I recently read a book entitled The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson, (see recommended books) who attracted a lot of notice writing a book about Steve Jobs after his death, and is an excellent writer with a good ability to deal with technology, science, and the people involved (although from my viewpoint as an engineer who has put in my time in industry and in academia I think he is a bit biased toward the sciences, although he recognizes the need for the “faceless” engineers, as he calls us, and often confuses engineers with technicians, machinists, and other worthy people). Since I have spent much of my life living and working in Silicon valley and teaching at Stanford, I have had a chance to get to know and work with a few of the heroes and many of the “faceless”, and am very familiar with the truths and myths. I feel that Isaacson does a reasonably balanced and interesting job of telling his stories and drawing conclusions on the necessary qualities needed to innovate in what is called “high” technology (I am never quite sure what differentiates “high” technology from “low” technology).
I apologize for not sending this post out at my usual Sunday or Monday time, but like many people, my wife and I took an end-of-the-summer vacation trip around Northern California, and a vacation to me includes severing as many links as possible with the internet. During our trip, I couldn’t help but consider how much the many miraculous innovations described in Isaacson’s book (the internet, the smart phone smart phone, computers, and all the features the digital age has brought to me through appliances, entertainment, etc.) have improved my life. The conclusion I kept coming to, is that there is good news and bad. Certainly technical work has been greatly aided by the computer’s ability to calculate and simulate and provide information, although I suspect that one’s understanding of the assumptions and uncertainty in such things may be impaired. I have much easier access to information, communication, and entertainment although it is all becoming seriously less fun through ever increasing use as a marketing tool. I also have to put up with expectations of instant response (texting) and endless messages from people I don’t know who want things I cannot or don’t want to provide.
But to me, the computer and the internet have always been tools to accomplish things I want to do, and like most tools, when I acquire a facility at using them, I resent them being changed, unless there is a major benefit to me. And here we get into the conflict between the new and the known, because a great amount of the profit in and excitement about digital hardware and software is about creativity, innovation and change. But as the title of the post implies, these can clash with control and tradition, and effort is needed to accommodate to the new—and time, which is becoming more important to me as I get older, I am no longer amused by changes in software and hardware because some designer or manager, or entrepreneur has a “better” idea which I am forced to incorporate into my life even though I don’t need or want it.
In a previous post I think I mentioned my ongoing problems involved in changing from Apple’s operating system 10-6-8 and associated applications, which I had used for years and was very familiar with, to 10-10-5, needed because a major hack had convinced the Stanford University computer people to encrypt all of us. This, of course, resulted in my need to upgrade many applications and deal with information such as a great many photographs that had been re-arranged because Apple (not me) thought they should be. The more time passes, the more annoyed I become at the time I am still putting into this change. It is as though one manages to learn to juggle five balls, and then someone changes one of the balls.
I understand the cost of backward compatibility in software, but when one already has as much capability as one needs/wants, can’t someone figure out how to preserve that? In the case of Apple going from iPhoto to Photos, since I had not been upgrading my iPhoto (I preferred the older format), the “upgrade” (means change even if it a negative one) included in the new operating system happily re-arranged my images and put them in Photos (the new version that I don’t like as well) and informed me that I could no longer use iPhoto because my iPhoto software was not the latest issue. When I tried to download this latest version of iPhoto, I found it was no longer available at the Apple store, and I could not find it anywhere else on the Web. With the help of a friend, I managed to find the iPhoto upgrade, so I can now access my old iPhoto files, but iPhoto and Photos are not easily compatible. So I am still up to my neck with re-arranging images, getting information where I want it, and fears of future moves from Apple that will attempt to force me to use Photos, or worse. The result is that I am going to go through the pain of getting the photos off of my Mac, and am even considering leaving Apple products because it seems to me that they are sacrificing a lot to make operating systems of desktops more compatible with smart phones and their other "portables", and I don’t want to go through endless iterations in which they strip things down so the desktop operating system is compatible with an Apple shirt button, or whatever else will follow their watch.
I built much of my professional reputation promoting, teaching, practicing, and consulting in things having to do with creativity and innovation. I am a believer. But unless they are properly balanced with control and tradition, over time the loss may be bigger than the gain. Over time, new goodies tend to become boring, and one should not overlook the costs of change to users.