Why is making software smarter “dumbing it down”?

Shortly after I first arrived in the USA, I was teaching some Final Cut Pro classes for Intelligent Media. It was just before Final Cut Pro 2 was released, which I had been beta testing for some months, but 1.2.5 was the release version we were teaching. At that time it was challenging for new users to get settings right, particularly getting a good match between Capture and Sequence settings, so the first half day was dedicated to teaching settings and making sure they were right. It was personally frustrating because I knew that the about-to-be-releaseed version was much smarter about settings.

As it turns out, Final Cut Pro 2 was released early the next morning, so the first thing I had to do in that second day of class was tell my students that what we had learned the day before was no longer relevant for version 2 because the software had become smarter, and that made it easier for people to use Final Cut Pro and no doubt contributed to its success.

There is an inevitable trend with technology (at least) that starts with something being difficult: it requires a specialist operator with scarce craft skills. Think about how challenging a Model T Ford would have been compared to a modern motor vehicle. To drive a car – even as late as when I was growing up in the 50’s – you really needed to have some pretty good mechanic skills as well. Cars still had crank slots in my youth in Australia! A driver really should have known something about timing, cleaning spark plugs, tightening (or replacing) fan belts and more. Not to forget the joy of manual chokes and manual gearboxes.

Zip forward a few years and we have the modern motor vehicle, which in most cases not only does not need the amateur mechanic to constantly fiddle, they make them almost impossible. But I don’t hear the massively enlarged group of drivers complaining about how operating a car has become “dumbed down”. I’ve certainly heard drivers who enjoyed tinkering complain, but not the average user/driver.

Configuring my first Media 100 system required skills I did not have: they were embedded in the reseller who knew the magic combination of drivers that worked, because there were conflicts and the setups were “fragile”. Enter Final Cut Pro and DV and, if you worked within those limits, there were many fewer conflicts – it mostly “just worked”. These days we add storage and hardware cards to our computers that “just works” with little chance of failure (most of the time). I distinctly remember that the VARs were not happy selling Final Cut Pro because it required a lot less involvement from the VAR: there wasn’t the value needing to be added by a Value Added Reseller! (Now there are still complex systems that require the input from experts to choose and configure, but for stand alone systems most people don’t need the VAR.)

The software and computers have become smart enough that the (then essential) role of the expert is needed much less.

Cars get smarter and require fewer “craft skills” from drivers; computers have grown up and require fewer interventions from experts, and most people consider these good things. People who aren’t mechanics or VARs I guess (which describes most of us).

So it puzzles me when one of the common criticisms of Final Cut Pro X is that it “dumbs down” the need for specialist knowledge or craft skills. It does this by making the software smarter and less prone to “user error” with mixed frame rates, frame sizes and Sequence settings. I’m sure there are skilled editors who pride themselves on managing all this without realizing it’s all workarounds! We are just more comfortable with the workarounds we know and use, than with new workarounds.

If you follow that thought, Media Composer has always been more “dumbed down” than Final Cut Pro! My cohort in The Terence and Philip Show and Lead Dog at Alpha Dogs once said that Final Cut Pro should only be used by skilled professionals because it is so flexible it lets you get yourself into trouble, whereas Media Composer wouldn’t let you get into trouble by (for the longest time) supporting only their own media format, forcibly managing media in its own way and keeping track of every Timecode reference the media walked past! He has a point.

So, Final Cut Pro X does what every technology does: moves from the realm of the specialist, skilled crafstperson out into the wider group of people who need smarter tools that won’t let them get into trouble. A skilled mechanic bemoans the fact that they can’t tinker with modern cars, and race-car drivers have very different needs than the average driver, there are those who need a fine-tuned vehicle, the general purpose vehicle that requires no knowledge of how the engine works in order to drive for pleasure or in fact to drive for a living. No special skills or knowledge needed. We’re not *there* yet with video editing but we’re heading there.

For those who want to tinker, or need a race car, the smarter “dumbing down” software is a threat or at best as useless as a Smart Car on a race track. But for everyone else – the vast majority of drivers – the dumbed down modern car is a big improvement.

