hack that should have been temporary at best has been perpetuated, with no end in site. Why is this being allowed to go on? Because the enginneers who could and should be doing something about it display a complete lack of understanding of the development population.
None of the internet committees have ever stopped for a second and said, "Hey, we seem to have left 99% of the population behind!" They haven't looked, they haven't known, they haven't cared. They were covered and so were their friends, and that is as far as it went. To everything else, they remain oblivious.
Solution one: Fix the engineers
Engineering schools have been turning out programmers who are clueless as to the wants, needs, and capabilities of their users for way too many years. It is time they got their act together. It's not like the schools don't know they have a problem; it's just that many of them have just chosen to ignore it.
No one should be able to graduate with a major in computer science without a thorough, demonstrated understanding of the capabilities of their users. And that should include those students that intend to spend all their time in the bowels of the computer, developing OSs, languages, and development systems since, inevitably, their efforts are visited on everyone.
Students should be required to take at least one course in human-computer interaction. That course must include watching real people try to find their way through software each student or team of students has written. Only by seeing the consternation on their users' faces can students realize and begin to address just how out of touch they really are.
Solution two: Address the immediate problem
Solution three: Take control
The human-computer interaction community has not been properly represented on the standards committees. As a result, while much good work has been done in establishing standards for the hardware and systems communication, little has been done to address the many problems facing would-be users. The HCI community, through SIG-CHI and other organizations, needs to step up to the plate.
Why give "equal access"?
Engineers are not necessarily content experts in anything but engineering. We have cut off all the doctors, lawyers, artists, mechanics, architects, teachers, psychologists, historians, philosophers, salespeople, farmers, film makers, and journalists who are those most likely to break new ground. (It is ironic this has occurred just as the engineers are enjoying their own renaissance in Linux.)
Remember Dan Bricklin, that MBA student back in the early PC days, who turned the traditional paper-and-pencil spreadsheet he'd been taught into an electronic version called VisiCalc? It's people like him who have been responsible for the real revolution, and, until we re-enfranchise them, this renaissance is officially dead.
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