Saturday, July 27, 2013

Revenge of the Engineers

One of the functions of writing is to rid oneself of the burden of frustration.  One of the functions of reasoning is the same.  In my case, this post is one of my innumerable efforts to sublimate my naturally contentious and accusatory tone into something reasonable.  Please note I have avoided the f word.  Barely.

The reader may remember Ockam’s Razor, the rule that says that “among competing hypotheses, the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions should be selected. In other words, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one.”

Similar to this is Robert Heinlein’s own Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which can be reasonably explained by stupidity.”  Like Occam's Razor, this is a good rule to follow, I'm sure.  If you can.  We all remember Warren Burger as Chief Justice when the common question was, "Is he evil or is he stupid?"  Note that this is not a question applied to the current Chief Justice.  So Heinlein's Razor can at times be violated.

The case at hand is the typical state of consumer electronics instructions, which can be rightly understood to be "incomprehensible."  Heinlein is probably correct, but nonetheless, I have my own hypothesis.

This comes up for me today because  I am buying a new Toshiba machine to dub my old family VCR tapes onto DVD.  If you had no prior experience with electronics, you would think that the instructions would be straightforward.  Given our common experience, however, one's fondest hope is that we can put in the DVD, put in the VHS tape, push something that says “dub VHS onto DVD” and it will work, without need for instructions.  One knows, however, that it will not be so easy.  Certainly it will be nearly impossible to label the DVD’s except by physically writing on them with a Sharpie, a la Tyrell Owens. But that could be acceptable, not using all the machine's capabilities, if we can just get the basics to work.

Is it too fatalistic to think that the instructions will be useless or worse?  Here is a comment on this Toshiba from a customer in Amazon, when another customer wrote in to detail the advice he had gotten from Toshiba customer service: “Your instructions were about 100% more helpful than the 100 page instruction manual in about 10 easy steps. Thank You!!”

So the question is, trying to sublimate anger to understanding, why does this happen??  Heinlein would say, because the companies are stupid.  My wife would say, because they are translated from the original Japanese.  I find these explanations wanting.

Look at the market. One would think that, since the machines are all so similar, a company would figure out that writing excellent instructions would give them a market advantage.  But we have here, over many decades, a stable phenomenon of shitty instructions.  Something more must be at work.

Shenkin’s Theory of the Revenge of the Engineers violates Heinlein’s Razor in favor of an unspoken conspiracy.  Who are the engineers?  My general way of understanding the world is to reflect back to high school.  Remember our fellow students who are now engineers, who in high school (and college) could sometimes put a sentence together, but who could not put paragraphs together, and whose work for English or Social Studies was generally unreadable?  They might try, or not, but as good as they were in math and science, their frustration with the English language, or any other language, mounted and mounted until they gave up on the enterprise all together.  They thought, “It’s not me!  Why don’t the stupid English majors read what I write and understand and admire it?  It’s perfectly logical.”

Now turn these guys loose on the modern world of electronics.  They design them, and they are great.  Usually.  Steve Jobs looked at them and often said, "I can't make this thing work!  I can't understand it!"  That is what made Apple the company it is today.  The engineers can't put themselves in other people's shoes.  "It's their fault if they are stupid!" think the engineers.  Why can’t someone just look at machines and see intuitively how they should wor?.  Ask the engineer to explain it, and they are caught without words.  They just want to say, “Look!”  Given the incomprehension of non-engineers, why would they turn to the English language that has tortured them so much?  Why would they make things easy for people who actually understood word order, and who probably laughed at the engineers’ incomprehension of language?  Instead, it is the Revenge of the Engineers.  We have a great machine here that does incredible things.  Knock your heads against them and see what happens, while we laugh!

You have seen them laughing at us, haven’t you, as we struggle with this machine or that?  Sweet revenge, that’s all it is.

Of course, I also believe in conspiracies for the Kennedy assassinations.

Budd Shenkin

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