Boxed in by my computer

The Thinker by Rodin

My office came together this week. On Tuesday I had it repainted and on Thursday I had the furniture people come in. They removed the 70s furniture and assembled modular furniture. I can now sit at my desk without my thighs touching the bottom of my desk drawer. I don’t have to elevate my arms to use the computer keyboard. All this is good and I appreciate the improved ergonomics. Clearly the computer is the means by which most of my work is accomplished so I have to be comfortable. I’m fortunate to have a boss more than willing to outlay a couple grand to make sure I can be productive. This would have never happened in my old agency.

But for someone whose job it is to be a web chief I find that in many ways a computer is a seriously inadequate tool for doing my work. Despite 25 years or so trying to perfect the personal computer using it is still a tedious, difficult and frequently frustrating means for accomplishing my work.

Nowhere is this more obvious to me than with my computer monitor. I have a 17-inch monitor, which is standard these days. But it’s not nearly enough space. What I really need is for one whole wall of my office to be a gigantic computer monitor with 600 dots per inch resolution. That’s because like most people in the management business I multitask a lot. I have way more things on my plate that I have to manage than can fit on a 17-inch monitor or can be managed using an Outlook Task list. I can, of course, ALT-TAB to numerous other screens to get the same information. But what I need is a big picture of all my work and literally hundreds of tasks I must coordinate. And I can’t get that from a computer.

So instead I’m ordering the biggest whiteboard I can find and having that installed on one wall instead. It’s low tech, but it works. People can come into my office and we can discuss things and we can doodle on the white board until we come to a common understanding. But even this is not quite sufficient. And that is because my team is geographically disbursed. I have three employees working for me in Reston, but I have two other full time employees working out west (Montana and Alaska), and a number of part time employees scattered across the continental United States. It’s not often that I will be able to get them into my office. So instead they fly into Reston a couple times a year where we work from large whiteboards with periodic forays to our networked PCs.

It’s not that industry is not trying to respond. We’re a Lotus Notes shop (not a good thing) and part of the Notes suite is this Sametime collaborative software. It lets us have a virtual workspace. It includes a whiteboard and a chat window. We can display PowerPoint slides to each other in real time. I can also share a program and they can see what I am typing into an application. It’s a pretty cool technology and a step in the right direction.

But what I really have to do is manage a lot of disparate ad-hoc requests from all sorts of people. Right now I simply write them down on a piece of paper and cross things out as I do them, but I am reaching the point after four weeks on the job where it’s not enough. Hence I need a white board. I need one huge mother of a white board. I need to scribble my tasks on the white board, erase them, rearrange them, prioritize them and basically see things from a high level macro and a detailed perspective at the same time. I can’t do that on a 17-inch monitor, at least not very easily. I need to be able to glance from one set of tasks to another set of tasks and see the relationships between them. I can’t do that with current computer technology either. And most likely I’ll be retired before that happens.

In Neal Stephenson’s novel “The Diamond Age” he talks about electronic billboards that are floor to ceiling. You can see them emerge today in places like Times Square, but these are still very primitive and lack the resolution I need. In the 2002 movie “Minority Report” actor Tom Cruise plays detective John Anderton who interacts with a computer by standing up and stretching his hands out into space. This is more like what I have in mind. But even this is not ideal. It still requires a lot of physical movement that is time consuming.

Instead I have to live with what the current technology permits. It increasingly feels constraining. While I am not a big fan of Windows technology at least it is reasonably consistent. That’s why it drives me nuts when I have to use a product like Lotus Notes that completely ignores Windows graphical user interface design principles. Something as simple as selecting a block of messages using Shift-Click then pressing a Trash Can icon doesn’t exist. I average at least 200 emails per day. But right now I have to manually delete each message. (Naturally the messages aren’t deleted immediately. They are marked for deletion. If you actually want to get rid of them you have to hit the refresh button (F9) and say “Yes” to a message asking you if you really want to delete them. More of my time is needlessly wasted by a bunch of designers who never envisioned how I would have to use their product.)

And that’s just Lotus Notes. Every software package has its own peculiar and annoying quirks. The Lotus Notes Sametime program, for example, does not start automatically when I start Notes, even after I configure it to do just that. I have to remember to turn it on after I start Lotus Notes. Computer viruses and new security mandates have made it impossible for me to shut down my workstation, or even install a new software package without someone from the help desk coming to my machine. At home my new and improved Quicken software keeps asking me every time I start it if I want to learn more about their bill-paying feature. I never do and tell it to remember this fact. But it never learns. I took the time to talk to their technical support people who shrug their shoulders and say it will be fixed in a future release. Meanwhile: deal with it. My antispam software (ChoiceMail) occasionally sends me duplicates of the same email. Pretty much every program I own, no matter how much I like it, has annoying quirks. They have the effect of continually interrupting my concentration. Instead of focusing on a larger task, I am down in the computer weeds trying to make my software behave like a human would want it to.

Increasingly the whole Windows graphical user interface feels annoying. Why does it have to be so hierarchical? I can understand the logic of putting programs in a Programs folder and my data and settings in a Documents folder but I so often find myself drilling up and down folders to where I want to. Why is it so stupid? With hard drives holding ten gigabytes or more routinely these days, does an old fashioned hierarchical folder based system make any sense at all?

A computer should be like a screwdriver. Using it should be instinctive. I am grateful that my Windows 2000 operating system at least doesn’t crash on my several times day like Windows ME did. But you shouldn’t have to be your own software mechanic to continue to use a PC. Security should just work. Viruses should be automatically detected and squashed. Hardware firewalls should be built into a card on the back of the PC. Software upgrades should be tested by a certification service and installed automatically. I shouldn’t have to know what file extension things are stored in. I shouldn’t have to traverse folders or have the computer spend minutes using a Find function to locate a file. I should give the computer itself no more thought than I give my car’s dashboard. When I am driving I never think, “Gosh, I should press the accelerator” or “Maybe I should press the brake to avoid crashing into the car ahead of me”. My computer should let me manipulate it instinctively.

Clearly we have a very long way to go. Meanwhile, I will have my old fashioned whiteboard. I will continually erase it manually and rewrite it. It will require me to periodically buy new dry erase markers from the supply store. But I will be able to at least track my work, prioritize it in a way that makes sense to me, and meet my deadlines. I doubt many of us can truly do that with our computers alone.

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