In my last post I promised that my next post would be “a theoretical tantrum on the ethics around that miserable love triangle between developer, tool and user.” and that I thought the issue of “‘ownership’ of software is an unrecognized moral crisis of our times.”
This is that post.
My belief in the importance of resolving the issue of tool ownership hinges on a theory which I experience as true: Extended Cognition. According to wikipedia “Extended cognition is the view that mental processes and mind extend beyond the body to include aspects of the environment in which an organism is embedded and the organism’s interaction with that environment. Cognition goes beyond the manipulation of symbols to include the emergence of order and structure evolving from active engagement with the world.” The example offered to me by my friend Zach, who introduced this concept to me, was of doing addition with your fingers. Viewed through the lens of Extended Cognition the movement of the hand is part of the thinking that produces the result.
Where I experience this as most true is when I use tools that I’ve learned to use skillfully. That is, I’ve mastered them so fully that they more or less disappear as I use them. If we know how to use a pen, we no more need to think about using that pen while we are using it than we need to think about our hand. It becomes part of us, and it allows us to focus our attention on the thing we are doing, and to become absorbed in our activity.
This is true also of software tools — or at least well-designed ones. If a tool is well-designed, I am able to just concentrate on the content of my activity, without the need to split my attention thinking about use of the tool. Often, I can’t even explain how I use a tool. My hands know what to do, and my verbal mind isn’t in the loop. What I know can only be demonstrated.
How many times have you told someone you can’t really explain how to do something on their computer of phone, but if you can just get your hands on the device you can show them? Sometimes it’s not enough to see the screen. Only actual doing of the interaction releases the know-how.
This kind of knowing that seems to exist just in the body is known as tacit knowledge. I like to call the part of UI design that harnesses this tacit knowledge “the tacit layer.” Back when designers still liked to talk about “intuitive design” this awareness was much more prevalent. But I think this way of thinking about design is in precipitous decline. Now, intuitive means little more than figure-it-outability.
Tools used largely in a tacit mode to develop ideas become an extensions of the user’s own being. To change a tool so that it stops functioning this way changes a person’s being. It literally prevents a person from thinking — it robs them of a piece of their own mind.
When we look at software in that light, doesn’t it seem like a norm that a company owns software, and that users pay a licensing fee for the right to use it offers far too little protection to the user? Shouldn’t users have more control over what is done to them?
I’m not suggesting a change in IP law or anything like that. I do think the software industry needs some different licensing arrangements, though. I’d like to see something like a user-developer covenant: “If you, the user, invite this tool into your life, adopt it and invest the effort to master it, you can trust us, the developer, to safeguard your investment by minimizing design changes that break the tacit layer, create distractions and force unwanted relearning. We understand that your concern is with what you are doing, not with the tool we offer you.”