Tom Chi  

Generation Perplexed - Technology Waves and Undertow

October 2nd, 2004 by Tom Chi :: see related comic

When working on this comic I got a completely different sense of what it was about. This means that either the comic is a rich tapestry of layered meaning, or that KC and I don’t really communicate well before the digital ink goes to the page. Instead of technomaschoism, I saw the dad as someone like myself, beset on all sides by waves of new technology.

Eventually you get wiped out by a particular technology wave and its difficult to move on. I feel this way all the time. After I learned applesoft BASIC I thought I had the skillz — then it was LOGO, then Pascal (with TCL OO library), then Fortran, C, C++, HTML, CGI, Java, JSPs, blah blah blah. With each new technology I felt I was in the zone for a bit, but within a couple years, there was invariably an entirely new thing to learn. Even with all this work, I already feel myself slipping– lax on learning the ins and outs of CSS, PHP, Perl, XML, and numerous DB technologies.

How can any sane person keep up?Part of the slipping has to do with the fact that I see patterns. I have seen technologies rise and wane, and now more than ever I get the sense that some things are simply not worth learning. Afterall, was it so important to study the AWT 1.0? Or Applesoft assembly? Does it matter anymore that I could do imagemaps with CGI script or hack PIC serial lines? Sure, these things had their place — and a window of usefulness, but I’d say less than 10% was truly transferrable to future work in any form.

I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like for those who don’t work in the technology industry. Whenever I debug the machines of family and friends it dawns on me just how much random knowledge one needs to build up to work with computers sucessfully. Wave after wave of it. And it will never end. Given this, it is certain that I will everually wipe out on some upcoming technology wave, it’s just a question of when. That’s when you’ll find me in the back room, maintaining the legacy machines, complaining about those little *rat* devices.

9 Responses to “Generation Perplexed - Technology Waves and Undertow”
Magnus Ahltorp wrote:

I think my strategy is to study more theoretical, enduring subjects, and then, only when it’s necessary, gain practical experience with specific things.

In this way, I don’t spend more time than I have to on, say, PHP. This, however, requires that I have the necessary prerequisites to be able to learn as much PHP as I need in just a few hours.

Brian Curtis wrote:

I agree with Magnus. That’s why underlying principles are more important the flavor-of-the-month technology.

I work with usability and interface principles; I could care less which technology is actually used to implement those principles. And it really doesn’t matter which tool is vogue today, because it’ll be phased out in six months or less… leaving all the tool experts with a set of non-transferable skills.

Tom Chi wrote:

Well I wasn’t saying that underlying skills are not important, but they only get you so far. When it comes down to who is writing the code — and in the technology world, code is power — the more mastery you have over a language, the more powerfully you can express your ideas with it.

Thus, while a pure usability person may never have to care about implementation, most others do care. And to them, the flavor of the month problem is a serious one.

Kevin Cheng wrote:

This is probably why Tom and I had different interpretations of the comic’s topic. Tom and I both have engineering backgrounds prior to working in HCI and Usability. Tom’s message here is applicable to the code experts and I think he was putting his technical hat on for it. I interpreted the strip differently because well, I was looking at it from a more HCI standpoint :)

Kevin Cheng wrote:

I should add that:

a) I think it’s great that we talked about different yet related topics and even cooler that others injected their own interpretations in the strip comments (thanks Dave)

b) While I feel HCI/Usability people should be distanced from the low level technicalities of an implementation, having an understanding of the limitations of the latest and greatest can help facilitate conversations with developers and so it’s still important to keep up with trends if even just at a peripheral level.

dave wrote:

I just want to agree w/ Kevin whole-heartedly. When I’m working with a graphic designer on a print project, I know I’m working with a pro, when they start talking about inks, paper bonds, materials, bindings, pantones and the like. The same is true for us. We need to understand the canvas on which we paint. … (I’d like to point people to this piece about just being an interface designers. Ya gotta know your stuff.)

X wrote:

I found this problem to be too specific, and so applied a novel solution to the entire set… I studied Latin and C. Now I’m equally useless in all modern languages.

(extra points if you pretend I posted this in Latin)

Bob Salmon wrote:

I also agree with Magnus. So too did the lecturers who drew up my computer science course. The very first thing we were taught was programming via ML - not C etc. The teaching language was deliberately obscure (and useless, unless you were going into theorem proving etc.) so that even if you’d done C before college you were at the same starting point as everyone else.

You therefore had to turn up to the lectures and got a proper grounding in things like different types of recursion, complexity etc. rather than just thinking “Yeah, I know all that” when you were just a code monkey rather than a computer scientist. (I’m not knocking code monkeys, but if the object of the exercise is to become a computer scientist, then staying as a code monkey isn’t much good.)

I think that there are many timeless principles in computing - abstraction, concurrency, and so on. What tends to change is what approaches are now feasible or what is now more/less important due to increases in horsepower, memory size etc.

I suppose this could devolve into a religious argument where people say “No, insert-pet-technology-here is a radical change because insert-rant-here” which gets answered similarly “Actually insert-older-technology-here is just the same but different in insert-fundamental/superficial-difference ways”.

Bob wrote:

Some interesting concepts if you have the luxury of separating theory from practice. Unfortunately many developers find themselves locked in the basement of some insurance company and find they are highly skilled in an area that nobody cares about. I thought that is who the older gentleman represented.

The antidote. Read, read, read. Look around that basement for somebody doing something new, and become their best friend.

Like X, I too have studied Latin and C. They give me a basic understanding of the romance languages and just about any modern programming language.

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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?