/ The Ideology of Ease

At the University of Florida Networked Writing Environment (NWE) where I work and teach, many instructors ask their students to create hypertext projects instead of, or to complement, traditional essays. One of the first things many students ask when they find out they will be working in a computer classroom — and too many do not find this out until the first day of class — is "Can I do this project from home? Do I have to come in to the University to finish my assignments?"

(I should note here that I will be writing "students" all along when perhaps I should be saying "users" or something like that. The set of problems I will identify here is common to graduate students, instructors, staff, and undergraduates. However, I dislike the word users, and as a rhetoric and composition specialist my focus is teaching, so I'll be using "students" most of the time.)

Every student who takes a course in the NWE has a UNIX account with almost totally unrestricted Internet access. Students can make Web pages in one of the five NWE classrooms using one of several HTML editors available through our X-Windows interface. However, many students find the transition between the online environment and their home computer very unsettling. NWE technical staff encourage students to work from home and suggest that instructors teaching in the NWE do the same, and we provide copious documentation designed to make the transition more comfortable. There are no firewalls or access restrictions barring file transfer protocol (FTP) access or remote login with a secure shell client (SSH). However, most students just don't seem to know how to tackle the problem of getting access to their work outside of the classroom labs.

While trying to help students learn how to use FTP programs or transfer files to diskettes — the two most common ways files can be transported between home and the NWE — I've noticed that many of them lack basic file-management skills. For example, on our FTP help pages, we provide links to the ws_ftp (for Windows) and Fetch (for MacOS) FTP-client installers. I have helped both students and other graduate assistants whose FTP client download attempt ended with, "I clicked on the link, and my computer downloaded something, but then nothing happened. Now what do I do?"

Students who manage to download and install the FTP software, and then try to upload graphics and other files they created on their home computers, often don't know where to look for the files they've created on their computer. Because many applications have their own peculiar file-management dialog boxes, students learn how to manipulate files while using each program, but fail to generalize their skills and develop the ability to manage files on a system level.

"An uncritical drive toward ease is arguably the most influential force in desktop computing today"

I think these problems are due, in part, to the consistent usage but irregular implementation of spatial metaphors and spatial structures in the graphical user interfaces (GUIs) most computers use today. Robert Johnson notes these difficulties numerous times throughout User-Centered Technology [1]. All GUIs employ common spatial conventions — many simple adaptations from literacy, with left-to-right and top-to-bottom hierarchies (like the way we read a page). But the specifics of the spatial metaphor vary widely. Consider the icons on the Windows desktop: the Network Neighborhood, My Computer, Recycle Bin, and any shortcut and file icons that may be present all have the same basic appearance — but they function very differently. In some applications, dialog boxes that accomplish file management functions use a left-to-right hierarchy; others may choose top-to-bottom; still others will make use of both.

Most notably, the spatial sense which appears on the Web — with navigation bars, "back" and "forward" buttons, and those ubiquitous folder tabs — is almost never found in file-management or file-transfer applications like the ones already mentioned. In fact, the diverse methodologies for using space on the Web seldom appear outside of the browser itself. The "View as Web page" option of the Windows Explorer is a notable exception to this pattern, but overall there are still considerable differences between Web space and file space.

When the GUI was first developed, Xerox PARC and Apple designers assumed that since office workers were used to working with wooden and metal desktops, a virtual desktop would be an ideal metaphor [2]. Files and folders on the wooden and metal desktop were matched by the same on the virtual desktop. Stacks of paper, pencil and pen icons, organizers, in and out boxes, and similar objects were common. Over the years, the degree with which the real-life desktop is emulated by the virtual desktop has steadily decreased, and today the spatial qualities of the GUI user interface have little to do with stacks of paper or other familiar objects.

A number of conflicting notions of space have come together in the GUI — it is truly a mixed metaphor. Instead of "make it behave like a desktop so it will be user friendly," which seemed to be the idea behind the MacOS, today's imperative seems to be only "make it easy." Steven Johnson's Interface Culture provides an excellent analysis of the shift from Xerox PARC to MacOS, Windows, and beyond [3]. In a nutshell, an uncritical turn toward making computer interfaces and software easy to use has replaced the various metaphorical schemes, disrupting the GUI's relationship to spatial representation. I believe this shift is facilitated in part by the "ideology of ease:" the culturally constructed desirability of "making it easy" or being "at ease." I think an uncritical drive toward ease is arguably the most influential force in desktop computing today.

