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Why can't we just...

The last couple of weeks I seem to have heard "Why can't we just use...?" a lot. Typically, this has been about some collaborative venture where there's a question of what technology to use as the supporting medium. Very often, the question ends with "Google Docs", although a couple of times it's been "WordPress", "Dropbox", and "Facebook".

Partly, this is a reflection of the fact that those particular companies have done a stellar job of making their stuff appealing enough to attract millions (or billions) of users. Partly, it's a reflection of the dominance they have built by that means. But partly it's a question of what people are used to and what their friends want them to use, and the reasons aren't always logical. I remember, for example, an early 1990s complaint that more programs should use the same keyboard shortcuts as WordStar because "it's so intuitive". Ha! It's only intuitive if your first word processor used those shortcuts. It's a classic example of the kind of marketing used by cigarette companies and the Catholic church: get them young, and they're yours for life.

Most of the Google Docs examples are people who think collaborating on Google is easier than using Microsoft Word, LibreOffice, or any other word processor that would allow the collaborators to keep their data offline under their own control. One case was notable, however, because the alternative being suggested was an existing wiki of surpassing simplicity: click "edit" button, type text, click "save".

"Can't we just use Google Docs?"

The person speaking had, it transpired, never gotten annoyed at a misspelling, incorrect statement, or missing bit of punctuation on Wikipedia and decided to rectify it. Those big edit buttons all over the place? He'd never clicked on one.

"My teachers told me Wikipedia was unreliable," he explained. As Danah Boyd finds in interviews for her book It's Complicated, many teachers do say that and tell their students instead to search for more reliable references. As a result their students often erroneously conclude that Google is trustworthy. Whereas, Boyd correctly says, the inner workings of Google's search algorithm are a black box, but Wikipedia's Talk pages and change histories, while filled with sometimes unpleasant contention, are quite possibly the best teaching aid that's even been invented for demonstrating how knowledge is collaboratively created and curated. Generationally, that fits: the speaker in question is 25. So much for "digital natives", an idea I've always resisted for just this reason: today's younger generation take Facebook, Google, Wikipedia, the web, online messaging, smartphones, and various social media for granted. They don't *see* the internet because they've always been soaking in it. But, I pleaded, we're a *privacy group*. We can't post our private stuff to *Google*! Take a chance. Click on the wiki edit button. It won't bite!

A Digital Native ought approach an unknown bit of internet-related technology with confidence because they know they can figure out how to use this bit from the knowledge they've gained operating other bits. Certainly, someone who's grown up playing computer games and using apps can leverage the experience for new games and using apps - but not in the more generalized way of 20 years ago, when the internet's bare skeleton was still showing. We usually cast technophobia as fear of the new, but many also fear old technology just as much if it's unfamiliar.

The WordPress discussion was a little different, Why, someone asked at a meeting, was the group paying a developer to run the website? "Why can't we just do it in [something like] WordPress?" The question displays two assumptions: one, that a mainstream tool can meet all requirements; two, that using it to run a professional-level, part-public, part-private website with a membership database backend must be cheaper because personal WordPress sites are really cheap. The reality, of course, is that changing underlying technology has its own costs and wouldn't of itself solve the site's acute need for substantially improved navigation. Asking it suggests that WordPress is the 2015 version of the old "my partner's 14-year-old nephew can build us a website for practically nothing". Which usually meant later paying substantial sums to a professional to scrape the content and build something business-class.

It's possible my frustrations are a version of the wall Ellen Ullman describes in her still-invaluable 1997 book of essays, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents that in time hits every software engineer: the moment when they just want to use technology that's tried, true, proven, and debugged, and can no longer stand to go on learning the latest gewgaw that's obsessing venture capitalists. 256px-Marx_Brothers_1931.jpgThat, she writes, is when your career in software effectively ends. So: after nearly 25 years online, I'm asking what's wrong with reverting to older stuff that doesn't make us dependent on outside parties, that with a little tinkering will do what we need? It's not *hard*. It's just unfamiliar to folks whose first introduction to the internet was FaGooDropPress, and now think that's The Way Things Ought to Be. Which means that decades hence, long after the original sites themselves have massively changed their character, we'll still be running into clones of how they worked circa 2015, showing their creators' age as accurately as their dated pop culture references.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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