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Programming IT Technology

On the Humble Default 339

Hugh Pickens sends along Kevin Kelly's paean to the default. "One of the greatest unappreciated inventions of modern life is the default. 'Default' is a technical concept first used in computer science in the 1960s to indicate a preset standard. ... Today the notion of a default has spread beyond computer science to the culture at large. It seems such a small thing, but the idea of the default is fundamental... It's hard to remember a time when defaults were not part of life. But defaults only arose as computing spread; they are an attribute of complex technological systems. There were no defaults in the industrial age. ... The hallmark of flexible technological systems is the ease by which they can be rewired, modified, reprogrammed, adapted, and changed to suit new uses and new users. Many (not all) of their assumptions can be altered. The upside to endless flexibility and multiple defaults lies in the genuine choice that an individual now has, if one wants it. ... Choices materialize when summoned. But these abundant choices never appeared in fixed designs. ... In properly designed default system, I always have my full freedoms, yet my choices are presented to me in a way that encourages taking those choices in time — in an incremental and educated manner. Defaults are a tool that tame expanding choice."
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On the Humble Default

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  • by cjeze ( 596987 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @01:51AM (#28449445)
    response by default
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Klistvud ( 1574615 )

      This race-to-the-first-post is getting tiresome. The Admins should modify their software: by default, every first post should be deleted, so that the 2nd post becomes 1st. Then, the 1st post should be deleted, so that the 2nd post becomes 1st. Then, the 1st post should be deleted, so that the 2nd post becomes 1st. Then...

      That would simplify SlashDot and make it more user-friendly, making AJAX and other complex technologies virtually obsolete.

  • by realnrh ( 1298639 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @01:54AM (#28449463) Journal
    ... of de programming language that your code doesn't compile!
  • Slashdot defaults (Score:5, Insightful)

    by IntlHarvester ( 11985 ) * on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @01:54AM (#28449465) Journal

    Do the defaults on slashdot still require posters to manually type HTML codes for line breaks?

    I always thought the misleading options on the posting form were a pretty funny newbie filter. Welcome to slashdot, RTFM.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by BikeHelmet ( 1437881 )

      Oh! I remember my first post. It was all neatly formatted, and then I pressed the Submit button, and it came out as a huge wall of text.

      Ahh, good times.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by BookMama ( 1583691 )
      Uh-oh, I'm a newbie. So the forums on slashdot don't work like the forums on most websites?

      That is the most user-unfriendly interface mistake.. to not match what the user expects based on their other experiences.

      Is there no preview message to clue people in?

      Ah.... so I just did a preview message and I see what you mean. Okay, so I'll toss in a few HTML breaks to make paragraphs and...

      much better. Guess I got lucky reading this early
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by theCoder ( 23772 )

        Slashdot was written in the late 90s when there were no other web forums (or at least not many) and BBcode didn't exist (ah, good times!) Back then, everyone knew that to bold something you used <b>, not [b]. And Slashdot does have a post preview -- just some people choose not to use it :)

        Frankly, I don't see what's so hard about using HTML in your posts. It's not any harder than something like BBcode (mostly just use angle brackets instead of square brackets). HTML is harder on the server side si

    • And would it kill them to put in a WYSIWYG toolbar (tinyMCE, fckeditor, etc.)?

      • Re:Slashdot defaults (Score:4, Informative)

        by RalphSleigh ( 899929 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @07:02AM (#28450777) Homepage

        Yes, because those things are evil, and soon result in huge piles of nested font tags and random stylesheet fragments everywhere.

        Don't even ask what happens when someone pastes a word document into one, it makes me weep .

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by vic-traill ( 1038742 )

        And would it kill them to put in a WYSIWYG toolbar (tinyMCE, fckeditor, etc.)?

        I don't know about Taco, but it might kill me. If we can't get away from JS editor toolbars on /., then they truly have taken over the world, I suppose.

        I think a little manual markup is good for the soul, myself. Strictly IMHO.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Sockatume ( 732728 )
      Wait, there's a way to automatically parse line breaks?!
  • by stox ( 131684 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @01:55AM (#28449471) Homepage

    More and more are taking the choice to default than ever before.