This is simply part of a much larger trend: video production as a form of literacy, the use of templates or presets (the subject of the next Terence and Philip Show), cameras that are more sensitive and need less lighting (or none for No Reservations who no longer light thanks to the sensitivity of their Sony PM2-F3s) and decent quality production is accessible and affordable to many more people. Exactly as every technology in history has done, and every technology in the future will do.

There are many more ways that our tools will become automated. And like the trend in automobiles those who want to get in under the hood and tinker – or feel they need that level of control of their vehicle – will be disappointed, frustrated and annoyed, just as we’ve seen with some people’s responses to the “dumbing down” (by making it smarter) of editing in Final Cut Pro X. Apple may have been relatively late to the metadata party (Avid and Adobe being way ahead for many years in flexible metadata handling) but one way Apple have gone beyond the others is in the use of Inferred Metadata.

As well as the work-in-progess inferred shot type (inferred from the analysis of the size and position of faces, itself Derived Metadata) I have discovered that they use a lot of Inferred metadata in the ColorSync workflow. (A comprehensive article on the use of ColorSync in Final Cut Pro X is coming, but it’s a lot of research even with help from Apple.)

There will, of course, be those who need to see every frame, to “touch” the media and to use the tools that give them the control they need, and there are great choices for them. Thanks to the dumbing down of the skillset needed by making the software smarter more people can reach their creative goals. And I think that’s a good thing.

22 replies on “Why is making software smarter “dumbing it down”?”

Leave a Comment
  1. Video production skills are becoming much like literacy. Something that everyone has the bare-bone knowledge of.

    Reading and writing is a common skill but it does not make everyone a great novelist. Democratizing of the tools is fantastic but there will always be a skill barrier.

    The best comparison I can think of is how the pen and pad allow for anyone(with the base level of literacy) to write (essay, letter etc.) in the same way a cell phone and iMovie allow for many people to produce video.

    Making a great literary work requires specific knowledge and skills. Video production is the same way. Just because someone can shoot a high resolution image and string it together doesn’t make them a great filmmaker/director/editor/producer/etc.

    I believe a skill barrier will always exist between those who learn the specialized skills and those who only need the bare-bones knowledge to pass by.

    1. Absolutely. I’ve been writing that production is another form of literacy for a very long time. We even did a Terence and Philip Show on the subject. You’re right that ther will be a barrier between those who learn the specialized skills and those who just do the job, but that value will continually decrease and the specialist will become even more of a niche than it is now.

      1. Phil you replied to a comment I made on one of your other posts. I could not find any way to reply or make a comment so I am posting here. You said you would like to see the commercial I created. The one that sold so many television and video sets in a rent-to-own store that they had to pull the commercial. Here is a link to the site on Youtube.com:
        If you perfer you can search on youtube – enter “Parsecsam” in the search window to get to my channel – it is on the second page. Hope you enjoy it.

        1. Thanks. Right now for some reason YouTube standard resolution plays black for me; HD plays OK. Probably need to do a restart or something, then get back to catch up on a couple of videos, including yours.

  2. I feel like most, if not nearly all, of the users that bemoan the dumbing down of FCP 10 are, to continue your car analogy, in the professional race car field. For many (I dare say most) driving situations it’s very convenient to have a car that doesn’t require an external crank to start but for, say, IndyCar or F1 the starter would just be unnecessary bulk and weight so a pneumatic crank is used.

    I always look for more efficient workflows but a simplified workflow isn’t necessarily a more efficient workflow if it removes or unduly inhibits the ability to be flexible and adapt to different situations.

    I think this ultimately comes back to the question of who is the target audience of FCP 10.

    1. Absolutely.

      Or put differently, FCP is a construction vehicle. Heavy duty with lots of levers & knobs that let the operator fine tune every aspect of the process.

      Apple came out with a little Bobcat that automates several processes, doesn’t do others, completely changed the controls, and they showed it to the gritty construction worker used to operating an Komatsu, and he (as well as us) balked. By naming it FCP-10, they implied it was just the new version of what they were used to operating.

