The Banality of Software

A few minutes ago I was watching the six nations match between Wales & Scotland, but something in the program created a moment of clarity about the nature of perception with virtual spaces, so I came upstairs to try to capture that clarity with a diagram within a drawing program.

But instead of illustrating that clarity I've instead spent the last few minutes swearing at various software applications ...

For a while now I've been working on some concepts around how software constrains rather than enhances us. Sure it may appear as if we can do more than we could before, but the critical point is that what we can now do that we could not do before is constrained in certain directions. Instead of free creativity we now have the ability to create but only in certain predefined ways - and those predefined ways are those set out by the software applications which we choose (or indeed are forced to use in some cases). The end product of this is that we have begun to constrain human creativity unconciously by adopting common tools that only allow us to express ourselves in limited ways.

So what was I working on that prompted this? Well it was clear that my perception of the game was too limited by the screen in front of me, but I wondered how limited this was, and started to think about ways of representing this lack of clarity visually. Needing some complexity in my diagram I looked to tools to accomplish this, notably PowerPoint 2007, but was once again defeated by the interface that locks away complexity in the pursuit of usability. But is it really usability, or saleability? In this capitalist space it's the software that sells most which wins, not the best software. So I'm left unable to convey my thoughts.

Now that's not at all true, if I'm honest. I have plenty of tools to express my concepts, they might take longer for me to do represent my thoughts, but I can certainly push them in ways which the average person could not to express complex concepts. Hell I could create a 3D flash animation that interacts with the viewer if I really wanted, but that's not the point. The point is that software is becoming more banal. And more critically that software is more and more the default way of expressing ourselves, whether in emails or presentations, tweets or photo sharing. What we're expressing is what the software allows us to express.

As a psychologist what worries me is the underlying effect on our abilities that this represents. From conversations earlier this morning with my partner, exploring how the simple addition of a dishwasher has changed certain typical habits between us, it's not a large leap to see how adding more complex tools to our lives can shift things in more dramatic habits. Whilst cognitive offloading may be a grand thing in many ways, it has it's dark side which I think is only now starting to show it's face - and it deserves much more attention and study than we currently allow it.

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