14 May 2015

Chained to the Desk - The Paradigm Shift

Question Everything
Second only to “diversity matters” one of my favourite personal mantras is “question everything” and anyone who works with me will find out just how fundamentally I live this in my daily life. It is not that I am cynical (although perhaps I am); it is more that I have learnt over the years that if you take the facts you are given at face value then you are doomed to make the same mistakes and deliver the same failures as those presenting the “facts” to you. I have also found, through the process of questioning everything that very little stands up to scrutiny.

So why then do so many people take these facts at face value and live by them regardless of how badly things then go as a result? The answer lies in a phenomena I like to call “Paradigm Paralysis”. Paradigm Paralysis can probably be best explained by recounting an experiment involving a cage full of monkeys, a ladder, and a bunch of bananas…

…And a hose.

Hungry Monkeys
In this experiment (please don’t try this at home) five hungry monkeys were placed in a cage. At the centre of the cage was a ladder and at the top of the ladder was a bunch of bananas. Naturally, being hungry, one of the monkeys climbed the ladder to get the bananas but before reaching them he (or she) was hosed down with cold water. This is unpleasant enough, but to make matters worse, the other four monkeys were also given a soaking.

At first the monkeys persevered, but eventually the majority decided to give up, and any monkey attempting to get the bananas was strongly discouraged by the others.

It was at this point that the experimenters switched one of the monkeys for a new one. One that had never been hosed down. As would be expected, this monkey tried to climb the ladder, but this time no hose was used. It wasn’t needed as the other monkeys quickly and forcibly stopped the new monkey from making the terrible mistake.

You can probably guess where this is going now. Each original monkey was replaced with a new one, and each time the result was the same, until all the monkeys in the cage were new. Now let’s be clear here. None of these monkeys has ever been hosed down, nor have they ever witnessed the hose in action, but when a new monkey was then introduced into this “vanilla” situation the response to an attempt to grab the bananas was prevented by the incumbents.

Banana eating was strictly forbidden.

A Can of Worms
So what does this experiment teach us about our own lives? Well, have a look at the rules around you and the constraints under which you work. When you really examine the truth behind them, how many stand up to scrutiny? How many of the “ways of working” that you take for granted are actually just one way of doing things that might have made sense at the time they were created but no longer make sense in the world of today. How many of them are simply things you were told by someone who was also told by someone….and so on.

Still not sure?

Let’s look at another example. Can openers have been around for a long time, but cans have been around for a whole lot longer. The first “modern” can was invented in 1810 by Peter Durand for the British Navy and it was opened using a hammer and chisel. (The first can of any time was used by the Dutch navy back in 1772 but being British, I’m ignoring that fact). The first can opener was invented in 1858 and even by the British example that’s 48 years later! This can opener was too dangerous for home use and you had to go to the grocery store to get your can opened. We have William Lyman to thank for the first domestically available can opener (the one with the cutting wheel) which wasn’t invented until 1870.

What this demonstrates is that paradigms are addictive, and what is more, they stop us from doing things in a better way (sometimes for whole generations). We blindly accept what we are told by those who came before us and carry on making the same mistakes and enforcing the same inefficiencies. Simply put, paradigms are dangerous. The problem with questioning what you hear and challenging how things are done, is that you open a whole new can of worms. It won’t make you popular.

The Elephant on the Desktop
Now let’s look at something closer to home; something that might be staring you in the face right now. Are you using a tablet or smartphone to view this blog, or are you reading it on a laptop or desktop machine? If it is the latter then you a living within a long running paradigm. For almost as long as I have been using personal computers, I have been using a windowing environment. From the very beginning it has had menus, buttons to minimise, maximise and close windows, icons to launch things, and applications that can be tiled or stacked on the desktop. We all know what a desktop looks like and very little has changed for over 30 years.

Have a look at this picture of the graphical user interface on the Xerox Star released in 1981. This is the first commercially available GUI and it was based on the previous non-commercial development, the Xerox Alto, which dates to 1973. Look familiar? There is, of course a situation where this paradigm has been broken at least to some extent, and this is in the tablet market. The ground broken by apple in introducing the iPad and iOS has been trodden by Google with Android and we now have a whole new user experience.

More and more, I am finding myself questioning the desktop experience and posted a comment on LinkedIn about this very matter which read “Come on Apple, Google, Microsoft et al. I don't need a desktop experience on a tablet; what I need is a tablet experience on a desktop”. I immediately received responses questioning how you could live without the features of the desktop world. The features that were designed in 1973. Now, I’m not saying that the people who said this are wrong, but I am questioning the paradigm, and I am certainly not convinced that they got it right back then. I fear when it comes to the desktop that we are, to paraphrase Henry Ford “customers asking for faster horses”.

Faster Horses
Every day we accept the paradigms that surround us. Not only to we just live with the way things are, and have been for some time; we actively demand it. The desktop is just one example of that and it is one that needs to change if we are to invent the next “can opener” of computing. We aim for the “x” because that is how you close a window. We point with a mouse because it is the only thing accurate enough to hit those tiny buttons and pull down menus with any accuracy. We demand a start menu because that is where everything we need lives. That is what our predecessors taught us to do, and that is the way we’ve always done it.

And yet when we pick up our smartphones and tablets we happily tap, swipe, pinch and tilt without a care in the world on devices that are instantly on, and we love it. Surely there is a lesson there for the desktop designers?

We live in an ever changing world, and as the world around us shifts we need to make sure we break the moulds into which we have been forced. We need to make the paradigm shift. But what should you do with this information? What should you do next? Maybe what you should do next is search the internet for that original monkey experiment, and ask yourself “what exactly is a fact?”

Remember the mantra – “question everything”.

Oh, yes…and don’t eat the bananas.

The Enterprising Architect

1 comment:

  1. Yes and no.... :-)

    The first cans were wrought iron and needed a hammer and chisel to open them. Modern day can openers would have no chance. This is all about cycles of innovation, as can technology improved, new methods of opening them could be devised. Can technology in turn was driven by advances in metallurgy. Going from Iron to tin, to aluminium allowed the advance from hammer and chisel to tin opener to ring pull.

    The other factor is of course manufacturing technology. In the early days cans were difficult to manufacture. With advances in manufacturing increasing supply and therefore demand for can openers then there was an opening for new can opening technology.

    The same applies to IT. Advances in IT processing power, better graphics and better manufacturing results in cheaper, more powerful devices. This in turn drives demand for better user interfaces.

    For the record, I have a smartphone, tablet and laptop and the best UI is still on the laptop. Better graphics, larger screen, better keyboard complete with touchscreen.