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A Rebuttal to Fraser Speirs' Future Shock / iPad Essay

So Fraser Spiers is getting a lot of attention and praise for a blog post entitled Future Shock (subsequently picked up by MacWorld), wherein he argues that what we are seeing "in the industry's reaction to the iPad is nothing less than future shock."

He argues that all the vehement "ravings" against the iPad from "apparently technologically sophisticated people" are the result of these technology shamans fearing the end of their superiority over "Normals", you know, "the rest of us", the non-techie people who represent, oh, 99% of the population on earth.

Here's Frasier:

For years we've all held to the belief that computing had to be made simpler for the 'average person'. I find it difficult to come to any conclusion other than that we have totally failed in this effort.

Secretly, I suspect, we technologists quite liked the idea that Normals would be dependent on us for our technological shamanism. Those incantations that only we can perform to heal their computers, those oracular proclamations that we make over the future and the blessings we bestow on purchasing choices.

He explains that the iPad is aimed at helping normal people get real work done, and that the real work is "not formatting the margins, installing the printer driver, uploading the document, finishing the PowerPoint slides, running the software update or reinstalling the OS" but rather,

The Real Work is teaching the child, healing the patient, selling the house, logging the road defects, fixing the car at the roadside, capturing the table's order, designing the house and organising the party.

Okay, point taken. But I think Fraser forgets one important thing, and I suspect at least part of the techie concern -- that I share -- about the iPad is, how do I ever become an advanced user of it? Put another way, how do I fully develop and exploit a symbolic mentality about the iPad that will help me be the most productive I can be? Or am i supposed to just reach a certain mediocre level of productivity -- somewhere slower than the speed of thought -- and that's it, with the iPad?

A Brief Review of the Three Mentalities.
When I first met Alan Kay back in 1987, he told me all about learning theorist Jerome Bruner and Bruner's three mentalities: enactive, iconic, and symbolic. The enactive refers to the kinesthetic, physical doing, where your body is involved with the activity. On a computer, Kay and company at Xerox PARC provided for enactive learning and representation by means of Engelbart's mouse which you physically manipulate in the real world, but at the same time, causes a "cursor" to move around in the digital "world" on the screen. Iconic means the visual, image-based representation of concepts and objects, which on the computer means icons, pictures, drawings, and illustrations. Symbolic, the most advanced representation, refers to a higher-level abstraction of concepts, objects, and actions, often represented on the computer by command-line sequences, menu systems, programming and script languages, and so on. Kay and company at PARC pushed to merge all three mentalities for the best, most successful interaction with a computer. The Macintosh has always reflected this.

Some Examples of Symbolic Representation We All Use.
Speirs seems to argue that only tech-savvy users care about advanced stuff like the symbolic level of interaction with a computer. Not so. For example: macros in spreadsheets. Rules in Mail, that tell the app where to store incoming messages based on what's in the subject or who it's from, etc. iTunes is a beautiful example of the mixture of enactive, iconic, and symbolic. Smart playlists are like the rules in Mail -- they let you create playlists based on some logical rules and SQL-like SELECT WHERE statements that make it possible to get even more out of your iTunes experience. There are countless more examples. All kinds of apps on our computers have advanced features that we may not use or even want to know about until we get more proficient with the app. But eventually we all become proficient with some apps -- even if they're games. And that is where support for symbolic-level thinking makes the app really worthwhile, or not.

The Rise of Mobile and Handheld Devices.
And then the iPhone came along. Gorgeous support for enactive engagement with the device, via the multi-touch interface. And world-class eye candy iconic engagement as well. Indeed, the whole iPhone experience is iconic and enactive… very little symbolic.

A sidenote: think about Twitter for a moment. What started as short blurbs and link posts by users quickly became conversation threads and snippets, and in order to keep track, the user community invented things like #hashtags and retweets (RTs). This shows how a community of users, who get more sophisticated with a system, evolve from the simple to the more abstract levels of mentality and representation. In twitter, as users got more comfortable with the system, the short-hands evolved quickly and now there is a whole symbolic language that enables people to be productive within the 140-character confines of that environment.

