In his 1998 book “The inmates are running the asylum”, software consultant Alan Cooper points out that computers are often hard to use because they are designed to be used by the engineers who made them. He then introduces the concept of design “personas” as a tool for engineers to keep actual users in mind when creating their software. Personas are well known within the software industry, yet many devices and programs remain hard to use. It seems that engineers themselves, let alone computers, are not that easy to humanize.
Another software engineer, J. Bradford Hipps, argues that the reason for this is the narrow scope of engineering education. Mr. Hipps is unusual in that he became a software developer after majoring in humanities. In his column he gives a couple compelling examples of how a musician and a philosopher provided creative solutions to difficult software programming problems. He criticizes the technology industry for encouraging the opposite approach, and recommends learning to code software as a valuable technical skill after completing an education in humanities.
A legal case we would rather ignore has inevitably gained urgent relevance for its implications for the free press. It emerged that a tech billionaire, Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor, among other interests, had financed a suit by wrestler Hulk Hogan over a sex tape, which resulted in a $140 million verdict against Gawker, the gossip website that published it. It was payback time for Thiel: Gawker had outed him as gay years ago, wreaking havoc, he said, on his private life. Nothing could be further from our interests than defending the sordid editorial decisions. Yet regardless of our views, we feel that many boundaries were crossed in the airing of the tape, first and foremost the violation of the right to privacy. Moreover, this kind of muckraking goes against everything journalism stands for. But we dread a world in which men of unlimited resources can wield their fortune to turn the wheels of justice against coverage they resent. For if today it is a gossip site over an editorial decision we find inadmissible, tomorrow a media company and its legitimate coverage could be targeted by the masters of the universe. This lurks as a threat for freedom of expression. We shall dwell on another occasion on the concerns about a justice system so heavily biased towards the rich and mighty that can afford the best counsel money can buy, and one that wrests $140 million in damages for a wealthy celebrity. A fraction of those funds could be put to so many worthy, and extremely urgent, causes.
Neither have we. A Norwegian group staged a marathon TV session reading for almost 32 hours the terms and conditions of the 33 most popular apps used in the country. The live show was not, to be sure, the most exciting thing to watch on TV. They were not doing for entertainment. The Norwegian Consumer Council was calling for common sense. The legal literature read on TV included the terms and conditions for apps such as those of Netflix, YouTube, Facebook, Skype, Instagram and Angry Birds. The combined disclaimers that users must approve before using the apps exceed the length of the New Testament. We do not know of anyone who has faced legal action over those. Still, as the NCC said, the situation now “borders the absurd.” Perhaps the counsel behind these texts can take a leaf out of the Book of Exodus. It may simplify the rules.