Wednesday, October 9, 2013

iOS Fucked Up My Brain

True story: I used to be pretty good about inbox zero. Then I started using iPhones and iPads. The email apps sucked compared to Gmail, so I got in the habit of leaving stuff in my iOS inboxes until I could go into Gmail on the web and clean them up. Then I got bad at inbox zero. Today I absolutely suck at inbox zero.

I also used to be great at browser tabs. I never left them open all day, never had more than three or four at any given time. I suck at that too now, and again I blame not only myself, but also iOS.

I'm dragging my feet on iOS 7 -- I don't want to deal with it until they've worked out the kinks, and really I don't ever want to deal with its text-only "buttons" ever in my life -- but previously, Safari on the iPhone has defaulted to opening your Bookmarks menu when you launch it without a URL already open. I found this behavior incredibly annoying, so I got in the habit of keeping URLs open. For obvious reasons, I wanted URLs that loaded quickly.

For years, the fastest-loading URL which sprang to my mind was my own mini-app, Hacker Newspaper, because it had a tiny DOM and zero dynamic elements. So I got in the habit of having that open in iOS at all times. Then I wrote another mini-app which loaded even faster, an hourly tracker for the Bitcoin exchange rate, and I got in the habit of having that constantly open on iOS instead. This habit made me a little money, but I didn't really want to be constantly aware of the Bitcoin exchange rate, and the Hacker Newspaper habit changed me in a terrible way. I read Hacker Newspaper all the time now. I used to only look at Hacker News when my own blog posts were on the front page.

Long story short, iOS fucked up my organizational habits through design fail -- and iOS is consistently regarded as one of the absolutely best-designed technology products available. As another example, some Palm Pilot users in the late 90s allegedly experienced weird personality change effects as a consequence of the Palm Pilot's writing system, which had users change their handwriting for the Palm Pilot, since that was easier than handwriting recognition. (Sorry, the obviously-needed citation's been lost to the mists of time.)

Interaction design has huge consequences, because interaction design is behavior design, and a lot of the behavior it governs is mental behavior like thinking, planning, and sorting. Among others, the sci-fi author Charlie Stross and the sociologist Amber Case have described various types of software as systems for externalizing consciousness, identity, and memory. While sci-fi's been forecasting the criminalization of specific thoughts since at least George Orwell, thoughtcrime is still at least a specialized problem. I don't think any science fiction author successfully predicted the aggravating ubiquity of thoughtfail.

This is, in my opinion, the strongest argument for seeing Unix and basic coding skills as fundamental required literacy today. As prostheses for memory and identity, computers are too useful not to use, but if you don't know how to craft your own code which gives you a UX which matches the way you think, you're doomed to matching the way you think to the available tools, and even the best available tools basically suck. Interaction design is not only incredibly hard to do well, it's also incredibly idiosyncratic.