Computers are for people  TIM CARMODY  ·  SEP 27 2013

The Kottke post I probably think about most often is 2009's "One-handed computing with the iPhone." It just has all these perfectly rounded sentences in it, like this one:

A portable networked computing and gaming device that can be easily operated with one hand can be used in a surprising variety of situations.

Try to take the adjectives and adverbs out of that sentence. (Strunk and White say to "write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs. Strunk and White are often surprisingly stupid.)

But also try adding any more adjectives or adverbs in. Try adding in or taking away any of the clauses. Try writing a better sentence that describes the same thing. (This is also known as "the Mohammed Test.") Try to misunderstand what the sentence means. I'm a professional writer. So is Jason. I appreciate this stuff.

There's also a lot of structural and emotional variety in this post. The author gets mad. He makes jokes. But mostly, he observes. He studies. He empathizes.

People carry things. Coffee, shopping bags, books, bags, babies, small dogs, hot dogs, water bottles, coats, etc. It's nice to be able to not put all that crap down just to quickly Google for the closest public restroom (aka Starbucks).

It is very occasionally necessary to use the iPhone while driving. No, not for checking your stock portfolio, you asshole. For directions. Glance quickly and keep your thoughts on the road ahead.

My wife spends about five hours a day breastfeeding our daughter and has only one hand available for non-feeding activities. That hand is frequently occupied by her iPhone; it helps her keep abreast (hey'o!) of current events, stay connected with pals through Twitter & email, track feeding/sleeping/diaper changing times, keep notes (she plans meals and grocery "shops" at 3am), and alert her layabout husband via SMS to come and get the damned baby already.

I liked "layabout husband" so much when I read it, I started referring to Jason as "noted layabout Jason Kottke." At a certain point, I forgot where the phrase came from.

But read that last paragraph again. You can't read that description of Meg and not think of it every time you either are or aren't doing any of the things she does in that sentence, every time you have to have to carry a bag and use your phone, every time you have to open a door and use your phone, every time you don't have to use your phone while walking down the street but you do it anyways, because you can, and the fact that you can now means that you have to.

I think about it every time I cover a new gadget and companies start touting its hands-free features, how it's added a new voice interface, how its new keyboard algorithm makes it easier to correct for typos. People didn't use to market that sort of thing. But companies started to notice it was one of the things their customers liked best.

I also thought about it when I read these tweets Meg wrote, just yesterday and this morning, about how the newer iPhone's longer screen borks its one-handed functionality.

I have enormous man-hands, and I still think that the trend toward enormous screen sizes on smartphones stinks. Not only is it harder to use a phone with one hand, it's harder to fit a phone in a pants pocket, and a long, thin phone is more likely to tip over and get knocked off a table or shelf.

Markets are gonna market, and specs are gonna spec, but it often feels like companies are forgetting that computers are for people, first. And people have bodies, those bodies have limitations, and all of us have limitations in specific situations.

We're all disabled sometimes. If I turn off the lights in your room, you can't see. If I fill the room with enough noise, you can't hear. If your hands are full, you can't use them to do anything else.

But as Sara Hendren writes, "all technology is assistive technology." When it's working right, technology helps people of every ability overcome these limitations. It doesn't throw us back into the world of assumptions that expects us all to be fully capable all of the time.

That's not what good technology does. That's not what good design does. That's what assholes do.

I think often about Jason's post on one-handed computing because I'm in the story. He wrote it for his wife, and he wrote it for me. I'd badly broken my right arm in an accident, snapping my radius in half and shooting it out of my body. Emergency room doctors stabilized my arm, then surgeons took the fibula from the left leg and used it to create a graft to replace my missing arm bone.

I'd broken my right leg, too, and sustained a concussion. With both legs unstable, I was stuck in a bed most days, and even when I could start putting weight on my left leg again, I couldn't climb in or out of bed to get into a wheelchair without help. I'm over six feet tall and I weigh about 300 pounds, so most nurses and orderlies were out of luck helping me. I couldn't type. I couldn't use the bathroom. I had hallucinations from the pain medicine. I was extremely fucked up.

Another victim of the accident was my Blackberry, my first-ever smartphone, which I bought just before I finally got my PhD. (I revealed this once in a 2010 post for Wired. Commenters called for my head, saying anyone whose first smartphone was bought in 2009 had no business writing for a gadget blog. "I'm sorry," I told them. "I spent my twenties learning things, not buying things.")

After I was discharged from the hospital, I spent money I didn't have to get an iPhone 3G, which was my phone for the next three years. It was mailed to me at the rehab institute where I learned how to walk again. And it changed everything for me. Even with my left hand, I could tweet, send emails, browse the web. I could even read books again -- even print books weren't as easy as the iPhone.

And then I read Jason's post about one-handed computing. And I thought and thought and thought.

I started blogging again. I even started my own community blog about the future of reading. The next year, that led to some articles for Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic.

I was back home by then. My injuries had cost me my postdoctoral fellowship and a second crack at the academic job market. But I was able to audition for and win an entry-level job writing for Wired the same week that I did my first stint guest-hosting for Kottke.

And I swore to myself that I would never forget: technology is for people.

Anyways, the accident that broke my arm in half was four years ago today.

It was on Jason's birthday. He was 36 then; I was 29. His son was two, almost exactly the same age as my son, his brand new baby daughter less than a week old.

It was all so very long ago. It was the beginning of the rest of my life.

If you ask me why Jason Kottke is important to me, it's because in 2005, he found my little Blogspot blog when it only had a couple dozen readers and started linking to it. It's because his idea of "Liberal Arts 2.0" led to a book I made with friends, some of whom went off to make extraordinary things of their own. (We offered to let Jason write the forward; characteristically, he declined.)

Then Jason became my friend. Every so often, he gives me the keys to this place he's built -- home to the best audience on the internet -- and lets me write about things I care about. And because of all of that, I got a second chance -- me, with all of my flaws and frailties, my misdeeds and mistakes.

But really Jason is important to me because Jason is always writing about how technology is for human beings. He doesn't bang gavels and rattle sabres and shout "TECHNOLOGY IS FOR HUMAN BEINGS!" That's partly because Jason is not a gavel-banging, sabre-rattling sort of person. But it's mostly because it wouldn't occur to him to talk about it in any other way. It's so obvious.

The thing that tech companies forget -- that journalists forget, that Wall Street never knew, that commenters who root for tech companies like sports fans for their teams could never formulate -- that technology is for people -- is obvious to Jason. Technology is for us. All of us. People who carry things.

People. Us. These stupid, stubborn, spectacular machines made of meat and electricity, friends and laughter, genes and dreams.

Happy birthday, Jason. Here's to the next forty years of Kottke.org.

Read more posts on kottke.org about:
Apple   disability   hbdjk   iPhone   Jason Kottke   Meg Hourihan   Tim Carmody

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