Compassionate Computing: Trying to Protect Users from Tech Bullshit

One of the many good articles I’ve read recently is “Why I’m Teaching My Kids That Computers Are Dumb Machines” by Greg Lavallee. The article covers the experience of the author, who is the director of technology for Slate, in supporting teaching/learning from home for two kids. The article details problems with online learning, ranging from material (a trackpad that didn’t work properly for small hands) to functional (students have to log in and out each day for attendance to be counted). The article includes helpful tips for mitigating problems.

To me, the best part of the article is what comes out in terms of how technologists try to protect people from bad technology. We all deal with bad technologies every day, and our work as technologists is to try and make things better:

I listen to the 7-year-old stress out at bedtime about whether she remembered to log out so that her attendance is counted. And I weep for their lost innocence. They shouldn’t know this bullshit yet. They shouldn’t be adapting to this terrible system of logins and passwords and websites that work one second but don’t the next because their “session on Clever has timed out.” Even when things are working smoothly, I don’t want them to be good at this. I want them to be good at reading and math and to just be good people, not good at navigating cluttered interfaces that have been hurriedly foisted on our overworked educators.

I hear our stressed users, who are colleagues, workers, students, teachers, and the worldwide public. I don’t want users to have to learn and worry about complying with poor systems and, just as often, poor processes related to tech. They shouldn’t have to know this bullshit. They shouldn’t be adapting to terrible systems and processes: things designed badly that perform badly, erring without pattern, reason, or explanation. I don’t want them adapting to older systems that became bad because of lack of maintenance, systems that no longer meet standards and where the lack of updates means our users learn wrong things and don’t get to learn or experience better. When systems and processes aren’t good, the system problems become user problems, forcing our users towards bad dumb actions and leading our users to wrong-headed thinking about all technology. I don’t want this to be our collective experience. I don’t want our users to be good at this.  I don’t want to get better at explaining this stuff to our users; but, these are our systems and so I am working on it.

I want our users to be able to use technology and processes in a supportive environment where things make sense, where they can explore, change things, and learn what the technology does for them and what they want it to do, so that they can understand technology to the level they need and want, including for collaborating on things related to technology. I want users to be enabled by instead of subjected to technologies and processes. While there are so many systems and processes outside of my ability to do anything, there are some where I can help. This entails both work to improve technologies and to explain and communicate on technology, with extra work and extra opportunities when transitioning from longused-now-bad to new-good technologies. And, good technologies always require good implementation. It is a blessing to have only technical problems. I want our users to be blessed with no problems or with only technical problems, where supports are always in place for socio-technical needs. For everyone, I want the best of what I’ve seen from different technologies and communities.  I’ve seen so much great work in DH and humanities data, to support everyone involved in thinking/working/living with tech, and I want this for all areas.

I appreciate and give thanks for our many communities practicing compassionate computing, and am heartened by so many in our wide communities who are working to protect users from tech bs and working to improve our technologies and processes.

Our work is made lighter when technologists appropriately call out bad technologies and processes, as part of calling us all in to make things better.

Thanks to Greg Lavallee for a great article!