  • Bollocks (Score:5, Interesting)

    by tonyr60 ( 32153 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @02:00AM (#28449495)

    Default was first used in computer science in the 1960s because that is when computer science, as we knew it, began. It was picked up from common usage outside of computer science, and was general use well before then. Unfortunately I am old enough to remember it as a common term in the 1950s. For example the default land area for a house (at least in my part of the world) was a quarter of an acre and it used to be referred to as the default area.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
    • Wow, they made 'em big where you lived. Each house is almost 11,000 square feet []? Are you sure you didn't mean the average mansion?
    • Re:Bollocks (Score:4, Insightful)

      by syousef ( 465911 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @04:06AM (#28450151) Journal

      It was picked up from common usage outside of computer science, and was general use well before then.

      Phew, for a moment there I thought that before computer science was invented, everything came in random configuration.

      This whole story is a waste of space. Slow news day I guess.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by dzfoo ( 772245 )

      Exactly. The author implies that mechanical systems built before the 1960s came without built-in functionality or options. For an obvious example, take the toaster: since the dawn of the bread-toasting craze, it has included a "browning" control. This mechanical control, be it a knob, slider, or switch, had a base setting which was calibrated at the factory. This was its "default" position for optimum toasting. You could always change it up or down, as you desire, and return it back to its original se

  • ... but them damn defaults are also responsible for a good number of security vulnerabilities. Default passwords and what not.
  • Bah-loney (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Bill, Shooter of Bul ( 629286 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @02:03AM (#28449521) Journal
    I don't subscribe to his crazy theory. If defaults are to be defined as a configurable initial state, then they've been around for a lot longer than he's claiming. He's just writing for the sake of reading his own words.
    • by mapkinase ( 958129 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @02:33AM (#28449705) Homepage Journal

      "He's just writing for the sake of reading his own words."

      That's default motivation for writing.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by dword ( 735428 )

      If defaults are to be defined as a configurable initial state, then they've been around for a lot longer than he's claiming.

      As far as I can see, his point is that only in the past half century humans have started to consider default as a valid configuration and engineers carefully tweaked the default to be what most of their customers needed.

      • by dzfoo ( 772245 )

        But this is also false. As an example, consider a toaster, which comes with a "default" setting representing the optimal "browning" temperature calibrated at the factory, with a mechanical control allowing you to alter this temperature.

        For a pre-1960s example of such magical use of a default, I hereby present to you the Toast-O-Later; just one of a myriad devices of its time, going back to the 1920s and 1930s: []


    • by stephanruby ( 542433 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @03:28AM (#28449979)
      As a French person, I resent what the author is implying. Defau(l)t is a french word. It means "inaction", "failure", or "inactive state". And if anybody invented "inaction", we certainly did. We have prior art. It's part of our cultural heritage. And you guys, you were just lucky that we even taught it to Great Britain in the twelve century, for without that specialized knowledge, that special concept of defaults would never even have arrived in America!!
  • by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @02:11AM (#28449567)

    We might not have called it that, but default solutions and default products have been around since the invention of mass production. From then on, there was a "default" product, a standard product that works as the default if you didn't order something specifically different.

    Hell, even the spanish inquisition had a default verdict.

  • > Choices materialize when summoned. [rest elided]

  • by codekavi ( 459992 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @02:30AM (#28449685) Homepage

    Non English speakers / translators!

    Did you have trouble translating the word "default" into other languages? How difficult/easy was it to find a translation for "default" for user manuals in, say, jp or cn or fr?

    Asking because I had trouble figuring out a good word for it in Hindi. Still not sure if we have the right word.

    Do note that /. only allows ascii in posts.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by codekavi ( 459992 )
      Asking because I had trouble figuring out a good word for it in Hindi. Still not sure if we have the right word. Forgot to add: the closest translation I could come to was "pre-decided" and that doesn't seem to mean the same thing as "default" - it should actually be a word or phrase that means "pre-decided but modifiable to something else".
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Quite easy in Chinese. Since /. is too US-centric to tolerate Unicode, I'll just post the Unicode codepoints for these two characters: U+9ED8 and U+8BA4. Look them up in a Unicode table ;)

      This Chinese word for "default", in a more literal translation, means "tacitly accepted/recognized". It has nothing to do with the financial meaning of the word "default", which translates to a completely different word in Chinese.

    • Do note that /. only allows ascii in posts.

      Yeah, about that.....I asked for UTF8 and as a result we got strange bars and colored dots. Careful what you ask for on slashdot. They just might do something. I still remember the horror of the pink ponies....

    • In Icelandic (Score:2, Informative)

      In Icelandic
      It is "SjÃlfgefiÃ" or "Sjalfgefid"(since the special characters get fubar) which translated literally to English, would mean "Given by itself".

