When I was young, I used to read all manuals like I read my fantasy novels. Take them into my bedroom for the weekend and read from the first page to the last, in order, skipping nothing. I would devour every piece of information in the order they chose to present it to me, and miss nothing. By the end I would have a clear understanding of all the pieces of the puzzle and how they fit together.
These days I just code with the knowledge I have, guess how things might be and, when I get stuck, I jump into a reference manual or jump onto google and find the bit of information I’m missing. As a consequence, I only just found out a few days ago, purely by an accidental web link, that STL provided a bitset template. I can see understand perfectly why I didn’t know this existed. It’s not that I haven’t had use for a bitset template in the past, its just that its not something complex enough that I would ever needed to google for information on it.
The combined knowledge of the universe is now at my finger tips, kindly indexed by keywords. I know the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything is in cyberspace, if only I can find the right question. But does this mean I don’t need to store information in my head anymore – just retask my brain to be a master of composing the correct keywords for a problem. Is it really ok to be crippled if I have no internet connection.
And its not just knowledge that has been replaced by keyword access. When I was young, my pirate friends – not me, I would never – would trade games via mail (notice no ‘e’ prefix) on cassettes (young readers should google this if you don’t know what a cassette is). Now you just type in a keyword into Vuze on your Mac – again, not me, I don’t even know what Vuze is – and you get a list of every song, tv show, movie or game and within minutes its yours – well, not yours, but you have it. Actually, even googling is too much effort. Just highlight the word in your browser and Apture will find the information for you.
Admittedly, I appear to have a lot less time than I used to when I was young. I’ve done numerous experiments, including watching clocks in 70s videos, and it certainly appears that time hasn’t sped up, at least in no way I have been able to measure. Maybe its facebook, twitter, dayjob, family and nightjob – I certainly didn’t have all these when I was younger. I could just take a book into the bedroom for the weekend and emerge 3 days later a little bit smarter – yeah, it was a sad childhood really.
So are our new iBrains really a good thing? Time to put on the opinion cap. Yes, its awesome having access to blogs and white papers and answers to everyones questions, but we need to temper that with discipline. The most common forum post these days is “read the manual”, because most questions are clearly answered in the manual but no-one bothers reading now. Its easier and quicker to jump on a forum and ask if anyone else knows the answer – maybe someone who has actually read the manual. (Actually, I have no idea what the most common forum post is, I totally made that up to support my argument. ).
So am I going to return to reading manuals front-to-back? I was all ready to say “absolutely, I will make a point of always reading manuals properly from now on!” But to be honest, I doubt it. There’s a simple rule of the universe that all things follow the path of least resistance. While humans are capable of using intellect to break this rule, they generally don’t bother. BTW, this is also a great rule to follow if your ever designing tools or interfaces that you want other people to use – make sure your stuff is the path of least resistance…
So what’s the morale to all this?