Tuesday, December 13

You Wrongheaded Fool: Torvalds on GNOME

Yesterday Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, flamed a major user-interface component of Linux desktops (a part for which he is not responsible) for being not configurable enough. He said "If you think your users are idiots, only idiots will use it." (Links to the primary sources are in this Slashdot article.)

I cannot begin to tell you how angry that statment makes me.

You already know how I feel about interface simplicity; the idea that anyone would listen to one of the fourteen people on the planet to have WRITTEN AN OPERATING SYSTEM IN HIS SPARE TIME on the matter of what constitutes a good user interface is laughable. Not only is Linus not an expert on user-interface quality, but his opinions on user interfaces, as exemplified by the quote above, are (1) wrongheaded (2) based on incorrect assumptions and (3) damaging to advancement of Linux. Configurability is, to some extent, important; that said, interfaces that work before their users spend 45 minutes grovelling through dialog boxes are more important. The first corollary to Arthur C. Clarke's law, "Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic", is "Technology distinguishable from magic is insufficiently advanced". I never want to have to think about the user interfaces I use; I want them to melt into the background, diligently working to make my day as effortless as possible. The more time I have to spend thinking about my interface, the less time I have to spend actually doing productive work -- and I'd argue that's true of everyone. The fact is that Torvalds' perception of computers has been tragically warped by thirty years of close proximity to their deepest internals. He thinks it's normal to spend hours customizing interfaces; when he learned computers, you had to do all that stuff yourself, so he developed truly idiosyncratic ways of doing things. He's trapped in his own experiences.

But that doesn't mean we should listen to him. In fact, it's an excellent reason for us not to.


oz said...

fraxas, i am not sure if your anger is really justified, and attacking his credibility is probably not the right way to argue this.

question: if some interface is not melting away for a power user, who is lazy, impatient but very, very smart, would your first suspect be your power user?

trapped in experiences: that is a very interesting observation...

btw, he is re-using a quote from earlier days of system design [now attributed to murphy, but that is wrong]: "Build a system that even a fool can use, and only a fool will want to use it."

Fraxas said...

Whether my anger is justified, it's real. And I do feel strongly that attitudes like Torvalds' and like the misattributed-to-Murphy quote you mention hold back the state of the art of design. They're elitist (which isn't always a bad thing) and untrue (which really, really is.) I'd argue I'm not attacking Linus' credibility -- I'm pointing out that he holds opinions that damage his credibility. That system-design quote is as wrong as "the sky is green". It's not just untrue, it's pernicious. It leads to bad design.

On another note, I'm not sure I understand your question. I do assert that interfaces that don't "melt away" for the Lazy, or the Impatient, or the Stupid, regardless of their other attributes, are flawed. In this case, I'm not so much attacking Linus' attack on GNOME, I'm attacking his reasoning.

oz said...

oh dear.

you write [eg] "the idea that anyone would listen to [linus] on the matter of what constitutes a good user interface is laughable." this is not an argument; it is an attempt to discredit. it is known as "you can hardly talk" reply. it is not a refutation, but an insult.

you know, i agree that many sound bites of conventional wisdom, like the one linus picked up, are very annoying; they often carry little meaning and value while pretending otherwise. on the other hand, a dispassionate analysis [and perhaps refutation] of such statements is always a good exercise; one you could well have provided...

thanks for the space to comment.