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No Config for Old Men

...or anyone else, for that matter.

Autumn 2020

Ask anyone who's really into cooking and they'll tell you how important it is to have a kitchen that's arranged just right. To someone who rarely cooks, a kitchen is probably just a place to store a few pots and a toaster, and the placement of such stuff doesn't matter much: canned soup and microwave dinners are designed for ease of preparation.

For the enthusiastic home cook, however, a lot of things can go wrong. Often there's only a second's notice to fix something that might ruin a perfect meal or set you back hours of hard toil. Hollandaise starting to split? Better bring out that ice cold water post haste! Garlic burning? Better chop some more right this instant, or the pasta will be overcooked and there goes the Aglio e Oglio.

To achieve speed, you have to know where your knives, pots, pans, spoons, whisks and other utensils are and you want to be able to arrange them so that they're easy to reach. Seasonings, spices, herbs and condiments should be within reach from the stove. Then there's the mise en place before the actual cooking begins: chopping all the vegetables, cubing the meat, slicing the bacon and so on.

All of this is, thankfully, easy to achieve. Even the most cramped kitchen will, after having been battle tested through a few meals, be as optimal as possible according to the cook's personal preference. The same goes for painters, carpenters, car mechanics and even office dwellers. Hammer missing from the hammer hook? For shame! Stapler not to the immediate right of the stack of post-its? Well it should be!

The regulated kitchen

Now imagine if you couldn't organize your kitchen to your heart's content. Not because you're lacking the funds or skills, but because some federally appointed clerk is constantly coming to inspect it.

"Nah," he says, adjusting his clip-on tie, "you can't put your spices there. Against regulations. All spices must be kept more than two yards from the stove at all times." He then goes on to explain that you'll have to call him every time you want to use the stove, just to make sure the pots you're using are compliance tested. Plus, they have to be stored in the government approved pot storage cabinet below the sink, otherwise they're not fit for kitchen use.

Want to change the color of the counter top? Sorry, no can do. Want to switch from glass bowls to stainless? Alas, you used to be able a few years ago, but nobody wants stainless anymore anyway, right? The salt can be put next to the stove, but it's not recommended and might change in the near future. Knives are now to be honed every Tuesday afternoon by a designated craftsman. Sure, you can postpone a few times, but eventually, you just have to live with that. Plus, there's going to be some dudes coming to inventory your pantry on a regular basis, most likely when you're in the middle of cooking something really complicated. There's no use in protesting - this is all for your own good.

And yes.

Of course this is a metaphor for computers.

The curious disappearance of configuration

For the casual user, some of this can maybe be convenient - or at least not annoying. If someone who rarely uses the kitchen has decided to whip up a home cooked feast, it doesn't matter that the spices are kept strangely far from the stove: they're just happy they found them. And maybe there is, for the casual user, some "security" in lock-in efforts such as MacOS calling home[1] to check if a program is allowed to run and that web browsers automatically block certain URLs.

Likewise, maybe a handful of confused beginners are helped by the fact that certain system settings are extremely hard to find, or that you're supposed to put all your photos in a specific directory, or that you can't decide what partition you want to install a program on, or that some indexing service starts running when you least expect it, or that not a single application gives a crap about the few color settings you're allowed to make.

For the power user, such things range from nuisances to something that seriously hampers productivity and creativity.

It used to be that whenever I got a new computer, I spent a day or two setting it up. I selected the fonts I wanted to use, I picked the colors I liked for window decorations and GUI elements, I installed my preferred tools and utilities and I organized the desktop icons and program launchers to my liking. It took a bit of time, but it was a labor of love. In times of trouble I was, if nothing else, at least the boss of my own desktop environment.

I don't know of any proprietary OS where I can do that anymore. Linux is, considering what's going on with the major distributions, desktop environments and UI toolkits, seemingly heading the same way. Sure, pick your own window manager, see if we care - we've got client side decorations! Want to theme your GUI? Yeah, but not in our Snap packages you won't! Want to turn off cursor blinking? Mmmmyyeeaahhh, not too sure about that. Oh, you started a GUI file manager? Hey, enjoy the ten new folders we've littered your home directory with! They all start with capital letters: designed for typing convenience in a case sensitive file system.

Of course I still spend a fair amount of time setting up a Windows machine, but these days it's not the joyful experience of configuring the best fonts and nicest colors and arranging the icons on the start menu in the correct order for my muscle memory. Instead it's usually a week of swearing over removed settings and working hard to find the ones that actually remain, or trying various registry hacks to circumvent seemingly unchangeable defaults. I'm working against the system instead of with it, and someone else is trying to boss me around.

A better example

All of this could be different. It used to be. On my Amiga, I could configure everything. Apart from things like fonts and colors I could draw my own mouse pointer, tiling desktop backgrounds and icons. (Yes, the system really shipped with separate little paint programs just for pointers, desktop tiles and icons.) I could customize double click speed and key repeat rates on millisecond levels. I could even control the exact position of individual icons and the size and position of every individual directory window opened.

Most casual users didn't care about all that, but they didn't have to. The system came with a reasonable set of defaults and when or if they grew more proficient and wanted to change something about their daily working environment, they had the option to do so.

This was a great approach to users. Instead of being treated like an incompetent moron and placed in a walled garden, you were entrusted and empowered. Something as simple as drawing my own mouse pointer on the Amiga was a profound and formative experience for me. As corny as it sounds, it was as if the guys who built this amazing machine put it in my hands and said, "Hey kid, you're in charge. This computer is yours. Learn how to use it and you can make it do anything." It was a call for exploration and creativity.

Today, I can't even change the system font in Windows. I can select an "accent color", but most applications completely ignore it. Every program defaults to downloading into a Downloads folder and I've lost count of how many times I've changed its folder view from grouped to not grouped, only to discover it's been magically changed back the next time I browse it. Lots of settings have been removed completely while others are buried deep in strange places where a user clearly isn't really supposed to venture.

The problem is that there's no toggle for enabling "advanced mode". I'm just supposed to accept that I can no longer change simple things I've been able to configure for the past thirty years. Someone, somewhere just decided that all users have the same basic skill level and that the defaults are always acceptable.

General purpose Instagram cameras

I suppose the lack of configurability is a metaphor for personal computing in general: we're not buying our machines, we're renting them by way of bizarrely complex EULA:s for everything from the firmware to the OS and we're not supposed to be curious or creative, we're supposed to sit back and passively consume advertisements. The base level of creative computer use is no longer exploring programming or graphics or music, but photographing a meal someone else has prepared and then applying a predefined sepia filter to said photo. The base level of configuring a system is no longer picking some personal favorites among fonts and colors, but - maybe - selecting between dark and light mode.

On the flip side, more and more people also need to use computers for actually producing stuff - not least programming all those ad delivery platforms and the curiously unconfigurable operating systems they run on. But there are also armies of innocents; office workers, administrators, hotel clerks, librarians, teachers - those people now often have no choice but to strain their eyes staring at black text on bright white backgrounds, unable to select a font they find easier to read.

Too bad they can no longer store their spices close to the stove, but hey, who cares? Let them take one for the team. We're all swimming in ad revenue and if people learn to configure things, maybe they'll suddenly realize that the presence of those ads should be configurable as well.

1 In case my sarcasm isn't coming through here: No, it's not secure. The privacy and security problems this entails are huge.