The Plight of the Power User

VP of Operations, Opreto

2 minute read

The 1980s. A simpler time, when hair was big, music was loud, and computer interfaces were… well, let’s just say they weren’t exactly what you’d call user friendly. Unless, of course, you were one of the chosen few. The elite. The engineers and the proto-geeks. For some of us born at the cusp of the digital dawn, the call to wield that power was irresistible.

In those days, computers were still sufficiently arcane that conjuring buxom women, hacking land yacht races, and triggering global thermonuclear war were all plausibly within the domain of the initiated teen. Their UIs—BASIC on a home computer, the UNIX shell on a terminal at the local university—was about as welcoming as a secret society’s handshake. They were cryptic, esoteric, and utterly fascinating. Designed by engineers for engineers, these interfaces were a test. Pass, and you were in the club. Fail, and well, maybe a typewriter was more your speed.

And so we, the early adopters, the tinkerers, the ones already predisposed to thinking like engineers, gravitated toward these UIs. We became not just users but acolytes of a digital priesthood, wielding commands like spells, accessing powers that the lay user could scarcely dream of. It was a golden age for the power user, a time when flexibility and capability were limited only by one’s skill and imagination.

But, as with all golden ages, it came to an end. The 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s each saw their own seismic shift in UI philosophy. As computers moved from the fringes to the center of everyday life, interfaces became increasingly “streamlined” for the general user. This isn’t simply a matter of text commands being replaced by equivalent point-and-click icons and menus: today’s UIs actively hide functionality from the user, simplifying the most common workflows but making the rest more difficult or even impossible.

This new era of design democracy has come with a price tag for the power user. The very flexibility and raw capability that had been our playground is now fenced off, deemed too dangerous for the general public. We engineers, in our quest to universalize computing, have become victims of our own success. We have inadvertently exiled ourselves.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for making technology accessible. But as we’ve streamlined and simplified, we’ve lost something of value. The high cost of developing, maintaining, documenting, and supporting multiple interfaces means that most products cater to the lowest common denominator. And so, the power user is left holding a beautifully polished but ultimately less powerful tool.

My 2011 Ford Fiesta is running excellently for the moment, but I imagine when it eventually expires, the next car won’t have a manual transmission. Most North American cars for regular drivers just aren’t sold with them anymore. That’s the feeling I get from modern applications made for regular people: the only choice is the dumb Fisher Price safety-foam interface.

I’m no Luddite. Particularly as a software developer, I’ve enjoyed many modern rafts like minds have built in this sea of simplicity. I can’t say enough good things about VS Code, for example. But overall, the fact remains: in the quest to make technology universal, we’ve ironed out the wrinkles that made it so intriguing.

So here’s to the pipe and the redirect, to regular expressions and job control, to the days when using a computer felt like a conversation with the machine, rather than just tapping on a piece of glass to navigate whatever cattle run the A/B tests found most profitable. In a world obsessed with ease of use, let’s not forget the joy of mastery.