Why do they never learn?

01Dec08

They in this case are the machines that we use every day, or more specifically the software running on them. By using language like ‘they’ perhaps I’m already using a person like metaphor that’s inappropriate to the situation. Regardless, we’re confronted each day by machines that make us do repetitive tasks rather than taking them on for us.

This post was originally going to be called something like ‘bookmarks with input’, as such things would solve a tiny subset of the trouble at hand. Certainly bookmarks with input would solve the issue that got me thinking about the broader problem space.

My frustration began with the browser on one of the mobile devices that I lug around with me. I use it quite frequently to check railway timetables, and then use the information from those timetables to determine which station to head for, or train to jump onto. Like most mobile devices it’s design can best be described as read mostly – doing input is a pain, and also bandwidth is limited, so browsing through many pages to get to the right place is a slow process. So… rather than repeatedly making me input the same variables why doesn’t the device do this for me (or at least let me save a given input set for rapid future reuse)? This is less of a problem on the desktop, where both browsing and input are higher bandwidth experiences, and yet we still sit there like robots – repetitiously pointing and clicking. The server side for many services don’t help either, by insisting that some sort of session state be established and maintained, and sliding you straight back to square one if you dare to let things time out or ask a question without hoping through the right sequential steps and up the right ladder.

How do we stop ourselves being robots playing snakes and ladders? The geeky answer is scripting. In anticipation of the comments that might say ‘you can do all that with Greasemonkey‘, I would like to ask ‘why don’t we do all that with Greasemonkey, or indeed any other scripting environment’? I think the answer is that scripting is for geeks, because scripting is hard – it’s another place where the machine makes you think like a computer rather than a computer learning from our actions.

Things get much more interesting if the script is automatically generated, perhaps by observing pattens of repeated behaviour. More interesting still if the generated script can then by edited in a simple and meaningful way. I think that’s what Platypus does, but that still leaves me wondering why such functionality is in an add-on to an add-on rather than part of the everyday out of the box experience?



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