The solution is not the strict restoration of the spatial particularities of the desktop metaphor — indeed, the most direct literalizations of wood and steel desktops are, on the computer, wooden and iron-clad. I don't think we should abandon the movement toward making computers easier to use and therefore more accessible, enjoyable, and powerful for as many people as possible. However, I do think that as ease becomes the end, rather than the means to the end, many things are set aside. To return to the problem with which I began — students moving files between computer labs and home computers — the drive to make computers easy to use has made it possible to use a computer without knowing how to manipulate the files located on it. While this doesn't have a huge consequence for day-to-day computing in a single location, my experiences with NWE students make clear that the absence of generalized knowledge (in this case, file management) can be very disempowering.

The Ideology of Ease

For me, the most suitable definition of ideology comes from the work of the scholars in the Center for Contemporary Cultural Studies, specifically from Stuart Hall. In an essay published in the journal Critical Studies in Mass Communication, Hall synthesized the early work of Louis Althusser with the more measured approach typical of Raymond Williams. Hall prefers the definition of ideologies as "systems of representation," as in Althusser's For Marx, to the extremely complex integration of ideology and the unconscious made in the second half of Althusser's "Ideological State Apparatuses" essay.

A brief quote from Hall illustrates this viewpoint:

[Althusser's] emphasis on "practices and rituals" is wholly welcome, especially if not interpreted too narrowly or polemically. Ideologies are the frameworks of thinking and calculation about the world — the "ideas" which people use to figure out how the social world works, what their place is in it, and what they ought to do [4]

This view of ideology is clearly influenced by Williams's notion of determination as "setting limits and exerting pressures" [5]. Hall fills out his definition with a call for plurality, noting: "The notion of the dominant ideology and the subordinate ideology is an inadequate way of representing the complex interplay of different ideological discourses and formations in any modern developed society" [6]. For Hall, there are many ideologies, connected by complex chains of signification and "connotative associations."

Taking a similar approach, I wish to suggest that ease is one of a system of complex and not necessarily integrated ideologies which, operating collectively, make up a coherent system of values. Three traits consistently displayed by ease — in computing and in other cultural practices — point more to its ideological character.

First, ease is deeply connected to a variety of extremely different discourses and practices. Many cultural practices and consumer products acknowledge either the presence or absence of ease and configure that ease (or its lack) as an intrinsic virtue. Almost anything purchased in the supermarket will address ease in some manner. The wide number of contexts in which the phrase "It's easy" or the question "Is it easy?" are appropriate indicates the scope of the practices in which ease can be considered.

Second, ease has a contradictory and highly contextual nature. It is not universally demanded or valued. For example, the "ease" desirable in the act of steering an automobile depends upon the make and model of the car and is reflected in the effort needed to turn the steering wheel, the extent to which the wheel can be turned without effect, and the amount of tactile feedback provided from the road to the driver through the steering column. Varying amounts of these ingredients are appropriate in different automobiles and are certainly part of the vehicle's identity. For many folks, the qualities which made Oldsmobiles easy to drive are less desirable today than twenty years ago — hence the slogan "This is not your father's Oldsmobile" [7].

"Ease is closely connected to the identification of masculinity with mastery and power"

Third, ease is self-perpetuating. Consistent demands for ease create a cycle which allows — or even mandates — that ease become more valued and more universal. As consumers rely more heavily on easy-to-use objects and practices, ease becomes more and more necessary, since certain skill sets (for example, making a cake from scratch, or initial configuration of the components of a computer program) are replaced with much more specialized, and less detailed, structures of knowledge (using a mix, or starting an automated installer).

These three qualities (being connected to a variety of different discourses and practices, having a contradictory and highly contextual nature, and being self perpetuating) are a part of definitions of ideology from Marx to the present, and most closely reflected in the work of Hall and others in the Birmingham school. The complex and interconnected nature of ideology can make it difficult to imagine a hard separation between these tendencies. However, the distinction helps to focus the ways the ideology of ease is most often made manifest.

