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Your brain may give birth to any technology, but other brains will decide whether the technology thrives. The number of possible technologies is infinite, and only a few pass this test of affinity with human nature. -- Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
Some of the greatest discoveries . . . consist mainly in the clearing away of psychological roadblocks which obstruct the approach to reality; which is why, post factum, they appear so obvious. -- Arthur Koestler, The Sleepwalkers
Prediction is difficult, especially of the future. -- Yogi Berra
I realized that my life would never be the same again late one night in the fall of 1983 when I was a third-year undergraduate student in the Department of Industrial Engineering at the University of Toronto. I lived with my parents, and I had taken over their big teak dining-room table to do my homework. My textbooks, papers and class notes were spread out over its entire surface. It was 2:00a.m. and I had been working on a project nonstop since dinner -- something not uncommon for an undergraduate engineering student, but this time I noticed an important difference. I had been working hard, but the time had passed quickly, and although it was late, I wasn't tired and wanted to continue working. I realized I was staying up not because I had to, but because I wanted to. I was fascinated by what I was doing; I was actually enjoying it! I didn't feel that strongly about any other course -- differential equations, for instance. There was something different about this course, human factors engineering -- the unique area of engineering that tailors thedesign of technology to people, rather than expecting people to adapt to technology.1 I remember making a mental note to myself -- this human factors stuff is pretty cool.
Years later, I went on to do a master's and a doctorate, and became a professor of human factors engineering. In retrospect, I can see why the field exerted such a strong attraction: when I was growing up, I did well in science, computer and mathematics courses; I was curious -- probably annoyingly so -- always trying to figure out how things worked. But I also did relatively well in English classes, loved to read novels, liked being around people, and had a streak of altruism and dedication to socially relevant issues. So on the one hand, I exhibited the stereotypical "geek" profile of a budding engineer, but on the other, I also embraced some of the "artsy" characteristics of an activist and humanist. Human factors engineering, because it deals with people and technology, allowed me to pursue all of my interests -- to use both sides of my brain, not just half of it.
When I first thought of writing this book, my goal was to explain the social relevance of my discipline to an educated lay audience, because hardly anybody has heard of human factors engineering even though the lack of fit between us and our technologies burdens our lives daily and has even changed the course of human history (I am not exaggerating, as you will see in the pages that follow). But I wound up doing something quite different, and the reasons why are instructive.
About 95 per cent of the work done by human factors engineers is relatively narrow and deals with designing for individual needs: ergonomic office chairs, user-friendly software, and the like. But what I'm going to describe in this book deals with a vastly broader set of problems arising out of the relationship between people and technology, not just at the level of the individual but also at the team level, the organizational and even the political level. I could tell you that this is what human factors engineering is and you'd probably take my word for it because you've never heard of the discipline anyway. But most of the conceptual territory that I'm staking out in this book has not been extensively travelled, let alone actively explored or thoroughly mined by my discipline.
That's an important observation because the negative impact of technology on contemporary society goes well beyond the frustrations caused by the myriad user-unfriendly widgets that surround us in the modern world. The negative impact is also clear in much larger problems, like the terrifying impact of fatal medical errors, the irreversible devastation of our natural environment, the deadly threats to safety in the aviation and nuclear power sectors, the contamination of our drinking water, and even the integrity of the democratic process. Don't get me wrong -- this isn't a book of complaints and whining about the negative consequences of technology. On the contrary, most of the pages that follow will be devoted to discovering how to make technological systems serve our needs. I hope it will take readers on a journey of understanding, and I'll begin the journey by giving a sense of why technology is wreaking havoc, and providing a new way of thinking that makes the human factor central to the design of effective technology in the modern world, whether it be a gadget or a more complex system. Then I'll go on to describe a number of solutions to show what we can and must do to regain control of technology, in our daily lives, in our businesses and in our society at large.
We already know how to design technology that works for people. But what is now becoming clear is that we could apply this knowledge much more widely, we could help solve many persistent social problems of local and global interest and improve the quality of life of everyone on the planet. As a result, the relationship between people and technology isn't just of primary concern to human factors engineers; it's also relevant to a growing number of people from many different walks of life -- perhaps you're one of them -- people who don't think of themselves as human factors engineers. The problems we're facing as a society are so complex and so pressing that they simply will not yield to any one discipline or profession. They require the adaptation of technology to human nature on a grand scale -- what I am calling in this book a "Human-tech Revolution."