Setting My Ways

I’ve heard the possibly apocryphal advice that a person’s twenties are very important years in their life because those are the years when you effectively get “set in your ways,” when you develop the habits you’ll be living with for the rest of your life. As I’m a person who’s about to turn 27 whole years old, this has been on my mind lately. I’ve seen lots of people in their older years who are clearly set in their ways or their beliefs, who have no real inclination to change. What works for them will always continue to work for them.

If this is an inevitable part of aging, then I want to set myself in the best ways, with the best habits to carry me forward. Most of these habits will be personal, like taking good care of my health, keeping my body in good shape, and taking good care of my mind. But I think the most important habit for me is to always keep my mind learning, always changing and open to new ideas. That’s the most important habit I think I can develop over the next few years.

Keeping with this theme, I want to keep my mind open with technology as well. Already am I feeling it’s too easy to say “No, I’m not interested in that topic because how I do things works for me already,” mostly when it comes to technical things (I am loathe to use Auto Layout or write software for the Apple Watch). I don’t like to update my operating systems until I can no longer use any apps, because what I use is often less buggy than the newest release.

These habits I’m less concerned about because newer OS releases and newer APIs in many ways seem like a step backwards to me (although I realize this might just be a sign of me already set in my ways!). I’m more concerned about the way I perceive software in a more abstract way.

To me, “software” has always been something that runs as an app or a website, on a computer with a keyboard and mouse. As a longtime user of and developer for smartphones, I know software runs quite well on these devices as well, but it always feels subpar to me. In my mind, it’s hard to do “serious” kinds of work. I know iPhones and iPads can be used for creation and “serious” work, but I also know doing the same tasks typically done on a desktop are much more arduous on a touch screen.

Logically, I know this is a dead end. I know many people are growing up with smartphones as their only computer. I know desktops will seem ancient to them. I know in many countries, desktop computers are almost non-existent. I know there are people writing 3000 word school essays and I know these sorts of things will only increase over time. But it defies my common sense.

There are all kinds of ideas foreign to my common sense coming out of mobile software these days. Many popular apps in China exist in some kind of text messaging / chat user interface and messaging in general is changing the way people are interacting with the companies and services providing their software in other places, too. Snapchat is a service I haven’t even tried to understand, but they are rethinking how videos work on a mobile phone, while John Herrman at The Awl describes a potential app-less near-future.

As long as I hold on to my beliefs that software exists as an app or website on a device with a keyboard and mouse, I’m doomed to living in a world left behind.

I’ve seen it happen to people I respect, too. I love the concept of Smalltalk (and I’ll make smalltalk about Smalltalk to anyone who’ll listen) but I can’t help but feel it’s a technological ideal for a world that no longer exists. In some ways, it feels like we’ve missed the boat on using a computer as a powerful means of expression instead what we got is a convenient means of entertainment.

My point isn’t really about any particular trend. My point is to remind myself that what “software” is is probably always going to remain in flux, tightly related to things like social change or the way of the markets. Software evolves and changes over time, but that evolution doesn’t necessarily line up with progress, it’s just different.

Alan Kay said the best way to predict the future is to invent it. But I think you need to understand that the future’s going to be different, first.

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