I’m going to indulge in a rare bit of tech nostalgia, but it’s for a good purpose. Early Silicon Valley was full of promise, and it was also rough-and-tumble in cultural and corporate ways. I thought “80 Hours a Week and Loving It” t-shirts were insulting and, because bosses handed them out, manipulative.
More than the work culture, the times were defining how personal computers work-look-operate, and how they are used for what kinds of things. Those decisions (AKA accidents, domino effects) are so fundamental to the familiar devices we use that — unless you happen to have a long memory and were paying attention — today’s users assume this is… just the way computers are.
Original thinkers have to ask themselves back to the uttermost fundamentals: why a screen? must we sit in order to be comfortably productive? can’t we get rid of pointing devices and just select with a look and a blink — incidentally fixing the widespread dry-eye problem?
We have not been sentenced to the familiar.
I wish we could resurrect some important presentations by Jef Raskin. Apart from his history at Apple, he is easily remembered as the inventor of the Canon Cat. That machine was an also-ran contender in the era of word processors, when manufacturers were still figuring out how to become marketers. The Cat might have been brilliant, and I’ll leave the tale of its brief history to others.
I’m sure Jef was disappointed his tech-child didn’t set the world on fire. His concepts of interface were novel and deep, they made exquisite sense, and conferred much greater degrees of power on the user. I never asked, but I wonder if he thought the Mac’s “computers for the rest of us” slogan was condescending, dumbing-down PCs rather than elevating users.
Could a new approach eliminate tech support?
What if the clarity of a new interface paradigm — one that might even allow users to transcend windows and menus and cursors — were such that instead of hunting for keystrokes and nested navigation and drag-dropping, people had more moments of, “It’s right here.” They would be more empowered. We would spend less time thinking of the device and more on our task. Device-interactions needn’t be so persistent and insistent a layer between us and the immediacy of our life experience.
If we don’t imagine it, we won’t conceive it.
A huge amount of specific knowledge, like Jef’s, is lost — and those specifics might no longer be pertinent anyway. But tech thinkers and explorers willing to take a turn into novel territory, willing to risk exposing themselves to the unfamiliar and to criticism, and who hold the human(e)-machine interface paramount? Those people are required in order for tech to take the next evolutionary steps. Such an evolution, I believe, could re-ignite the greater potential of these devices for larger swaths of future users.