Right now I am typing this document in TextEdit on my Mac. I'm not on my iPhone trying to type this -- it'd take forever and nobody in their right mind would. And now we get back to the iPad. Would I be able to compose the article on the iPad? Should I? Is what I am doing "real work" that Fraser Speirs would approve of?

What Speirs Hasn't Taken Into Account.
What Fraser Speirs has not addressed in his essay is something that I suspect techies like me immediately noticed and were disappointed with upon learning about the iPad and its set of features and capabilities. Not a sense of "future shock" at all, but an intuitive sense that we find it difficult to see a pathway that lets us reach a symbolic level of interaction with the iPad. I don't necessarily mean a command-line interface (though a Terminal.app on the iPad would be nice), but being able to engage with the iPad at a more advanced level -- through higher order abstractions represented in words and symbols that the system understands and that enable the user to be highly productive.

My central complaint with the iPad is the very thing that makes it so attractive to Speirs' "Normals". Sure, it's going to be an incredibly fun tool for "teaching the child, healing the patient, selling the house, logging the road defects, fixing the car at the roadside," etc. For doing stuff. Lots of stuff. In a fun, deeply enactive/iconic way.

What has made it possible to approach working almost "at the speed of thought" is a fast computer, fast software, fast remote servers and high bandwidth, and a rich mixture of enactive, iconic, and symbolic representation where users can, over time, evolve their skills to ever-higher levels of abstraction, so that they can become ever more productive.

I wanted the iPad to be the replacement for my MacBook Pro. I wanted Jobs to show, through his demonstration of the iPad last week, how this new device truly is revolutionary and the next step in computing. But for it to be that, there better be a good story about how one can be productive at the speed of thought with this new device. There better be a good story about how this new device's user interface reflects a lot of deep thinking and care about not only the enactive and iconic mentalities, but also the symbolic.

Now, I suspect the people inside Apple have indeed thought of these things. And I suspect that over time, we will see new product updates that reflect high-level abstractions in the user inteface that will appeal to people who hang out at the symbolic level, as it were. For example, what we have not seen yet in the iPad's operating system (as far as I know) is a set of customizable hand gestures, or a custom menu of commands and scripts a la AppleScript, that let you do things quickly with the iPad that otherwise would require a lot of navigation.

But none of that roadmap was laid out at Steve's announcement. All the flashy hype so far is about how you can play media, and look at pictures, and watch movies, and listen to music, and sure, type the occasional short document or memo, and maybe move numbers around in a simple spreadsheet, but, nothing that really addresses what happens when I become an expert at the iPad, how do I keep becoming more and more productive. Do you just reach a certain point and then hit a wall in terms of furthering your productivity? Is Apple saying if you really wanna be productive, you're going to obviously need to keep using your Mac?

Steve repeatedly talked about how the iPad is "the internet in your hands". Great. But what about the internet in my mind? How do I get more and more deep into engaging with people and things via the Internet without having to depend on my hands so much? How is the computer going to do more on my behalf, and in what language can I convey to the system how I want things done?

My Future Shock.
If I am experiencing a kind of "future shock", it's a fear that the future of computing may be limited more to enactive and iconic levels of interaction with systems, with less attention paid to the symbolic level where experts thrive.

I consider myself an expert of my iPhone -- I use it at least an hour if not two per day -- and I am continually frustrated by how I have to work at enactive and iconic levels when I could be doing more at the symbolic level. I don't know what the symbolic levels are yet for such devices. Does anyone? Who's doing research on such stuff?

What we need, industry-wide, not just from Apple, and I mean from the entire user community as well, is more thinking about what the future portends for the symbolic level of interaction with hand-held devices that lack a keyboard.

When Apple used to promote the Mac as the computer "for the rest of us" they were appealing to "Normals." But Apple smartly embraced and supported all three levels of representation and interaction in the user interface. All these years, this is the way it has been. And suddenly, the wave of hand-held tablet and mobile devices suggest that the future might not have decent support for the most advanced forms of representation and interaction.

What then?

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