Today, over 3 billion people carry smartphones in their pockets. Computers are steadily getting smaller, cheaper and more capable. Countless industries have been reformed by the computer. And there are many exciting things happening in the computer world today. We’re able to see driverless cars, we have the entire world’s knowledge at our fingertips, virtual and augmented reality applications take us to other worlds or enhance our current one and artificial intelligence is already all around us.
It is quite easy to get the idea that the current state of the computer world is the climax of our great progress. But I want to start with a different story, an analogy on the evolution of airplanes.
Before airplanes, continents such as America were traversable only once or twice in a normal person’s life. Immigrants from Europe, Africa or Asia knew they would never return to the place they left behind.
But then with air travel, the world was made smaller and the nature of work changed.
The Boeing 747, also known as Jumbo Jet or Queen of the Skies is one of the most amazing and successful airplanes ever built. It heralded the era of modern, intercontinental mass transportation and even if you’re not an aviation expert the 747 is easy to tell apart because of her size and her distinctive “hump”.
The Jumbo Jet is not only an impressive result of an intensive engineering and design process, but also the spirit of its era, a time when belief in progress, including access to air travel, was a phenomenal force.
As such there are so many wonderful stories about this plane. It was two and a half times bigger than the largest passenger jet ever built at that time. They had to build a special factory to assemble it, and they were still building the factory as the first planes came off the line.
The 747 however was only meant to be a stopgap.
Boeing expected to sell a couple of hundred units or so and only serve the airlines until planes of a supersonic era entered service in the 1970’s, at which point it would find more use as a container-carrying freighter. That famous hump on the front of the 747 was put there specifically to make it easier to load freight.
This was not a plane with a glamorous future.
All the top engineers and the ambitious newcomers had ensured they were assigned to Boeing’s prestige project, the Boeing 2707 SST, an airplane designed for supersonic transport. Everyone believed that supersonic transport was the future of jet travel.
But it wasn’t just Boeing working to build a supersonic transport. The Europeans were developing the Concorde. And the Soviet Union was hard at work on their own version, the Tupolev 144.
The military was especially interested in supersonic planes that could either escape the enemies anti air defence or drop an atomic bomb and escape quickly, leaving only dust behind. The supersonic transport airplanes were as it happens only a watered down version of what the military was planning and prototyping.
And then there was space flight. In 1969 the Americans landed on the moon while the Russians were starting to populate space. Convenient travel to the moon felt possible and imminent at that time. It was a glorious era of aviation.
The most advanced passenger airplanes of today’s age feature thousand-fold improvements in every technological dimension. But if you take a step back the differences are quite minor, especially if you compare them to the wild dreams we had.
You see the next generation of technology was not just a dream. It was already in the prototyping stage.
But then it all just stopped.
The people designing the supersonic planes of tomorrow became so caught up in the technology that they forgot to ask what role the new medium should play in our society. And then there were matters such as environmental damage, recessions and money cuts that caught up.
The computer world is not yet finished
The same thing that happened to aviation is happening with computers.
Everyone takes the structure of the computer world as god-given but the computer world deals with arbitrary stuff that all was made up by somebody. Everything you see on your computer, smartphone and any other device was made up by someone.
And the computer world is not yet finished.
Yet everyone is behaving as though everything was known. At 50 years into the computer revolution, it feels like our moment of greatest progress.
This is not true.
Despite thousand-fold improvements along every technological dimension, the concepts behind today’s interfaces are almost identical to those in the initial Mac, which has its roots in Doug Engelbart’s ground shattering research of the mid-’60s.
Our interface is based on metaphors with the familiar non-computer world around us. Nevertheless some metaphors and features work very differently in the real world. Our adaptations constrain and mislead users, and limit designers’ ability to invent more powerful interface mechanisms.
Documents get written and read in sheet of paper-akin programs. Computer code is drafted line by line. Almost all of today’s representations were designed for the medium of paper. This limits us to pencil-and-paper thinking.
Sharing and collaborating is utterly hard. We deal with incompatibilities and although we have Dropbox and Google docs, collaborating on a document or design, or sharing holiday photos gives us grief.
Even before we can collaborate, we still need to manually exchange our contact information.
I was invited by Ana and Vesna to give this talk. We connected over LinkedIn and Email and had quite a conversation going on. Nevertheless my phone has no idea how I could reach them. Forget about it if I move abroad or change my phone number.
Why do we even need a phone number?
If we take a look at our phones we see a big screen made of glass that you interact with by sliding your fingers along a flat surface.
Now take a real glass — of water. You know how much water is left, first by seeing it but also by feeling the response of the weight. Almost every object in the world offers this sort of feedback.
Our hands have an incredibly rich and expressive repertoire, and we improvise constantly without the slightest thought. And yet, with an entire body at your command, we reduce our interaction with mobile devices to a single finger. I could go on. I really could. But here is the thing:
We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.
It is not as much a technological problem as a lack of perspective. We could easily, one by one, fix the problems I just described. And probably many more. Or we could shape something bigger, like make use of computers to augment our most human capabilities. We have to start thinking about how we want to shape the computer in order to improve our society, our culture.
To make progress as humanity we have to focus on media and tools will have an impact that lasts longer than the next iteration of a new technology. We have to start shaping our tools – the computer – and tackle problems such as collaboration, invent better principles than pencil and paper thinking and have to come up with better paradigms. Otherwise, we will not shape our tools – they will shape us.
Culture vs. Technology
You see, our technological capability changes much faster than our culture. We first create our technologies and then they change our society and culture. The lesson is that, even today, we are designing for tomorrow’s technology.
It would be a shame if going into the future we’re still using outdated metaphors, pencil-and-paper thinking, code in text files or collaborating manually. When I look at people using digital devices, I see them adjusting to the limitations of the computer. They are sharing instead of collaborating, consuming instead of producing, following instructions instead of experimenting, searching instead of thinking. Have we learned anything from this fertile recent period, and from these great ideas and visions?
If we don’t implement what we learn, it suggests we don’t care about how it will change our society for the better — or for the worse. It will show we don’t care what the medium computer will look like. That we don’t care how to make use of computers to augment our most human capabilities.
Our history shows if you free yourself from the idea that the current state of the computer world is the climax of our great progress we can almost magically give rise to new technologies, ideas and visions that do not only amplify humans, but also produce tremendous wealth for our society.
We’ve ended up focusing too much on technology, on things, on devices and not enough on ideas, on the medium computer. What if a book would not just simply give you facts, but gave you the tools to discover ideas yourself – or help you to invent new ones? While reading an article, what if you could annotate it, challenge the assumptions and share your insights with the world? What if you could collaborate in the same intellectual space with colleagues? What if your tools would not only allow you to consume content, but be imaginative creators, to interact with it, to construct knowledge? Imagine if you could collaborate with a computer in a symbiosis between man and machine?
The computer world is not yet finished and many ideas for the collective good are waiting to be discovered.
We shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us.
Please find the full transcript along with recommended reading material here.