      I have no problem with iMovie, and iMovie Pro.
      I agree that video literacy is growing. I actually have no problem with that. I encourage it and have taught video editing at the college level myself.

      But your article is flawed by mixing the video literacy issue and trying to imply that FCPx is just as good and capable as the high-end professional tools. If it were just about FCP getting smarter and adding the new people detection, shot detection, grouping, color adjustment and other tools to FCP, that would, I think , be welcomed by the professionals.

      But when you take half their controls away, completely change the way the equipment operates, add several new and innovative features that none of the users of FCP ever asked for, and say it’s the same exact professional tool, then you’d have to be dumb to think it’s anything but an insult.

      1. That’s exactly what the modern motor vehicle has done – taken away the controls and changed how the equipment operated. This makes it better suited to the vast majority of those who are editing video as part of their professional life. That’s where FCP X shines. Making a tool for the niche “high end pro” is a losing proposition for any NLE company as the market is too small. As I’ve clearly established in previous posts.

      2. Since this needs to be made absolutely clear. I do not mind opinion being posted here, but you’ll be shot down by me if you don’t support it with some factual basis. Everyone has opinions, but they are pretty much worthless unless you are prepared to support them with factual basis. Opinion will never change my mind, but a clear statement of fact does frequently change my mind.

  3. I agree – those who are finding FCP X doesn’t fit their workflow needs are more akin to the race car driver. But they are specialized tools and car manufacturers make their money from the millions who buy ordinary cars. Those car companies with a racing team, those teams are a financial drag, not a profit center for the company, but useful for PR value.

    Designing a car for race car drivers would make it a very unsuitable car for the majority of us.

  4. What is the audience benefit from a safer video with better mileage?

    Take enough decisions out of the hands of your driver and eventually you are on a bus.

  5. A bus is a different experience. The only time that analogy would be relevant is if the software created an edit that wasn’t what you wanted. And other than my software, software isn’t creating edits.

  6. Yes..but in the end (if you stick with car analogy) it’s always about “the ride” or the edit. Somehow between the age of the Steenbeck/upright Moviola/vintage Sony Edit Controllers/Grass Valley Switchers and the advent of the NLE, it became more about the technical aspects of the process instead of the end result. Remember how old school editors were freaked out about the first Avids or Lightworks. Now, I like to “tinker around the hood” like the next guy but sometimes we can get caught up in the tinker. So, if FCP X enables a lot of editors to focus on the story again, I’m all for it.

  7. BTWm U did not say the FCP X was suitable for what you call “high end Pros”. FCP X is NOT suitable for niche workflows in studio film and broadcast TV. Not yet, and maybe never.

    However it is a great tool for the vast majority of professionals who edit as some part of their professional life. All the workers that I listed in the “Who is FCP X for” article.

  8. I believe some editors really think they must use complicated tools to create compelling stories and visuals. That does not make sense.
    It’s the lack of understanding how this new type of car works, without any mileage driving it. The software is actually pretty deep.
    I love the high end market. I worked there for years. Simple & smart always worked better for me.

  9. I feel like everyone seems to agree that FCP 10 has taken a departure from recent versions of FCP and is not targeted at Group Z and it is Group Z that has been most vocal in its disappointment w/FCP 10. So I kind of question the point of this blog post. To me it seems obvious why Group Z is put off. It’s not about fear of smarter tools, it’s about tools that don’t fit the job at hand.

    To keep the car analogy going, someone driving in F1 isn’t going to be happy getting their car replaced w/a more consumer friendly, street legal car because that type of car isn’t going to help them win F1 races. That doesn’t mean that there’s anything inherently wrong w/consumer friendly cars or that the F1 driver is being an elitist. It just means that the new tool isn’t as good as the old tool for the things the F1 driver needs to do.

    Also, Philip, why do you think making niche tools is a losing proposition?

  10. I think a large company – Apple, Adobe, Avid – who relied on the high end alone would have to fund R&D Marketing, etc from the 25,500 people who are employed as “film and TV editors” in the US. Even allowing a market of 100,000 in that area worldwide, that’s not enough income to fund the sort of development that is required to create a tool like Media Composer etc.

