Technology is a Second Language
Do you realise you’re already bilingual?
Unless you’ve stepped out of an underground bunker in your retro 70’s flared dungarees and Mork & Mindy backpack whistling a BeeGees hit, you’ve been surrounded by an increasing level of technology like the rest of us.
From your first VCR, to the communications and entertainment device in your pocket, technology has changed the way we experience the world at large. But each new advancement in technology brings its own set of unique aspects, features, and challenges that we need to navigate.
First… A History Lesson
Let’s take the humble modern telephone. When adopted into mass-market you had to remember a short string of four or five numbers to call your friends and family members. Telephones during this time were all similar. A dialler, a receiver, and the ‘switchhook’. But as the technology grew new features like area codes and special buttons were introduced, forcing the user to adapt to a new way of being.
Move ahead another few decades and the first mobile devices become available commercially, but cost restricted its availability to corporates, large businesses, and the ultra-wealthy.
Consumer adoption of GSM mobile cellular networks brought with it a cascade of manufacturers who were attempting to release advanced device features while positioning to dominate the market.
This introduced new paradigms in the telephony experience, the most visible being a screen and software.
You now had an address book, no need to write down or remember phone numbers, fancy ringtones, and some on the go light entertainment.
The progress hasn’t slowed since. Most of us carry portable computing platforms everyday which would see Alan Turing boggle at their sheer complexity.
A Language Gap
Although we don’t speak in the ones and zeroes our technological companions do, it’s through interstitial layers of interface and inferred meaning that we commune with them.
Just like when learning a second spoken or written language we have to learn to think in a different manner when interacting with a new piece of technology.
Thankfully, like language, how we interact with our devices is iterative by nature.
Language forms in layers over time. From a simple need for shared understanding between two differing groups springs new language. Over time the language develops as the need to communicate widens. Sounds and marks meaning “This object is a spoon” build to form nuanced inferences like “This spoon is made of metal”.
Human-technology interfaces are much the same, albeit much faster to adopt. When picking up a new smartphone a user becomes adept at being able operate its basic functions. First as a phone and text messenger, but rapidly a productivity and entertainment platform. Without any effort a user can identify a button and understands when pressed it will illicit an effect. When the button contains an icon representative of a remembered feature the user comprehends the button press relates to that feature.
This experience is a learned understanding of patterns of design present in modern software.
Millions of hours of research into Human-Computer Interaction has been performed to understand how humans interact with devices and each year this research is further advanced. Combining fields such as computer and behavioural science, cognition, interface and graphic design, and many others serve to develop and curate the interfaces we use every day.
Continued exploration in to the way humans use and interact with technology allows us to build intuitive experiences. With this at the core of interface design the use of devices becomes instinctual and expected rather than bespoke and adhoc.
Elements of Language
In human terms, language exists in many forms.
We often think of language as the written and spoken word, but gestures, body positioning, micro-interactions, haptics (touch), habitual conditioning, and learned response are all important in a language. Layering of these elements helps us communicate our meaning effectively to one another.
In technology, a similar layering of interface occurs.
Think about when you receive a text message. Your phone may make a sound, it most likely vibrates, assuredly it illuminates its screen. Before you’ve even picked up your device the combination of auditory, haptic, and visual stimulus has informed you through persistent habitual conditioning that you’ve received a text message.
When you use a website it’s primarily a visual medium. Colour, shape, and movement combine to provide you with a design you can interpret, and most importantly attach meaning. Sound and interactivity are increasingly used to create richer experiences for the user.
User interfaces utilise habitual conditioning and expected outcome to infer meaning, building upon the prior experience of users aiming to be more intuitive.
It’s through this layered approach that we interact with technology and through understanding and shared meaning allowed us to perform complex tasks.
A Lifetime of Experiences
I’ve just turned 39 so I scrape in right at the end of being in the Gen X generation (but perhaps a little Gen Y) and lucky enough to have been born during the early days of our current technological wave.
I entered the fray with an Amstrad CPC 464 as my first computing experience. Little more than a keyboard, a tape drive, and 64kb of ram in 8-bit glory.
I have fond memories as a child dropping an audio cassette into its tape drive and hitting play. The CPC would play the data as audio as it spooled into the tiny piece of memory counting from 000 to 999 as it went. A sound that was more grating than an old modem dialling into a local ISP. Four minutes later a program would be loaded in all its glory, processor humming along at a blistering 4 MHz.
My family was featured in the local newspaper as we were one of the first to own a home computer in our area. I still remember the grainy black and white photo of my parents and I crowded around the fourteen-inch CRT screen, a wide grin on my face at the possibilities this new technology afforded.
A few years later the poor Amstrad became obsolete and we moved onto the Amiga 500. “It has twice the bits!” I remember the computer store pitch to my parents at a computer users meeting.
With enhanced 16-bit graphics and dedicated sound, the Amiga was a powerhouse. I cut my teeth on my first computing language AmigaDOS. I loved it. Everything felt a little mystical when I entered in a string of arcane codes with meaning I was yet to grasp and watched the computer that was more friend than machine react. Hell I could even 3D model on that beast!
I had some damn good times with that Amiga 500. It still holds a special place in my heart.
When high school came around it was time to let go of the Amiga and move into a PC clone. An Intel 486sx-25, 4MB of RAM and a 120MB hard drive.
Barely awake by today’s computing standards.
I remember I could choose to either have Windows 3.1 and some small applications and games, or wipe it all and install the blockbuster hit MechWarrior 2.
You can imagine which won out… (Mechwarrior 2 has an amazing soundtrack btw)
Over the next decade or so I built and rebuilt my machine many times, upgraded it with more RAM and expanded its capability. During this time I learned to code in simple DOS Batch language, and could custom modify my system.
Without going any further, you can probably see where I’m going here. I’ve had a life time of experiences to build up my proficiencies in the language of technology. To me technology is second nature. With the knowledge I’ve gained I can approach any technology with a “lets see what this thing can really do” attitude.
My pathway isn’t unique, and though I’ve had more in-depth experiences, what differs me from another boils down to one simple thing.
The Benefit of Exposure
Much like when being exposed to a new language when young, being suckled at the teat of the digital world provides a significant leg up to approach technology without fear and trepidation.
For the older generations of our parents and grandparents, digital technology has been a bolt on experience. Without early exposure, the building blocks of understanding aren’t as easily formed among these age groups. That isn’t to say they can’t acquire an understanding or the knowledge required, only that the difficulty curve is much higher.
Just like learning German in your thirties.
When learning a language you’ll grasp simple words and phrases. The word for spoon (Löffel), how to count to five (eins, zwei, drei, vier, fünf), how to order a coffee (Ich hätte genre einen Kaffee, Bitte). But the need to derive a further understanding of the language becomes apparent when you’d like to ask a question or attempt more complex phrasing.
So the next time a person of an older generation asks how to post a selfie on Facebook and you roll your eyes, remember that its likely they haven’t had the same experience of technology that you’ve natively grown with from an early age.
Because you know technology is your second language.
About the author:
Tim King is a writer and designer living in Australia. He’s also the Founder of WIREHEAD, a Medium publication covering topics of Cyberpunk, Transhumanism, and Futurism.