For one thing, ease is heavily gendered. In the simplest sense, the connection is expressed as "Women can't handle difficulty." Women are expected to identify with ease; men are expected either not to need it or to use it in passing on their way to superior ability. I believe ease is closely connected to the identification of masculinity with mastery and power. The complex figure of the "easy" woman — simultaneously attractive for her promiscuity, but repulsive since she cannot be mastered or owned, is often used in advertising.

In computing, the contemporary GUI sets aside the idea of mastery as not only unnecessary but unattainable. The foregrounded control of the particularities of computer operation common to command-line interfaces are replaced with the GUI's inconsistently defined spatial relationship and limited level of flexibility. I believe GUIs and "easy" to use computers are deliberately gendered as feminine to tap into the culturally constructed connection of women and ease. Certainly, that seems the case with Apple's iMac, she who "comes in colors everywhere," dancing and whirling around television advertisements, while teasing us with a glimpse of what's hidden under her translucent shell [8].

In addition, ease has different meanings when connected to work than leisure. In a work context, most people consider interpersonal competition, physical exertion, or mental difficulty rather stressful and undesirable, and seek to minimize these activities. However, in a leisure context, the same exertion or difficulty is not at all unattractive. Indeed, many people go out of their way to find competition, physical exertion, and contemplation in competitive sports, crossword puzzles, chess, and other activities.

Additionally, the perceived need for ease can prevent work from being done because of a task's difficulty or complexity. A task may not seem worthwhile if it does not seem easy. For example, the time needed to consider the different ways space is used in different computer programs, generalizing the concepts of file management across several applications — or in fact the work of generalizing any skill from a diverse collection of seeming disparate actions — may be considered as "too difficult" or the "wrong kind" of work since it is not directly connected to "productive" applications. An immediate reward makes a task look and feel easy, making it more acceptable.

Too, images are considered easier to understand and work with than text. I'm thinking of W. J. T. Mitchell's notion of the "pictorial turn," a broad shift in culture which constructs pictures and images as more accessible and more vibrant and just plain better than text [9]. The idea that images are less information dense or inferior to text starts early with toddlers' picture books — which in my elementary school library were all under call letter E for "easy". It continues today in fear of television, a caustic attitude toward serial-graphic narrative (what most people call "comics"), and a lack of support for the visual and the aesthetic in school curricula.

"Image" is also connected to ease by self-image — how "at ease" one appears to others. Activities which make one appear "at ease" are generally desirable; even better, is remaining at ease while performing tasks which are very stressful or strenuous.

Also, some sort of speed is necessary for anything which will be labeled easy. If a desired product, service, or end cannot be attained rapidly, it is unlikely to enjoy the attractiveness of the "easy" label. Convenience food (thawed or cooked and eaten at home, or purchased from a local drive-in or pick-up restaurant) is perhaps the best example of this sort of easy. In a similar vein, the widespread use of templates in presentation software is an excellent example: using templates does increase speed immeasurably, but it can affect content.

Ease also creates a need for speed in learning — specifically, in compression of the learning curve. Even Tim McGee's "An Apologia for Presentation Software as a Composing Tool," a presentation which otherwise advocated use of Microsoft PowerPoint, noted the ways these "wizards" demanded that original content be adjusted to fit their predetermined form [10]. Software (or any products, for that matter) that allows nearly instantaneous use are much more likely to be considered "easy" than those which require perusal of instructions. The popularity of step-by-step "tutorials" or "wizards," as opposed to reference manuals, can also be attributed to the power of ease: again, these computing practices can restrict creativity and affect content. Since now the "for dummies" book series applies to almost everything, "cultural practices" and not "computing practices" may be a better choice of words.

Finally, there seems to be a willingness to configure the cost of ease as necessary. Ease is never free: its gain is matched by a loss in choice, security, privacy, health, or a combination thereof. This is well represented in deployment of a large quantity of Internet software. For example, Netscape's Smart Download makes downloading easier by handling decompression automatically and resuming download if a crash occurs, but it displays advertising while doing so [11]. Microsoft Outlook uncompresses and executes e-mail attachment files automatically, saving individual users a small amount of time per e-mail message, but creating a huge security risk, which at the time of this writing is still a fundamental flaw in the software [12].