    Which car company survives on producing F1 cars as their only business? In most cases the F1 investment is a marketing cost to sell the lesser vehicles that most people drive.

    I’ve had so many people actively comment that they “don’t want the software doing anything for them” so I think my comment is valid. Read through the comments around the launch of FCP X and see what I mean. 🙂

    Now small companies – like ours – can make niche tools because we don’t have to fund office space, secretaries, etc. We can make a tool for a couple of hundred people and make that profitable. Apple, Adobe, Avid, do not make niche tools. Autodesk does and they cost serious $$$ compared with the mainstream offerings.

    Even Avid is not relient on it’s NLE income which makes up only 13% of consolidated net revenue, and that already comes from 3-4 times more sales than there are “pros”.

  11. I’ve always considered Apple the odd-man-out when talking about Adobe, Apple and Avid. Adobe and Avid, to me, are companies focused on professional markets (be it graphic arts, web design, news rooms or feature films) that dabble with consumer oriented products where as Apple is more consumer oriented first and foremost.

    Even if companies like Autodesk, Nuke and Assimilate don’t offer inexpensive products I don’t think that means their business model isn’t viable. As long as their customers see value in the price they pay then the companies should be able to stick around.

    Like most analogies, our car one is starting to fall apart the more we move past superficial comparisons. Red Bull’s team is obviously there for pure marketing as Red Bull doesn’t make cars, but other teams like McLaren, Lotus, Ferrari, Mercedes and Renault do make street legal cars. Of course Renault is the only one on that list that wouldn’t qualify as a luxury or exotic car maker (and in the case of McLaren they only made 64 street legal versions of the McLaren F1 ‘super car’). I think the bottom line is that these companies find value ventures such as F1 even if they aren’t cash cows.

    Every established market seems to have tiers such as budget, good, better and best and I don’t see why there is no room for this in post production.

    I can’t speak for everyone, but I like having my software do stuff for me as long as I have in depth input into what it’s doing and how it’s doing it if I so choose. I’m not against autopilot per se but I am against getting rid of the option for manual control (to introduce yet another analogy!).

  12. I think the relevant point would be that none of the companies sponsoring F1 cars sell the same product to their consumers.

    Get used to losing manual control. You’ve lost it with choke already in the car! And control over gear unless you select a stick shift.

    The inevitable direction is more automation with no over-ride. And that will be whichever tool you choose, not just Apple’s.

  13. The relevant point is reciprocal though. Renault isn’t going to race a compact sedan in F1 nor are they going to mass produce a street legal version of their F1 car.

    There are cars for professional race car drivers (from Sprint Car to ProAm to F1) and there are cars for everyday driving. Trying to sell a product geared towards Group A to Group B or vice versa isn’t going to work because the customers have different needs and different expectations.

    I don’t think going for a one-size fits all is the right solution. Not everyone needs a RED or an Alexa but that doesn’t mean RED and Arri should shutter their doors.

  14. It is dumbing down because people are loosing skills. You are fixed with the idea that making everything easier is better, I accept your opinion but you have to accept others too or you will loose the argument. Making things easier in a workflow can help but the option of correcting the workflow and tweaking to its full potential is when something mediocre can become something of beauty… with the dubbing down you will make the unskilled look more skilled but they are still unskilled, basically what your doing is leveling down the playing field and democratizing the system. Its still a dangerous direction to go

    1. I fail to see how refusing to accept another opinion would cause me to lose the argument (is not logical nor grammatical). The only direction that all technology has ever gone is the direction of what you’re calling “dumbing down”. Cars, computers, radios, microwave ovens, every single piece of technology has gone that way – from carving characters into rock with a chisel to today’s word processors; all “dumbing down”. It is the inevitable direction because ultimately the technology makes those skills worth less. (not worthless but definitely worth less). I’ve learnt hundreds of skills that technology has now made redundant.

      Fighting the “dumbing down” is the only really dumb thing you could do. Adapt and move forward because technology isn’t waiting, move with it or be left behind.

      And yes, I am in favor of leveling the playing field so talent and story telling ability matter more than the ability to drive editing software with it’s special tricks and inside knowledge.

Comments are closed.