January 29th, 2020

Software expertise is just memorizing sequences of mouse clicks

In the early years of the 21st century, when it was becoming apparent that whatever remained of the computer industry was leaving the world never to return again, I wrote a series of brief stories titled "The Adventures Of Hax0r Man". The stories were meant to be dystopian (from a computer hax0r's perspective), reflecting the total loss of understanding regarding computers, and moreover, the total indifference toward knowing anything about computers among the general populace. The last story I wrote for this series, "Hax0r Man goes to school", was about the title character taking a computer class and finding that computer education has been entirely reduced to memorizing series of clicks: In the story, viewing the current list of running processes (analogous to the ps command in *nix, or the Task Manager in a certain other computer operating system you might have heard of) is achieved by, in the text of the story: "clicking on the Menu button, then go to Settings, then open the Administration folder, then the Advanced Administration folder, then the Extremely Advanced Administration folder, then the Debugging Tools folder, then the Advanced Debugging Tools folder, then the Bob, Remember To Remove This Folder Before The OS Gets Released To Market folder, and finally click on Processes... Once you're in the Processes window, go ahead and click on the Show Me My Currently Running Processes button, then click on the Yes, Please button, then click on the Yes, I'm Really Sure That I Want To See My Processes And Am Not Afraid Of Them button, then enable the Yes, I Absolve WhizBangCorp. Of Any Legal Liability Regarding Mental Damage That May Be Sustained By Viewing Actual Information check box, then finally click on the No, I Wasn't Joking And Really Do Intend To See My Current Processes button". Upon performing these steps, the title character is rewarded with a window which helpfully lists two things: "Operating system" and "User shell".

Recalling this story recently, I realized that as so often happens in the world, what was once parody has become reality. Bringing up the Task Manager on a newly-installed instance of Windows 10 helpfully brings up a window which informs you, and I quote: "There are no running apps". I kid you not: Windows doesn't even have the decency to list something like "System" as a running process. It claims that absolutely nothing is running at all, despite literally dozens of services running in the background which Windows ships with and has enabled by default. And the Task Manager claims that nothing is running! This is insulting beyond belief: To lie to your face and tell you that the computer which you paid money for is completely free of running processes, despite Microsoft clogging it up with literally dozens of useless processes that you will never need and never asked to run. And then on top of all of this, it calls programs "apps", as if your computer were a telephone! It's so insultingly stupid and dishonest that it astonishes me that any human being can still have faith in humanity in a world where Windows 10 is the only operating system you can buy computers with. (Bearing in mind that a Mac is not a computer.)

Now, at the bottom of the lying window which tells you that "There are no running apps", there are two words you can click on: "More details". And clicking on these words does, true to their word(s), reveal more details. Quite a lot more details, in fact. So many details that one almost feels like Microsoft could be forgiven for trying to conceal information from people who might get scared from seeing numbers on their screen when they really just wanted to watch a music video. This whole setup, however, reflects what I was getting at in the story: Yes, there is a lot of information that you can pry out of your operating system if you know how to do so, but getting information out of the operating system these days is mostly just a matter of memorizing sequences of mouse clicks. In Task Manager, it's as simple as clicking on "More details", which is not bad, but this text is arbitrary and, more to the point, subject to change, because Microsoft, like other software developers, feels the need to change user interfaces in every release of their software for no reason other than to make it look like they did something with the software, when all they really did is rename some options and move them around. "More details" is okay, but it could just as easily be "Show more", or "Advanced", or whatever else they feel like writing for a particular software release.

The problem is apparent if you work with operating systems a lot and know how many ridiculous sequences of clicks you have to go through to get to any useful screens, and furthermore, how these sequences of clicks change from one version of the operating system to another. Consider the media hype around Windows 95, the version of Windows that really shaped what we know as the Windows user experience today, and how people got excited about the Start menu. The Start menu didn't improve anything about Windows; it just changed how you access everything. Consider, for example, how you would access the Control Panel before Windows 95: You'd double-click on the "Main" program group, and then double-click on "Control Panel". Starting with Windows 95, this process became: Click on the Start button, point to "Settings", and then click on "Control Panel". How is this process any better than the previous one? It's not an improvement; it's just different. All this change did was force people who had been using Windows for years to learn a different series of clicks to do what they had been doing before. In Windows 10, the Control Panel has been moved again, and Microsoft intends to eventually remove it from Windows entirely, because Microsoft wants to force people to stop using the old Control Panel and use the new "Windows Settings" window, but once again, this is just another user interface, another set of icons and options to do the same things people have been doing for more than 20 years. What was the point in moving these things around?

That's a rhetorical question, obviously. Moving menu items and buttons in dialog boxes around is stupid and pointless and a waste of time for both the developers who do it and the users who end up using the software, but even that in itself might not be so bad if it weren't for the fact that this is literally the full extent of what most computer technical workers know today: There is no understanding of how the software actually works, or indeed any sense that it even matters how the software works; people are satisfied with memorizing a sequence of a half-dozen mouse clicks that land them at some particular window they want to reach, and they consider this a level of professional knowledge that makes them qualified to get paid to call themselves technicians while clicking on a screen all day. It's so stupid that it's actually embarrassing and sad. Whenever I'm in a conversation with co-workers about what is actually happening behind the scenes, they shrug off such concerns, insisting that the software takes care of all those details automatically and there is no need for anyone, not even people who get paid to understand technology, to worry about what the software actually does, or how it does anything.

As usual, I pick on Microsoft because they are the most obvious entity in the software industry, but it's not just Microsoft. BlackBerry (which, at that time, was called Research In Motion, or RIM) was notorious for changing the menu structures on their phones in such a way that you had to re-learn how to find most options with each new generation of phone. Where I worked in the first decade of the 21st century, we had to maintain internal documentation for three separate generations of BlackBerry phones, because each one had a different series of menu options you'd need to navigate to get where you wanted to go. And again, this was the full extent of our knowledge of these phones: When the phone experienced actual technical trouble, the only thing we could suggest was to restart the phone; if the phone ever lost its connection with the all-important BlackBerry Enterprise Server (BES), which happened shockingly frequently, so frequently that it made me wonder how anyone could trust the BlackBerry infrastructure with anything, even Research In Motion themselves were fully incapable of ever offering any suggestions other than to wipe the phone to its factory-new state and reactivate it. I'm not even joking. Every single time the phone lost its connection to the server for whatever reason, which was a daily occurrence, the only solution the phone manufacturer had was to completely wipe the phone and re-activate it from scratch. And people used these phones in their everyday lives! Nobody, neither the techs who had to service the phones nor the developers at Research In Motion who designed the BlackBerry hardware and software ever had any ideas about how to actually troubleshoot problems that might surface, nor did they ever express any interest in doing so. It's a joke so un-funny that it's almost funny how not funny it is.

Technology workers today really are a clueless group, because they have to be: No concrete technical information is released into the world, ever, from anyone, for any reason. Software expertise is just memorizing sequences of mouse clicks. That's literally all people can do with their computers, and all they want to do; they feel so proud of themselves for memorizing the sequence of dialog boxes you need to go through to change your network adapter's IP address, or how to optimize the operating system for best performance (without actually understanding what this option changes in any way) and they smile happily with the self-satisfied delusion that they are professional experts who know all they need to know about computers. How is a person supposed to live in a world like this?