"Those who embrace ease may not be able to move past it"

I began this paper noting the difficulty NWE students have when asked to move files between home and Web. I think the perceived necessity of ease and being "at ease" can tie students — indeed, all individuals — to the single computing setup one most often uses, and is most comfortable with. The losses in that case are flexibility and portability, but self confidence is also undermined. Students can begin to assume they can't get their work done without the computer helping them. That self-imposed devaluation of ability is, for me, the most corrosive effect of the ubiquity of the drive for ease.

Creating a Digital Divide

Ultimately, the ideology of ease, perhaps because of the financial interests of those who benefit from it, is instrumental in the maintenance of a "digital divide" of computing into digital "haves" and "have nots." Because ease is structured as an end in itself, not as a means to an end, those who embrace ease may not be able to move past it — insuring under-achievement. Worse yet, when there is a system problem, and the structures which supply ease are replaced with "Unexpected exception in module Vx00f323.dll" or "Oops. Dumping core . . .," the "have nots" may find their computers unusable [13].

I do not wish to suggest we do away with ease or require a fifty-page exam on digital computing hardware and software before allowing our students to use computers in our classrooms. However, the application to learning needs to extend beyond learning the skills needed to operate a certain program in a specific, localized spatial environment. Instead, generalization of knowledge as methodology should be encouraged and actively facilitated by both teachers and designers of software applications and computer-human interfaces.

So, what is to be done? I think that alterations in classroom practice can allow great strides in the reduction of the power of the ideology of ease. I suggest the following:

  • Show that the critical work of generalizing from the abstract, while perhaps difficult, is not wasteful. Providing students with exercises that move beyond the immediate lesson being learned requires some shift in curricula. Assignments need not grow in size; however, opportunities for interconnecting them should be built into coursework. Advocating methodologies which seek general rules and a larger-picture view should be part of any critical thinking course.

  • Theorize and discuss the spatial and the aesthetic. One need not be a designer or artist to use elementary rules of graphic design — or to recognize that even if such skills are beyond ones' grasp, that they are still important. After all, "techne" translates as "art or craft."

  • Propose notion of ease as ideological function, or at least discuss the cost of ease. One need not venture far into the world of Marxist critique to discuss how easy things are culturally constructed in ways which benefit some people at the cost of others — or attempt to conceal certain realities while emphasizing the sales pitch.

  • Demystify everything. In the case of computing, explain the technologies students are using, and tell what's "under the hood" — show students the server room, or open up a computer and identify the various parts. Use programs that give students direct control over work, instead of displacing control to "wizards" or "helpful" agents.

  • Foreground artificiality and debunk the myth of transparency. Computers — and all technologies — are artificial, the product of humans, and, barring mechanical failure, everything about them is determined and controlled actively by somebody (the designer of the technology, the operator, and others). Discussion of technology shouldn't treat it as if it were an untouchable, unchangeable artifact. Instead, focus on practices — the act of using the technology — even to the point where considerations of the methodology eclipse the "final product." The reverse — assuming that technology should be transparent — wrongly shifts the agency of the user to the instrument. In the worst case, this shift creates an uncomfortable distance and a very compressed experience.

  • Encourage more interaction with and customization of the work environment, especially any computer interfaces. This connects to the point above: even if a student is working in a lab for only a few hours, setting desktop colors, adjusting the chair, and arranging other things will help break down the artificial boundaries often erected as defense mechanisms in unfamiliar situations.

The ideology of ease may be powerful and culturally universal, but we can act against it. We can make changes that use ease as the means to an end, not an end in itself. We can alter our computing (and cultural) practices to consider difficulty and inconvenience carefully without leaping for costly prefabricated solutions. I think we must. I fear that continuing the often self-imposed separation of computer users into "techies" and those who "aren't computer literate" or "aren't good with computers" will ensure that the historical boundaries of gender, race and class are reproduced in computing practices for years to come.

