Social Machines

February 3, 2013 — Leave a comment

Social Machines The Design of Future Things by Donald A. Norman. Basic Books. 2007. 231 pages. $27.50. Available from the Futurist Bookshelf,

A new book argues that machines work best when they help us perform, not perform in our stead.

“Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, simple or direct than does Nature. In her inventions, nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous,” Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci once remarked. Former Apple vice president Donald Norman’s Design of Future Things is very much rooted in this Leonardesque sentiment. The short, conversational book serves as both a meditation on the nature of human-machine interaction and a warning: invention that ignores the human, the artful, and the natural will fail both conspicuously and disastrously.

“We are confronting a new breed of machine with intelligence and autonomy, machines that can indeed take over for us in many situations,” Norman writes. “In many cases, they will make our lives more effective, more fun, and safer. In others, however, they will frustrate us, get in our way, and even increase danger. For the first time, we have machines that are attempting to interact with us so-cially.”

We spend ever more time conversing with machinery. In the obvious sense, this means more interfacing (the technologist’s preferred term) with a wider variety of devices: selecting from an assortment of rinse cycles on our washer; setting lighting systems, motion detectors, and security devices as we leave the house; starting up the car; programming the MP3 player, GPS computer, and even the cruise control before actually hitting the gas.

As our interfacing opportunities increase, so does the potential for human-object miscommunication. Machines may work like clockwork, but they handle surprises like robots- which is to say, poorly. We rely on them when we shouldn’t and find ourselves (ironically) lost after following the directions of a computer that can neither see nor drive, mopping up after a stubborn washer that refuses to stop when we open the lid midcycle, apologizing to the police on our doorstep for our well-intentioned but overly vigilant security systems.

What’s missing from the human- machine relationship, says Norman, is a sense of respectful partnership. His book is full of examples of what a better tête-à-tête might look like. A Microsoft Cambridge “smart” home actually seeks to make its occupants smarter, allowing family members to leave messages on digital surfaces viewable anywhere throughout-or outside-the house. It’s a vision of home as digital administrative assistant rather than as butler. A Georgia Tech smart home can watch you cook and-if you have to break away to answer the phone-remind you where you left off. Bad memory? The house also monitors your prescriptions and can let your family do the same. After all, who knows you best?

“Both groups of researchers could have tried to make the devices intel-ligent,” Norman points out. “Instead, both groups devised systems t h a t would f i t smoothly into people’s life styles. Both systems rely upon powerful, advanced technology, but the guiding philosophy for each group is augmentation, not automation.”

Automobiles are another example of machines that could become less automatic and more “social.” Radio frequency identification and similar technologies already allow cars to communicate with tollbooths, so why not with other cars? It will be a long time before such car-to-car collaboration eliminates the need for traffic lights and speed limits. In the meantime, cars that could better negotiate their position, speed, and distance with one another would most certainly prevent wrecks.

What’s most important, says Norman, is that the inventors of the future transcend the binary distinction between the practice of art and the science of engineering and move toward a comprehensive “science of design.” The notion harkens back to sixteenth-century Florence, a time and place where broad knowledge and boundless curiosity were considered as valuable as narrow expertise or a declared major. If a more generalist approach yields objects that better reflect the coherence of nature- rather than the whim of marketers -then the objects of tomorrow will be unquestionably smarter.

-Patrick Tucker

Originally published in THE FUTURIST, May-June 2008.


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