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Why I Don’t Believe in Technology Innovation
Andrew Maynard   Feb 18, 2010   2020 Science  

Sitting here in Denver Airport, I think I have finally lost my faith in technology innovation. And the reason? That fiendish creation of the Gates empire, Microsoft Word.

Like a good believer, I have persevered with my faith in technology innovation as a driver of social progress. There have been niggling doubts for sure. But I’ve held fast—until now. While struggling this evening with yet another MS Word document that didn’t survive the traumatic transfer from a PC to (horror of horrors) a Mac, everything become clear—the promise of technology innovation is nothing but a myth, created to feed our insatiable desire for change.

imageEighteen years ago, I was writing my thesis—on a Mac—using an early incarnation of Microsoft Word. I typed, and what appeared on the screen matched what came out of the printer. I added equations—complex ones at that. I included textbook-quality diagrams. And my final thesis looked as good as anything I’ve produced since.

The system worked—it made my life easier. And it worked from a single 3½ inch disk (remember those?) that contained the Mac’s operating system, the word processor, and all the documents I was working on.

So what has changed in the intervening eighteen years? How has technology innovation improved my life as I type away?

These days, I type into the latest version of Word, and the system hangs up on me. I try adding equations, and can’t get the formatting right. I attempt to include diagrams, and the program places them everywhere but where I want them to go. I open documents from PC-using colleagues, to be faced with text and images in places they were never meant to be.

And all this from a program that now takes up well over fifty times the disk space of its predecessor, and needs a super-computer to run on.

So much for progress.

But it gets worse.

People actually use this program. They take its flaws in their stride. They go to great lengths to explain how, when things go wrong, you are the problem. They enthuse over the thousand and one features that contribute precisely nothing to good writing. They even change their work habits to match the program’s foibles.

In other words, they adapt to fit the technology.

This I find deeply disturbing. People, it seems, don’t strive to do things better. They strive to do things different. And technology innovation gives them the opportunities they so avidly seek—even if it makes life harder.

How else do you explain a society that, in eighteen years, has so thoroughly embraced a product that enables them to do less for more?

Of course, my judgment might be slightly clouded by the current dogs-dinner of a document sitting in front of me that I’m expected to read and edit. Maybe technology innovation really does improve people’s lives sometimes. Maybe I should hold off on forming the Tech Innovation Unbeliever’s Association for now.

But it does make you wonder whether we’re addicted to the change that technology innovation brings rather than the progress it promises.

And if we are, I wonder what the treatment is—tech innovation rehab?

I can see the queues forming now for the Microsoft Word Recovery Center.

Written in Ommwriter – which is not made by Microsoft.

Andrew Maynard is Director of the Risk Science Center at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.


Andrew, I hear your call and I sympathise.. and that Ribbon thing : wot is that all about !!

Currently using v.2003, yet have reverted back to v.97 indoors, (discon’d all web attributes : it helps). It’s all about anchors and margin sets, and scratching yer head!

The only way to eliminate the suffering is to become Buddhist, ditch the Dukkha! Or you could ask the dalai lama which version he prefers?

I agree with the idea. Society should analise the situation with technology and be a part of desicion process about what technology goes next to the market. Relations between technology and humanity should be harmonisde and developed in coevolutionary way.

@progeorge There is already a beautiful system that does exactly what you want, namely, helping decide what product goes to market next: it’s called the market. The feedback mechanism is brilliant - money. Votes are cast by billions of people every day through trillions of interactions in which the value of a given item is reaffirmed or refuted.

The great part about Andrew’s clearly tongue-in-cheek piece is that it highlights how major corporations often lose the vision of the purpose of their original product and attempt to make it better with frivolous features that undermine the central utility of their product. Of course, sometimes these features are so great they justify the cost. For example, cellphones have poorer sound quality than land lines, but not being tethered is a huge benefit, enough to cause most of my generation to use only cellphones.

I, personally, don’t use Word, I use iWorks, because I worship at the white and chrome sepulcher of Steve Jobs, and when I’m feeling blasphemous, which is more and more lately, I use Google Docs. The best part is that I don’t have to wait for society to reach some sort of consensus to realize that MS Word is garbage, I can opt for a new system instantaneously.

Pro software has made strides in the 2 decades, especially the last 5 years have seen hyper-evolutionary progress.

I use notepad-like apps like

for editing and Word-like apps only for layout, if necessary.
My final formats of choice are open document format, rtf, html if no print layout is required.

I used Word 6.0 until 2002, when, having lost the original install disk, i had to switch to Word ‘97. If there isn’t an operating system need, and if businesses don’t lock you in, there is no need to switch it.

To be fair - I wouldn’t want to go back to PFS First Choice or old-school orange-and-black WordPerfect. Or Quicken (ca. 1994) for spreadsheets.

You are right in that some people are simply addicted to technology change.  But when it comes to Word processing (and making presentations), there is also the factor that 80% of so of people simply don’t bother to look at alternatives.  A computer store, or their IT department, gives them Word and they use it.  They are really changing on purpose.

About 10 years ago (maybe even further back) I realized to my horror that people were sending and posting Word docs as if it was a common protocol.  I long ago learned to share things in PDF, PS, or ASCII text.  Most of my stuff I write in ASCII first and only later I only send Word docs when somebody requests it, which is unfortunately quite often.  On the other side, the ubiquity of a proprietary standard has resulted in reverse engineering of it, so you can view and save Word files in free apps like OpenOffice.

Perhaps I had the advantage of starting with WordPerfect for DOS (not WSIWYG) in the 80s, then moving to WordPerfect for Win 3.1, trying out MS Word 6 and deciding it was inferior to WordPerfect, then using ClarisWorks at school, then playing with early versions of OpenOffice, then playing with LaTEX for technical papers, then finding much better ASCII text editors so I can often just write content first and then add form later.

This essay has the trite rant against Microsoft that I am so sick of seeing.  If you don’t like their stuff, don’t use it.  The real battle is in convincing sheep that Word and Powerpoint formats are not common or open and not every piece of information has to be stored in Word or Powerpoint files and emailed that way.  I work for a company that does not force tools on people, with a few exceptions.  Largely because of the programmers, we’ve gotten to a point where people in general will accept non-Word docs such as PDFs and raw text (although non-programmers treat raw text like something the cat dragged in).  It is still a battle to convince people to stop Procrustean bedding _everything_ into Powerpoint files (the same people of course use a template that wastes 50% of the visual space right off the bat), to stop emailing Powerpoint files (PP is intended for live presentations), and to stop composing all emails and websites with the Comic Sans font.

@Typist I use notepad-plus too (when I’m in Windows). In fact, I typed this response with it.

Typo correction in my last reply: “They are really changing on purpose.” should say “They are NOT really changing on purpose.”

I am very surprised that people still worry about microsoft office and similar overpriced stuff, while having superb open source software like open office one click away.

Increased productivity was _assumed_ when the apps were put on all of our desktops.  But we’re all aware of how much time we all waste with fonts, alignment, section malfunctions, etc. problems.  I doubt any cost analysis was ever done before casting off the secretarial pool.  The full bill being $$$ for every wordprocessor app bought, IT staff for installation, debug and maintenance, lost productivity to fight with the app, training classes for its extended “features”, user manuals, and the complete reinstall, redebug, relearn cycle for each new “improved” release.  Our missing secretary now impacts the productivity of all 10 to 12 in each department.  I’ve left off fighting with printers, toner cartridges, etc.

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