This paper is one of the first things I've written about the ideology of ease. I hope I'll be able to grow the material here (and lots that isn't here) into a dissertation in the next few years. I want to thank University of Florida Professor of English Stephanie Smith for noting that my long ruminations on ease pointed to ideology, and for providing useful feedback on an earlier version of this paper. I'd be glad to hear your feedback as well; my e-mail address is below.

After working a few years in the advertising industry, Bradley Dilger returned to the tree-shaded campus of the University of Florida, where he now works as a graduate student in English. His research focus is rhetoric and composition, with emphasis on the history of writing (grammatology) and the integration of networked computing into orality, literacy, and beyond. Bradley helps the outstanding instructors who teach in the Networked Writing Environment, and hurls Perl at any problem that pokes its nose up from the server room. It's not exactly a BradleyCam, but you may get your daily dose of Bradley at http://web.nwe.ufl.edu/~dilger/. Mr. Dilger may be reached at dilger@nwe.ufl.edu.


1. Johnson notes the difficulty students had learning the MacOS interface on page 8, and refers back to similar problems numerous times in Chapters 3 and 4 of his work.return to text

2. Kidwell, 104-5, 108.return to text

3. Every part of Steven Johnson's history and analysis of (graphical user) interfaces is worth reading; however, a short section on pages 46-51 deals most directly with the "desktopness" of the original MacOS.return to text

4. Hall, 97.return to text

5. Williams, 87.return to text

6. Hall, 102.return to text

7. General Motors has recently applied the slogan "Start Something," which originally was used only for some Oldsmobiles, to all cars in the product line. Perhaps the negative image of that "father's Oldsmobile" was a little too powerful.return to text

8. Because Apple Computer militantly protects their intellectual property, it is unwise to include stills or links to the 1998 television commercial which I refer to here. Apple recently asked Adcritic.com to remove all Apple ads from their servers (more on that removal [formerly http://www.adcritic.com/admin/apple404/?fn=apple-1984.html]). The newest, copyright-friendly materials may be viewed on Apple's iMac web site [formerly http://www.apple.com/hardware/ads/].return to text

9. Mitchell, 11-12.return to text

10. 1 McGee's presentation, which was PowerPoint slides accompanied by a talk, may be included in the proceedings of the 16th Computers & Writing conference when those become available.return to text

11. Smart Download has been toned down quite a bit since it was first introduced; it is now much less difficult to switch off.return to text

12. Many Internet security experts argue that Outlook's default handling of Visual Basic Scripting (vbs) files contributed to the "success" of the Melissa and LoveLetter worms. This article on ZDNet [formerly http://www.zdnet.com/eweek/stories/general/0,11011,2568904,00.html] provides a good synopsis.return to text

13. These are the standard responses one gets from some Windows crashes and from a Linux kernel panic, respectively.return to text

Links from This Article

Adcritic.com front page


Adcritic.com page on Apple ad removal

[formerly http://www.adcritic.com/admin/apple404/?fn=apple-1984.html]

Apple iMac ads

[Formerly http://www.apple.com/hardware/ads/]

Networked Writing Environment (NWE)


NWE help pages


NWE file transfer protocol (FTP) help pages


ZDNet eWeek front page

[Formerly http://www.zdnet.com/eweek/]

ZDNet eWeek article: "Microsoft's Outlook: Cloudy Security"

[Formerly http://www.zdnet.com/eweek/stories/general/0,11011,2568904,00.html]

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus." Essays on Ideology. London: Verso, 1984 (1970).

Althusser, Louis. For Marx. London: Verso, 1986 (1977).

Hall, Stuart. "Signification, Representation, Ideology: Althusser and the Post-Structuralist Debates." Critical Studies in Mass Communication. Volume 2, Number 2 (1986). pp. 91-113.

Johnson, Robert. User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Johnson, Steven. Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate. San Francisco: HarperEdge, 1997.

Kidwell, Peggy Aldrich. Landmarks in Digital Computing. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.

McGee, Tim. "An Apologia for Presentation Software as Composing Tool with a Caution Added." Paper presented at 16th Annual Computers and Writing Conference, Fort Worth, Texas. 27 May 2000.

Mitchell, W. J. T. Picture Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994.

Shneiderman, Ben. Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer-Interaction. Third edition. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. London: Oxford University Press, 1977.