Machines these days aren’t decipherable any more; you need to read a manual to operate a toaster oven, and men past a certain age bemoan the fact that they can’t work on their cars any more. Digital tools work in ways profoundly different from what we’ve come to expect from living in the dirt world. They are alien, not just opaque. Technology-mediated interactions are swamping our inherent cognitive capacities.
I’m working on a list of ways in which the digital world is different. It started off being descriptive, but I think it has some explanatory power. It may even eventually help predict gotchas in yet-to-be-seen systems. Here are the top five: persistence, findability, opacity, mutability, and scale .
danah boyd’s work on online social networks provided a very helpful basis for this list. My first four items were inspired by hers. Here’s danah in a WireTap interview with Kate Sheppard:
There are four functions that are sort of the key architecture of online publics and key structures of mediated environments that are generally not part of the offline world. And those are persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences. Persistence -- what you say sticks around. Searchability -- my mother would have loved the ability to sort of magically scream into the ether to figure out where I was when I'd gone off to hang out with my friends. She couldn’t, thank God. But today when kids are hanging out online because they've written [themselves] into being online, they become very searchable. Replicability -- you have a conversation with your friends, and this can be copied and pasted into your Live Journal and you get into a tiff. That creates an amazing amount of "uh ohs" when you add it to persistence. And finally, invisible audiences. In unmediated environment, you can look around and have an understanding of who can possibly overhear you. You adjust what you're saying to the reactions of those people. You figure out what is appropriate to say, you understand the social context. But when we're dealing with mediated environments, we have no way of gauging who might hear or see us, not only because we can't tell whose presence is lurking at the moment, but because of persistence and searchability.
Things that used to be ephemeral have become enduring. Conversations used to linger only in memory, but now they’re recorded. Letters might have survived in shoeboxes, but email is archived indefinitely. Digital artifacts persist because they are easily captured and copied, and because storage is cheap. Thinking out loud in a late-night email or blog post can come back to haunt us.
Like many other items on the list, it’s tricky to discern whether we’re seeing a difference in degree, or in kind. Humanity has had a long and fretful relationship with the recorded word. Plato – didn’t those Greeks think of everything first? – seems to have preferred the spoken to the written word. In the Phaedrus he has Socrates say, “He who thinks, then, that he has left behind him any art in writing, and he who receives it in the belief that anything in writing will be clear and certain, would be an utterly simple person ... if he thinks written words are of any use except to remind him who knows the matter about which they are written” .
We’ve become habituated to the unnatural persistences technology gives us. Still, a residue of magic remains, just as we are occasionally disturbed by seeing ourselves in a mirror. Our old brains are not used to such uncanny permanence.
As danah points out, digital search tools can make the previously hidden suddenly available. Again, we get used to it; I’m finding it increasingly difficult to write off-line, when I can’t check assumptions or follow promising leads instantaneously. Information about the world, and about people, is at our fingertips.
Even though we all take Google for granted, I suspect that we don’t have an accurate mental model of the consequences for material that relates to us. People’s surprise at how easy it is to make a profile about them from online information is a staple of identity theft news reports. It may be related to our tendency to over-value near-term events, and down-play the distant future (hyperbolic discounting).
The five distinctions I’m working through complement and contradict each other. Here’s the first example: Findability makes persistence meaningful. Not only do people leave a permanent spoor; these shreds and scintillas can be traced – though the stories they tell may easily be misconstrued.
I can seeeeeee you! – not. Asymmetric visibility is everywhere in digital spaces. In its social form, it’s danah’s “invisible audiences.” Anybody can watch you write yourself into being on the web, but you often can’t be sure who’s out there. Even if you do know, they may expect mutually incompatible things from you (parents vs. peers). As danah’s pointed out: until the web, only celebrities had to figure out how to deal with the problems of persistence, findability and invisible audiences.
Not only can’t we see the audience, we can’t see the system’s workings, either. We’ve been dealing with inscrutable intelligent agents for aeons, of course; other people, and the politics we’re immersed in. However, computer systems often don’t behave like humans, in part for the reasons I’m listing here. When they do try to emulate humans, it’s a thin veneer at best, and usually an embarrassing kludge.
Every computer user can list features that they find baffling. For example, I struggle to understand how various browsers implement saved RSS feeds. Often they don’t know that they don’t know. Many people with a non-technical background don’t understand what cookies do, and what information is being saved . When they’re exposed to cookie management tools for the first time, they’re shocked to discover how prevalent cookies are. Younger people understand that they pose a threat to personal privacy, but are resigned to it. The power of cookies shows how the various differences augment each other: cookies are not only persistent, findable traces, but are also hidden from many users.
Mysterious mechanisms are understood as magic. I hoped to find an extensive literature on superstitions about computers and software, but didn’t find any articles on a first pass. Such studies would be a fertile source of information about mental models, and could help predict how users absorb new technologies.
When the store layout changed in my local supermarket, everybody was disconcerted; people were still asking employees for directions months later. Magazine layouts change more often, and web designs more often still. In these cases one still has to do the redesign work and risk confusing your customers, but at least one doesn’t have to move all those atoms about. Digital artifacts are easier to change. This gives designers a great deal of flexibility, but at the price of destabilizing markers that are useful for navigation.
