Saturday, February 20, 2010

Another story about ignorant computers - and now they're a security risk

You'll recall that I previously wrote two posts after the ReadWriteWeb/Facebook "login" fiasco. Here's part of what I said in the second post:

Computers are supposed to perform routine tasks for us so that we can get to the important stuff, like playing Starfleet Commander. But...computers are NOT performing these routine tasks for us.

Why not? Because they're ignorant. You can't talk to a computer in the same way that you can talk to a human being.

But I'm not the only one thinking of such things. My posts were inspired by an Oracle AppsLab post by Jake Kuramoto, and now Dave Winer has weighed in on the topic. He wasn't speaking about logging in to Facebook, but about computer usability in general.

Imagine you knew nothing about computers and somehone handed you a Macintosh and told you to figure it out.

How long would it take you to figure out what each of the applications did, or even what an application is, and how they differ and how they're similar.

Winer continues to flesh out his example, pointing out some of the bewildering computer behaviors that a new user would encounter. And this is on a Macintosh, a computer well-known for its relative ease of use. Put the new user on my Windows computer and tell him/her that you have to stop the computer by clicking the Start button - even if the new user could figure out what I meant when I talked about "clicking," the sheer lack of logic required to stop by starting would be baffling.

And, as commenter jeremyw noted, the incomphensibility of computers can have serious consequences:

Computer jargon, a “tick box” culture and unimaginative advertising are discouraging Internet users from learning how to protect themselves online.

Faced with such gobbledegook, many of the world’s nearly 2 billion Internet users conclude that security is for “experts“ and fail to take responsibility for the security of their own patch of cyberspace -- a potentially costly mistake.

Part of the problem comes from a natural human tendency, not limited to the computer technology realm, to gravitate toward using our own private, incomprehensible language. Michael Chertoff (yeah, him):

“If you don’t demystify security, people become anxious about it and don’t want to do it,” former U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Reuters on the sidelines of the EastWest Institute security meeting in Brussels.

“There are some people in the profession who to some degree enjoy the mystification of what they do, that it’s not penetrable. It’s almost a sense of superiority,” he said.

Doctors and lawyers used to enjoy “a sense of mystified special knowledge,” Chertoff said. “But ... once you empower people to understand what’s going on, doctors do a better job. So with cybersecurity the task is to make the architecture more user-friendly -- and to teach people better.”

And again, as I have argued before, computers are supposed to make our lives easier. Why don't they?
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