DAILY MAIL & GUARDIAN 11 February 2000

New World

The info box

(The Invisible Computer by Don Norman)
JAMAIS CASCIO advises suits and other Hollywood weasels on what could happen over the next hundred years. He worries about being called a futurist.


onald Norman is, with much justification, considered one of the gurus of interface design. His various books in the 1990's -- including The Psychology of Everyday Things, Turn Signals Are The Facial Expressions of Automobiles and Things That Make Us Smart -- helped to shape how information designers thought about their work. Norman's concepts have been extraordinarily influential in the construction of the Information Age.

It was with some great anticipation, then, that I started to read Norman's newest work, The Invisible Computer (TIC). Subtitled "why good products fail, the personal computer is so complex, and information appliances are the solution", Norman is grappling with some fairly critical concepts. The notion that the PC era is over is particularly interesting, and I was hoping that Norman would come up with persuasive (or, at least, clever) ammunition in the debate. Further, Norman's concept of the Information Appliance ties in with the sorts of new technologies I'm starting to see from Intel, Transmeta, Be, and others.

The Invisible Computer should be read by anyone interested in the shape of the information technology market over the next decade. It should definitely be read by anyone currently working in the computer field. The book may well make you angry, but it will get you thinking about how we design and build the devices that are steadily taking over our lives.

As much as I found TIC to be an important book, it is also an immensely frustrating one. Norman is at his best when he's talking about how designs do and do not work. He is a cognitive psychologist, but has spent the last three decades working with computer companies. He has seen the information design process evolve from an afterthought to the core of the economy. Yet he often gets stuck on issues that undercut his larger argument. Repeating at several points in the book that he wants to "write", not "word process", for example, belabors a very weak point. Odd names for common application types is a legacy of the early days of computing, but doesn't say much for the nature of those applications today.

Despite the title of the book, TIC focuses more on the process of designing information systems than on the emerging market for Information Appliances. To a certain extent, this is to be expected; Info Appliances are still fairly rudimentary, and users are still trying to figure out how they really fit into their lives. Forget how the marketeers expect you to use a device. As William Gibson said in Neuromancer, the street finds its own uses.

But Norman's arguments about the declining utility of the PC ring hollow. As much as the general purpose PC does not have ideal interfaces for every possible task it's asked to accomplish, Norman neglects the fact that -- as a general purpose system -- it is very easy to add the required elements to a PC to make it work the way the user desires. When Norman criticizes the PC as a terrible tool for drawing, I wonder if he's ever seen a digital drawing pad (such as the one I've had hooked up to my Mac for the last 5 years).

Norman's vision of inexpensive, single (or limited) purpose appliances has some interesting aspects (I particularly like his notion of a clock-like display for traffic and weather), some of it feels simply like the sort of gadget proliferation many of us are trying to avoid. I really don't want a separate e-mail box and accounting software box and calendar box, etc. I don't have the room for them all.

What is worth pursuing, however, are the links -- both in terms of wireless hardware and broadly-available software -- to let a wide assortment of devices talk with each other. I may not want a separate accounting box, but it sure would be nice if my current bank balance would be visible on my Palm device without elaborate work on my part.

If Norman's vision of dozens of simple devices for everyone is somewhat suspect, the underlying notion -- that machines should serve us, rather than the other way around -- is nonetheless sound. As I've suggested elsewhere, computers are more complex and bloated than they need to be, and some kinds of basic appliances may well make life easier. But it's the infrastructure that's important, the elements that let the machines work together in a way that people never have to worry about. Norman's chapter on Infrastructure is perhaps the best of the book.

The Invisible Computer is worth reading, but it is not the book I was hoping for. People who have enjoyed Norman's previous works may find this a bit too dry, too focused on the process of coming up with business designs and marketing plans. Norman's "Human Centered Design" tries to provide a theoretical basis for his commentary. While not all of his conclusions are compelling, his observations are; these are critical issues, and should not be ignored.

© Daily Mail & Guardian - 11 February 2000

* Jamais Cascio is a consultant and writer specializing in scenarios of how we may live over the next century. His clients have included mainstream corporations, film and television producers. He has written for many publications, including Wired and TIME, and is currently working on a screenplay. He is an active member of the oldest and most influential online community, The Well, and believes that new technologies are pushing people into new social, economic and political realms.

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* Arthur Goldstuck: Webfeet
* Gavin Dudley: Dr Byte
* Rupert Neethling: Toolbox
* Douglas Rushkoff: Online


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Published weekly by the Electronic Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg, South Africa. Send email comments to the editor, Gavin Dudley