Technology / Computers / 

04 Nov 2009

Dijkstra: On "Users"

From the notes of Professor Edsger W. Dijkstra, 1985-04-03:

The computer user, as functioning in the development of computer products, is not a real person of flesh and blood but a literary figure, the creation of literature, rather poor literature.

15 years ago I noticed that Dutch computer scientists developing products, when talking of the needs of the user would use—in the middle of a Dutch sentence—the American word “user”, which of course is perfectly translatable, as you and I both know. Our cigarette packages have English on them as well… but then I discovered that in spite of their Anglophobia, the word user is perfect French. Then I discovered that it is also perfect Russian and the two of us also know more Japanese than you think. Well the mere fact that that little word is not translated, but it is taken over as a foreign body, in Dutch, French, Russian and Japanese discussions, means that it has lost its original meaning.

Now, if you start to analyze the many character traits of that literary figure, you discover that he is most uninspiring. He is stupid, education-resistant if not education-proof, and he hates any form of intellectual demand made on him, he cannot be delighted by something beautiful, because he lacks the education to appreciate beauty.

Large sections of computer science are paralyzed by accepting this moron as their typical customer. Rare are the computer companies that are prepared to make a Mercedes, the high quality product for the discerning customer. As it turns out, particularly in the USA, mathematics is the pinnacle of user unfriendliness, if you read the catalogs of text book publishers, then it is quite clear that the major recommendation that they give a book is that it is a-mathematical, that it does not require mathematical knowledge, etc. So, user friendliness is, among other things, the cause of a frantic effort to hide the fact that eo ipso computers are mathematical machines.

Sometimes I wonder what Dijkstra’s ideal personal computer would look like, and how many years it would take to learn to use it.