The Productivity Fallacy
Technology tends to serve one of two purposes - to make us more efficient at some task, or to entertain us in our resulting free time. However, when we fixate on productivity to the exclusion of everything else, we often forget about the big picture. Perhaps the best example of this are people insisting that real coders need to use Vim to be productive due to it’s unmatched text editing powers.
This is totally absurd. I spend maybe 10% of my time actually writing code, 30% debugging that code, and the remaining 60% trying to solve a problem. Even if I could write all my code instantly, I have only improved my productivity by 10%. I’ve found that changing my code patterns to let me catch bugs faster and earlier has had a much more significant impact on my coding speed, because taking a chunk out of 30% has a much greater effect on my overall productivity.
But what about the 60%? I’m sure I could make some of that go away with more powerful visualization tools and intense mental training, but when I hit a problem that’s simply really hard to solve, nothing short of a cybernetic implant that makes my brain bigger is going to make a dent in how much time I spend thinking about something unless I want to make a stupid mistake and regret it later.
The issue that’s arising from our hyperproductive tools is that our productivity is beginning to outstrip our ability to think. We are so productive we can’t think fast enough to utilize it. Vim may be the most amazing text editor ever, but it doesn’t matter because I spend more time thinking than I do actually editing text. We’re so focused on making everyone super productive we seem to forget that we are beginning to receive diminishing returns from some of our efforts.
One consequence of this is that, obviously, we should be focusing on tools to help us think faster. We need to do profiling of people’s lives to find the chokepoints and focus on those instead of doing the equivalent of micro-optimizations in C code that’s only called every 5 minutes. That, however, does not concern me. What does concern me is the repeated mistakes futurists make when attempting to predict the future of technology.
This Microsoft video is a superb example of good technology predictions implemented in the worst way possible. The entire video treats human beings as machinery that needs to complete various tasks in the quickest way possible, instead of recognizing that human beings are, in fact, people. Many of the human interactions feel fake because all the interactions are treated simply as tasks that must be completed efficiently, regardless of how beneficial the time saved actually is. Productivity is not important, the way it feels is important.
Futuristic architecture often makes this same mistake, creating cold, bland environments that, while they do feel futuristic, are not things anyone would want to live or work in. We need environments that feel warm, inviting, and natural. When building futuristic environments, we must be extremely careful about where the future is peeking in, because there is such a thing as too much future in one room.
We make things look like wood simply because we like how wood looks, not because we need to build anything out of wood anymore. We like trees growing around our houses. We make our lights look like the sun instead of actually being white. We are constantly making arbitrary choices that have nothing to do with productivity and everything to do with making us feel comfortable. Until designers recognize this and stop sucking the life out of everything in an effort to make it more “productive”, they will inevitably be shunned in favor of slightly less efficient, but more inviting designs.
Design is an optimization problem that must maximize both productivity and feel, not one or the other. Some people actually like color in their IDEs and webpages that consist of more than flat text, faint lines and whitespace.