Change is also effectively invisible in the digital world. Flux, replication, multi-media, cross-over, impermanence and blending are rife on the web – but there are no palimpsests. The new blue pixel is as crisp and bright as the old green one. One can reveal a history, as wikipedia does, or track changes using databases, but it takes additional effort and/or money. Scholars using digital media are disconcerted by the lack of stable reference . If the content cited can change invisibly, how do you know what you’re referring to? With paper references you could, for example, refer to the “reknowned 11th edition of Encyclopædia Britannica” and be sure what about the target content. I often link to Wikipedia, but there’s no guarantee that a link will in future provide the information I’m expecting. Uncertainty is the price we pay for currency.
Digital media can also be easily copied and morphed from one place to another. danah’s replicability attribute (see above), where someone can cut and paste a conversation out of IM into their LiveJournal, is an aspect of mutability. Mash-up, remix and plagiarism become easier as mutability increases. They have always been part of culture, but as the barriers to copying come down, their prevalence goes up. Materials don’t have the persistence they used to have in the Stone Age; can our neolithic instincts keep up?
Mutability is a curious dual of the persistence attribute. Digital artifacts are more persistent because they’re so easy to copy; embarrassing videos are replicated across the web faster than they can be taken down. At the same time, though, changes are just as easy to propagate. As the clones proliferate, they can mutate.
Information overload is not just hype; we deal with hugely more factual and social information than people only a few centuries ago. Dominic Foray points out in The Economics of Knowledge that the great eleventh century thinker Gerbert d’Aurillac had a library containing no more than twenty books, which was quite a lot in those days. A Google search for his name yields about 24,800 hits. . . .
Human society evolved in the context of small groups, and the number of people we can have genuinely social relationships with seems to be limited to around a hundred people. This wasn’t a problem until very recently in evolutionary time: “In the early 1500s one could hike through the woods for days without encountering a settlement of any size. Between 80 and 90 percent of the population ... lived in villages of fewer than a hundred people, fifteen or twenty miles apart, surrounded by endless woodlands. They slept in their small, cramped hamlets, which afforded little privacy ...” .
The limitation is probably built in. Dunbar has shown that “mating system[s] and/or mean group size are a function of relative neocortex volumes in primates. This relationship suggests that the size of the neocortex imposes some kind of constraint on the number of social relationships that an individual can keep track of within its social group” .
Email and online social networks enable us to interact with thousands of people. That’s not new, in one sense, humans have been able to coexist with thousands of strangers without either killing them or running away since the invention of cities in the neolithic. However, digital socialization provides an aura of intimacy which triggers behaviors optimized for face-to-face behavior. The number of relationships we’re expected to participate in grows, but our means of dealing with them doesn’t. This can be dangerous, as persistence, findability, opacity and scale conspire to confound expectations: one is speaking to a large, invisible audience, and one’s words don’t go away. Microsoft executive Jim Allchin had learned the hard way during the 1998 anti-trust trial that emailed words, like “We need to slaughter Novell before they get stronger” could come back to haunt him. Yet, in 2004, he wrote this to what seemed at the time to be a small circle of colleagues: “I would buy a Mac today if I was not working at Microsoft.”
Intractable scale also characterizes software engineering. It’s a truism among software engineers that very large interlocked code bases are beyond the grasp of to any individual mind. I’ll be coming back to this topic in future; for now, I’ll just note that limitations on working memory apply to software engineering (see Problems Revisited), and software’s intangibility combined with ballooning memory and processing capacity encourage developers to combine more and more functionality into a single package.
Computing tools can help humans work at previously impossible scales, but many of them feel uneasy about that. Computer-assisted proofs, such as that for the four-color theorem, have generated controversy among mathematicians. Lengthy computer-assisted proofs that could not be replicated by humans somehow didn’t feel “real” to the skeptics. Perhaps proponents of computer-assisted proofs just need to wait, as Thomas Kuhn suggested, until “its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it” – or perhaps the concern now raised will continue to linger, just as Plato’s unease about the written word still finds echoes today.
----- Notes -----
 The list is still evolving. Here are some aspects of digital life which don’t fit yet: the rigidity and fragility of computer systems; the tension between personalization and the one-size-fits-all design of most software; the non-rival and non-excludable nature of digital media.
 Plato, Phaedrus 275c. See also William Chase Greene, The Spoken and the Written Word, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 60, 1951 (1951), pp. 23-59.
 Vicki Ha, Kori Inkpen, Farah Al Shaar, Lina Hdeib, “Work-in-progress: An examination of user perception and misconception of internet cookies,” April 2006, CHI '06 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems CHI '06
 Bob Stein, personal communication, 19 Jan 2007
 William Manchester, A World Lit Only by Fire, Back Bay Books, 1992, pp. 50-2. Cited by delanceyplace.com 01/25/07-life in the 1500s
 R. I. M. Dunbar, “Neocortex size and group size in primates: a test of the hypothesis,” Journal of Human Evolution, Volume 28, Issue 3, March 1995, Pages 287-296