Clever Machines

I’ve always found it easy to deal with machines, as I expect is true of most computer programmers. The interface to a machine is not always logical, but it is normally consistent in the sense that it always behaves the same way given the same inputs, and it is normally unambiguous in the sense that it either works or it doesn’t, and it is clear which state is which. At lest for me, dealing with machines is simpler than dealing with people when things go wrong—machines may be frustrating but at least they’re frustrating for relatively simple and ultimately comprehensible reasons.

Unfortunately, I’ve started to notice that as programs get smarter and as interface designers get more clever, machines are becoming more like people. Interfaces for web sites and phones are increasingly adjusting based on your past interactions. In many ways this is good, as over time the interaction gets smoother and easier. However, it means that there is a lack of consistency: an input today does not produce the same effect as the same input did yesterday. It also means that there is an increase in ambiguity: it’s difficult to tell the difference between working correctly and being slightly broken.

In effect, the computing world is becoming increasingly tuned for people who prefer dealing with people rather than people who prefer dealing with machines. On average this is of course a good thing, as most of the population seems to find it frustrating to deal with machines. But it’s somewhat ironic considering that the programmers doing most of the work tend to be people who prefer dealing with machines.

I don’t want to give up the advantages I get when things go well, so I guess I’m stuck in an increasingly inconsistent and ambiguous world.


  1. rmathew said,

    July 25, 2010 @ 9:02 pm

    “people” can be broken down into “men” and “women”, in which case the order of understandability for most programmers becomes:

    Computers > Men > Women


  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    July 26, 2010 @ 1:38 am

    An old joke but not one I really agree with. While it’s easy to see that boys and girls behave differently, I don’t see the breakdown as being along the lines of greater comfort with machines or people. On the other hand, I do see that boys and girls are socialized differently. It’s very difficult to disentangle nature and nurture here.

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