The double-edged revolution

In reaction to Bret Victor’s now well-known Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design, iOS developer David Barnard wrote a piece titled “Pictures Under Glass” is Revolutionary, Not Transitional. His conclusion:

There are certain cases in which more tactile feedback may be able to enhance human-computer interaction without adding to the learning curve — such as the pneumatic displays Bret links to in his post — but I can’t get over the hunch that tactile interaction, like Siri and other voice input technologies, will augment and enhance Pictures Under Glass interaction, not revolutionize human-computer interaction.

In a following article, Barnard admits to being annoyed by the tone Bret Victor used in his rant:

I’m pissed off because Bret, in his post about the future of interface design, denigrated the very thing I’m most passionate about and spend every day working on — Multi-Touch user interfaces on touch screen devices. Well, just iOS really. In his follow up post, Bret did clarify that he doesn’t think the iPhone and iPad are bad, for now anyway, but overall the follow-up was similarly dismissive.

I’ve already said enough about some of Bret’s arguments I think are flawed, but I want to talk more about the tone of his post. I think it was arrogant, distasteful, and ultimately counter productive.

While I understand Barnard’s position and sentiments, I have to disagree as regards to Bret Victor’s tone. Perhaps because not only have I read Victor’s posts but I also translated them into another language, I certainly didn’t find his tone arrogant or distasteful. Since I still haven’t had the chance to share my views on the matter, I figured this was a good start. 

About Victor’s tone: let’s don’t forget it’s a rant. When people rant, they usually have to get things out of their system because they’re generally not satisfied with the status quo. Educated people tend to write their rants in a provoking manner so that the audience receives the message with a similar, um, ‘dose of annoyance’ as the person writing their rant. To put it another way, in a rant one reflects part of his annoyance to the public, resulting in a bitter — but hopefully thought-provoking — tone. Which is what I think is happening with Bret Victor’s Brief Rant.

About “Pictures Under Glass”: in his Brief Rant, Bret Victor writes:

Pictures Under Glass is an interaction paradigm of permanent numbness. It’s a Novocaine drip to the wrist. It denies our hands what they do best. And yet, it’s the star player in every Vision Of The Future.

To me, claiming that Pictures Under Glass is the future of interaction is like claiming that black-and-white is the future of photography. It’s obviously a transitional technology. And the sooner we transition, the better.

I believe that some people have misunderstood Victor here. He is not criticising the present. He is not saying that Pictures Under Glass (Multi-touch technology) is bad/limited per se. What I think he’s criticising is that all these Visions of the future basically revolve around a technology that doesn’t seem to be much different or evolved from what we have today. And I have to agree with him.

Yet I also feel the same as David Barnard when he says I can’t get over the hunch that tactile interaction, like Siri and other voice input technologies, will augment and enhance Pictures Under Glass interaction, not revolutionize human-computer interaction. And I can’t help feeling it’s a pity.

See, Multi-touch technology has been (still is) a revolutionary step in human-computer interaction, but my fear (and probably Bret Victor’s) is that this technology will overstay its welcome, so to speak. This is what I mean with double-edged revolution: something that starts as being unquestionably revolutionary and then ends up being something we’re unable to really move away from. It’s probably going to be a slow-paced evolution by more and more refined iterations. Multi-touch technology is already propagating on other devices and machines by contagion and replacing their previous interfaces. 

And it’s not always good. I have already seen scanners, printers, photocopiers, mini hi-fi systems, dishwashers, washing machines with touch interfaces. Some of their original interfaces, essentially made of physical buttons, levers and knobs, were well-designed and usable. In short, there wasn’t (and isn’t) anything really wrong about them. The only drawback, possibly, is that buttons, levers and knobs are mechanical parts that may break after excessive use. The great advantage of some of this ‘low tech’ interfaces is that for the most part they are really simple and can be operated without even looking once you’ve familiarised with their controls. Touch panels, especially touch panels with changing screens, must be operated while looking at them. Sure, a buttonless home appliance with just a touch screen looks so cool and screams ‘future’ from a mile away, but how do I turn the damn thing on? Does an all-in-one printer really need to have an iPhone-like interface, with apps you can add such as the weather, a daily planner, Google Analytics, Facebook, Twitter search and BBC News? 

In my opinion, for some applications, the Multi-touch interface brings an unnecessary layer of complexity. With my washing machine, if I want to set the Delicates/Silk program, I just turn two knobs, one for the temperature, another for the program itself, each program being characterised by a letter. If I want to use less water (because I’m only washing a couple of things, for example), I also press a button with the icon of a basin filled with water and “1/2” above it (meaning “half the usual amount of water”). Each knob has a different tactile and auditory feedback, and I could set the program with my eyes closed. With a touch panel or a touch screen is another story.

But I’m afraid that’s what’s going to happen in the next years: an increasing amount of devices, machines, appliances, with unnecessary touch interfaces slapped onto them (because multi-touch is revolutionary and is ‘the future’) and perhaps with even less regard for true usability (because multi-touch interfaces are perceived as invariably ‘simple’ and ‘intuitive’). Bret Victor’s rant is an invitation not to rest on our laurels, not to content ourselves with moving a finger on a glassy surface, not to make the same error we made with traditional computers, their interfaces and interaction paradigms — that is, holding on to them for decades until they become too limited and inadequate. For me, one of the most important passages in Bret Victor’s rant is this:

And this is my plea — be inspired by the untapped potential of human capabilities. Don’t just extrapolate yesterday’s technology and then cram people into it.

I love multi-touch, and I certainly recognise its importance. iOS’s interface has made technologically advanced and sophisticated devices more approachable for the less tech-savvy and for those who have always had a struggling relationship with computers in general. However, like Bret Victor, I surely hope that twenty years from now I won’t be interacting with my ‘tablet’ (or whatever device it will be) in the same way I’m doing today, with a finger touching an unresponsive surface.

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About Riccardo Mori

Writer. Translator. Mac consultant. Enthusiast photographer. • If you like what I write, please consider supporting my writing by purchasing my short stories, Minigrooves or by making a donation. Thank you!