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Surviving the Bit Infinity

Tuesday, July 18, 2000
by Mark Hurst

A New York Times article yesterday described Microsoft's work on the "Attentional User Interface," a piece of software designed to allow users "to reclaim the right to pay attention." As the article put it:

[The PC's] aging interface has allowed a deluge of electronic interruptions to cascade upon office workers with each new generation of technology, to the point that the telephone and potentially dozens of computer programs are now free to distract a person with impunity.

Though Microsoft is not the first to do so, Microsoft is absolutely right in identifying the new problem of technology. The age of the bit infinity is now beginning, in which users will increasingly demand some way to help sift through the bits that deluge them. E-mails, voice mails, IMs, and other bitstreams are just the beginning. Bits are virtually free and almost infinitely replicable, and their sheer number will continually lower the quality of any bitstream.

As bits increase in users' lives, users need to take more personal responsibility for their bits -- using good software, yes, but not by ceding responsibility to the software. The awareness of and responsibility for one's own bits is what I call "bit literacy." This process of bit literacy can make users effective, despite the increase in bits.

Microsoft's solution to the increase in bits, however, is at best risky and at worst misguided -- and it's definitely not bit literate. Instead of showing users a path to regain control of their tools and their lives, Microsoft has done the opposite: its solution is to let the software decide for the user what bits to engage at all.

The article gives this example: "One [application], called Lookout, automatically reads electronic mail messages and attempts to schedule requests for appointments and meetings." I'll admit that "Lookout" is indeed a very good name, considering how dangerous the software is. Who wants their software to take control of scheduling their calendar? (By the way, this all comes from the same group that created the Microsoft Office paper clip. Draw your own conclusion.)

Of course, it's hard to blame Microsoft for this strategy. More software means more profits. But as far as users (remember them?) are concerned, you can't simplify technology by adding yet more technology. Some version of Microsoft's new software might be helpful as a niche tool in occasionally running a filter on a bit stream, but nothing more. Users will have a simple bit experience only when they become bit literate. My goal is to help users find that path, and it doesn't require more complex software.

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