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.