      I think it's a very old word, since it also can mean "taking something for granted".

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Novus ( 182265 )

      Assuming we're talking about the noun "default", it translates very differently to different languages. For example, Finnish uses constructions based on "oletus-" ("assumed"), such as "oletusarvo" (default value) or "oletusselain" (default browser). In Swedish, "förvald" ("preselected") is used for default somethings (e.g. "förvalt värde" for default value) and a default in general is a "förval" ("preselection").

      Spend enough time using a translated computer system or studying or practisi

    • by jez9999 ( 618189 )

      How difficult/easy was it to find a translation for "default" for user manuals in, say, [...] fr?

      'Default' actually COMES from french. The translation is défaut. Surely you could've found that out pretty easily.

    • by WetCat ( 558132 )

      In Russian, this has been split into two meanings:
      - "po-umolchaniu" - this is about computer or equipment default settings
      - "defolt" - about financial situations.

    • by laron ( 102608 )

      In German, the default is to simply use "default", at least in the context of computers. An alternative would be "Werkseinstellung" literally "factory setting2

    • by gr8dude ( 832945 )

      I often deal with Romanian and Russian translations - both these languages have an equivalent for 'default'.

      See the suggestion of another poster, find an equivalent expression, such as "factory settings".

  • by tgv ( 254536 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @02:33AM (#28449711) Journal

    Does convoluted writing add credibility to your statement?

    Does not knowing the slightest thing about cognitive psychology help you get attention?

    Not in the rest of the world, but on /. it gets you to the front page.

  • Ever since Lehman Brothers, the default has definitely been making a comeback. Let's see how much money I lost today.
  • A few examples (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Pascal Sartoretti ( 454385 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @02:42AM (#28449759)
    I don't know if defaults really appeared in the 1960's in IT, but this guy has a point : computers and others toys have become so somplex these days that the quality of a device or application often lies in the choices made by its designers. A few examples:
    • Apple is excellent at producing things which "just work", among others because the default values are chosen with care, and only a few can be overriden with a configuration GUI. Some people like it, some hate it.
    • FireFox is a great browser because its default values are also chosen with care, so that an "out of the box" FireFox is easy to use and relatively safe at the same time. Contrarily to Apple, however, FireFox's default settings can be altered; this can be done at different levels (native configuration GUI, extensions, or about:config) depending on the user's capabilities. What makes FireFox great is that it is at the same time a good browser for beginners AND for advanced users.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by kamochan ( 883582 )
      macbook:~$ man defaults

      DEFAULTS(1)               BSD General Commands Manual              DEFAULTS(1)

           defaults -- access the Mac OS X user defaults system
  • by yourassOA ( 1546173 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @02:46AM (#28449775)
    No real geek/nerd would ever even consider using the default settings. Only real men use the default, real geeks use their own settings. Thats why none of their shit works.
  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @02:46AM (#28449777) Homepage

    I'm trying to think of something prior to 1950 that had an overridable, configurable default. It's hard. Business telephone systems had some configurable defaults, but setting them up required physical wiring. The same was true of Plan 55-A Teletype message switching. IBM plugboard-wired tabulators didn't really have defaults as we think of them today. Machine tools had adjustable speeds and feeds, but no real defaults. Jacquard looms didn't have defaults. Linotypes didn't have defaults. Chain-programmed embroidery machines - no.

    The closest thing I can think of was General Railway Signal's NX signaling system [] for controlling railroad interlockings. This 1930s system may have been the first "user-friendly interface". An NX system controlled multiple switches and signals in an area (an "interlocking") preventing conflicts. Interlocked signal controls had been around for years, and they handled the safety issue, but before NX, it was the user's responsibility to figure out the desired path from A to B. With an NX system, you selected an "entry" point where a train was going to enter the interlocking, and all the reachable "exit" points would light up. The "reachable" logic took into account other trains that were in the interlocking area. When the operator selected an "exit", the NX system would pick a path between the entry and exit, routing around other trains or even track locked out of service.

    A default "best" routing was hard-wired into the system, but the operator could override the default routing manually, by picking some intermediate point along the path as the "exit", then selecting that as an "entry" and picking the final "exit".

    That's the oldest system I know of with a real "default" mechanism.

    • Mechanical railway signals had a default setting - horizontal (meaning stop). It required tension on a wire to pull them into the up (go) state. Thus if the wire broke it would cause a delay rather than a disaster.
    • by dzfoo ( 772245 )

      How about a fancy 1930s toaster, with a "browning" knob, pre-set at the "center" for optimal toasting?


