From 1991 to 2018, journalist Walt Mossberg was one of the best known commentators on technology – and the unfortunate difficulties it places in front of people. In widely-read articles in the Wall Street Journal, Verge, and Recode, and in many stage interviews and panels, he pondered the questions of why people struggle with computers and other personal technology.
His first Personal Technology column in the Wall Street Journal in 1991 opened with these now-famous words:
Personal computers are just too hard to use, and it isn’t your fault.
Hey, that’s the very same message I try to spread here: It’s not your fault! So many of the struggles people have with personal technology lies in the software and devices themselves: unintuitive interfaces, inconsistencies, bugs, poor instructions, and on and on.
But. Walt wrote those words over two and a half decades ago. Upon hanging up his tech reporting hat in 2017, he used his last weekly column in Recode to ask the question: Is personal technology still too hard to use?
First, he added to that quote from 1991, noting that the difficulties extended for many years afterward:
Not only were the interfaces confusing, but most tech products demanded frequent tweaking and fixing of a type that required more technical skill than most people had, or cared to acquire. The whole field was new, and engineers weren’t designing products for normal people who had other talents and interests.
But today, in the latter half of the 2010s, things are much better, Walt says:
But, over time, the products have gotten more reliable and easier to use, and the users more sophisticated. You can now hand an iPad to a 6-year-old and, with just a bit of help, she will very likely learn how to operate it quickly. That’s amazing, given that the iPad is far more powerful than any complex PC I was testing in the 1990s. Plus, today’s hardware and software rarely fails catastrophically like PCs did so often in the old days.
So, now, I’d say: “Personal technology is usually pretty easy to use, and, if it’s not, it’s not your fault.” The devices we’ve come to rely on, like PCs and phones, aren’t new anymore. They’re refined, built with regular users in mind, and they get better each year.
I agree entirely. Actually, my claim is that even the older tech isn’t as difficult to use as people think (largely because of poor explanations and instructions given to users, a situation that Walt of course tried to improve through his columns). And newer tech is far easier to use – even if people don’t always realize it. And yet, that’s still not people’s fault! It’s understandable that people still expect many of the difficulties that plagued older tech, especially as the explanations and instructions given to people are still often poor.
So what happens from here on out? Closing up his last weekly column, Walt sees few brand-new life-changing technologies in our hands (with the biggest game-changer in recent years, the iPhone, already a decade old). But he still sees big changes coming:
All of the major tech players, companies from other industries and startups whose names we don’t know yet are working away on some or all of the new major building blocks of the future. They are: Artificial intelligence / machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, robotics and drones, smart homes, self-driving cars, and digital health / wearables…
…I expect that one end result of all this work will be that the technology, the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by a voice command, a person entering the room, a change in blood chemistry, a shift in temperature, a motion. Maybe even just a thought.
Your whole home, office and car will be packed with these waiting computers and sensors. But they won’t be in your way, or perhaps even distinguishable as tech devices.
“Invisible” technology? Yes. In fact, that forecast is right in the title of Walt’s final column: “The Disappearing Computer”. More and more, the things that technology enables will just happen, without buttons, controls, wires, or special commands:
Apple reportedly has a secret project to monitor the glucose levels of diabetics with new noninvasive sensors, ending the need for daily test needles.
Google has changed its entire corporate mission to be “AI first” and, with Google Home and Google Assistant, to perform tasks via voice commands and eventually hold real, unstructured conversations.
Several small firms are pursuing the prospect of recharging mobile devices with power sent through the air, so power cords won’t be around.
Self-driving cars are another perfect example. Driving? Now there’s a complex technical skill (even if we don’t often stop to think of it that way). It’s a skill that may be going away. I myself wonder whether my young girls will ever need to learn to drive, or whether they’ll graduate school into a world of automated cars that will do the driving for them.
This new world of “ambient technology” is coming. But we’re not there yet. Walt continues:
Computers have gotten vastly easier to use, but they still demand attention and care, from charging batteries to knowing which apps to use and when to use them.
Yes. There are still things you’ll do well to know if you want to become comfortable with your personal technology. That’s where I’m trying to offer a tiny bit of help with this site. (Note, though, that Walt’s new line, “they still demand attention and care”, replaces his old “they’re still too hard to use”. I would heartily agree that technology today is not “still too hard to use”, certainly not as hard as it used to be. I hold that a lot of people struggle precisely because they think it’s harder than it actually is!)
At the end of his retrospective from technology’s past to its future, Walt notes some of the crucial improvements we still need to make, even as tech “disappears”: better protection of individuals’ privacy, greater security against attacks on technology systems, stronger standards surrounding all things technological. These are important points.
If you have a couple of minutes, give Walt’s final column a read (here’s the link again). Especially if you’re someone who thinks “I’m too old to read technology articles”. Chances are you’re younger than white-bearded Walt!
And do you have any thoughts on whether technology is still too hard (or whether it ever was)? Where do you think technology is heading, for better or for worse? Do you think people and technology will get along much better than they did back in 1991 (or whenever), or will there always be some mismatch? Make yourself heard by adding a comment!