Lost in Password Hell on the Unfriendly Web…

Don’t get me wrong, I love the web, the biggest treasury of human knowledge — and misinformation — ever assembled at everyone’s fingertips.

And then there are passwords, user id’s, identity thieves, phishing scams, and flashing ads that follow my browser wherever I go.

It’s the Unfriendly Web. You’ve heard about the Dark Web? This is the User-Unfriendly Web. The User-Unfriendly web uses all the tricks psychologists know that human beings find hard, time-wasting, awkward and expensive.

Like memorizing long sequences of arbitrary numbers.

Like making difficult decisions under time pressure — my commercial bank website kicks me out after a few minutes of inactivity.

Like using different combinations of #,$, numbers, spaces, and forbidden characters every time you have to think of another password.

Far too often, I feel like a slave of the machine. It’s easy enough to set up interfaces that put human beings at a fundamental disadvantage. Just give us long strings of arbitrary numbers, and make us memorize them before we can buy a product, use a bank, verify our identity.

User-friendly computing was developed soon after the first PC’s came out, by a team of cognitive psychologists at Xerox Lab, Palo Alto, who found that visual metaphors based on familiar, everyday objects were instantly usable by ordinary people who are not engineers. The mouse works like a hand, picking up documents and moving them, dropping them in the wastebasket, and so on. Instead of computer programming you just navigate to a location in your visible folder stack, grab a file or a folder, and drag it to a convenient place. You never have to know the memory address or a line of code.

Easy as pie.

Apple got a head start on the competition by adopting the familiar “desktop plus files and folders” interface from the bottom up.

You’d think that Apple’s success with visual metaphors would be picked up by every device maker in the world. There’s nothing to memorize, everything is familiar, and kids take to it early on.

The scientific principles of user-friendly computing are simple: Computers should interact with human beings according to human psychology — not in the language familiar to engineers.  It works like a charm.

In the Friendly Web you might think that all webware would follow those principles.


Enter Password Hell, a system that is designed by machines, for machines, and of machines, without ever being touched by human minds. Or so it seems.

The main rationale for the User-Unfriendly Web seems to be to defeat cheaters and hackers. On top of the bad guys stealing millions of dollars in software, the cops around the world started to shut precious information behind high walls of complexity. That game of cops and robbers is still going on, as you know, so that our precious privacy as individuals is very much under attack. We tend to think of hackers as kids having a little nasty fun. They are not. They are thieves and robbers who are threatening to destroy all the wonderful things the Open Web has to offer.

As a result, a billion web users are caught up in trying to memorize random passcodes that need to be changed often enough to fool sophisticated hackers. Which is more often than you and I can remember them.

Decades of research show that the human mind goes for highly patterned, familiar, rule-governed chunks of information. Like the words and grammar of natural language, for example. Or like the Apple desktop.

To get people thoroughly confused, all you need is the opposite: Instead of highly patterned information, like a red folder icon on a blue desktop, use completely arbitrary patterns that keep changing.

The human brain has nothing to hold onto in that kind of information environment.

Random patterns are not familiar, and they can’t be simplified by a rule, like the natural numbers. On the User Unfriendly Web our hands can’t be used naturally, the way a mouse can control a cursor on a screen. Visual and auditory information can’t be easily combined, the way we do when watching a saxophone player on YouTube.

AND — humans go for emotional and motivating information. We love kitty pictures, because they look like babies. A specific network in our temporal lobes responds to baby faces. Women (and men) who have baby-shaped faces have an advantage in life.

Advertisers use the promise of sex, power and prestige to sell things. Colored clays for body decoration have been mined for 200,000 years. Beads made from shells for necklaces were traded over hundreds of miles in Africa, where humans originated. The Sioux Amerindians changed their (male) fashion costumes every year, like the modern fashion industry in New York and Paris, because novelty is also a big, big deal to attract our attention.

Since ads can’t give you sexual pleasure, power or prestige, they peddle empty promises of pleasure and power. It is a perfect demonstration of the Indian concept of “maya” — the power of appearance without reality — of all the advertising promises in the world.

In the User Friendly Web, all those basic rules of human attention and memory would work FOR the users.

In the User Unfriendly Web those same rules are used to work AGAINST us.

Password Hell is just one example of the trend.

Professor Donald A. Norman has been promoting user-friendly computing for decades. He has won quite a few victories for all of us. But today’s Gold Rush for web power has now left user friendly computing in the dust.

If the web is to fulfill its promise to become the greatest tool for universal education and communication, we must find our way back to Friendly Computation for humans, not the other way around.

I understand that Web companies can’t survive if they are victimized by the latest gang of hackers from Russia or China. Or America.

We think of hackers as kids having fun. But they are ruining the User Friendly web for a billion other people. So far, the hackers and counter-hackers have only succeeded in ruining the fun for the rest of us.

There has to be a better way.

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