  • Bunch of Wank (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Hecatonchires ( 231908 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @02:52AM (#28449815) Homepage
    The limited production in ages past meant that EVERYTHING was default. Want a car? Here's a Model T. It comes in black. Want bread? It comes in white. Sliced. (Wooo!) Defaults aren't new, they are a return to an older, simpler time, when many of your choices were assumed based on limitations.
  • This is bull (Score:5, Informative)

    by LS ( 57954 ) on Wednesday June 24, 2009 @03:14AM (#28449907) Homepage

    But if you are looking for another computer word that has made it into common usage, how about "reboot"? It's now used to describe starting anything over from scratch, especially in things like movies. For instance, the new Star Trek movie has been called a reboot by several movie critics.

    I can imagine a time far in the future where "reboot" is listed in the dictionary with the etymology saying "origin unclear, borrowed from computer terminology". 95% of people will not know that it comes from the REpeating the action of BOOTstrapping a computer. Bootstrapping or booting a computer comes from the term "to lift oneself up by the bootstraps", which is impossible and refers to the apparent chicken and egg problem of a computer loading itself up with software.


    • My son plays a lot of computer games and most have a pause function. I have noticed that the games he plays in the playground with other kids have also acquired a pause function.
  • Very cool TED talk (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Chatsubo ( 807023 )

    I recall watching this TED talk a while ago that touches on the subject of how defaults heavily influence our decisions. Cool stuff: []

  • If you read The Economist, you may have noticed a recent review of the book "Nudge []".

    I have more than a sneaking suspicion the original poster (and TFA) have been reading this as well.

    Suffice it to say that the shallow commentary here pales in comparison to the jaunt through behavioural economics that the book provides. If you can get past it's focus on public policy and just absorb all the core information, the book provides good advice than you'd ever think existed on the art of defaults.

  • Default is what happens when you don't show up to meet your obligations, legal or otherwise. You are making the "none of the above" choice.

    This is a concept that goes back a REALLY long ways.

  • A good UI is not one that limits options of the user, but one that has sensible defaults, and options tiered by theme and frequency of use.
    A bad UI is either too stuffed with options to navigate, or simply has no good defaults.
    A lame UI is one that purposely limits options "because the user could be confused". (an unchecked checkbox "[ ] advanced options" won't confuse an inexperienced user, but lack of it will irk advanced user to no end. Yes, Gnome, I'm looking at you!)

    If you know your UI is bad, but have

    • I've used a few linux liveCDs from Knoppix 3.x to Mythbuntu 8.10, and none of them is usable on a laptop by default. The touchpad settings are hypersensitive with all manner of gesture recognition autohover malarkey enabled.

      The first time I used one I just moved the cursor from one side to the other and it opened dozens of files. Took me half an hour to close theem all and then very carefully creep the cursor to where I could change the bloody settings.

  • Is true.

    I started my quake engine from a different engine. There are like 3 different designs for a quake engine: faifhfull to the original, eyecandy and e-sport. Faifhfull engines are as similar to the carmack one as posible, similar as what is delivered, since the intention of carmack is unknom. Eyecandy engines are as pretty as posible, with better textures, particles, colors and effects. And e-sport engines make the game as fast as posible, easy to sport enemyes,... most screenshots of a e-spo

  • I know this is going to start a brushfire:


  • for there always to be a "restore itemised factory defaults" function as well as the usual "restore the whole fucking lot and sacrifice all the customisations you've spent months getting right" function.

  • "Default" - the state of Windows configurations that need to be changed.

  • Of course, if you're going to use defaults, it's a good idea to choose them wisely []...
  • Another invention of computer science is spreading rapidly to the world at large. Genetic algorithms have been adopted by organic objects having the peculiar ability to temporarily operate on a self-organizing principle based on reverse entropy. They have been observed following this process in order to alter their nature, and one would assume to improve it, over time. This improvement to "life" is called "evolution", and in all but the simplest of these objects is carried out through the act of information

  • The concept of default arrived when choices started to appear. The 'default' paintjob on the T-Ford was black. No sense in calling it default then. When choices appear you also have people saying 'duh, i don't care'. Hence the default (cheapest) option provided by the producer. Did someone really need a whole article for this?

Have you ever noticed that the people who are always trying to tell you `there's a time for work and a time for play' never find the time for play?