A few hours before I started reading Michael Dertouzos's The Unfinished Revolution, I was furious, angry -- you might even say downright spitting mad. You see, my boyfriend and I, both with limited money and free time to spare, had decided to use our computer to create our Christmas cards. It seemed like an easy enough task until we attempted to print the address labels. The ZIP codes, although properly in place on our computer screen, refused to show up on the printouts. After running through about $50 worth of Avery sheets, I started plotting ways to throw the printer out the window, while my boyfriend cursed at the screen and repeatedly pressed the Control-Alt-Delete keys.
If you've ever had a similarly frustrating experience with your PC, not only will you love Dertouzos's latest work, you'll want to email passages of text to engineers and executives at every major computer, software, and networking technology company. You see, even Dertouzos -- who is more high-tech than most high-tech moguls and has pioneered countless technological developments as director of MIT's prestigious Laboratory for Computer Science -- can't figure out those automated voice mail systems that make you press 1 if you have a touch-tone phone and 7 to hear the instructions in Spanish. That's why his new book resonates for everyone. He shares all of our high-tech frustrations and argues that we must accept nothing short of human-centered computers.
"Once we change our mind-set in earnest," he writes, "we will no longer put up with the maddening computer faults we now suffer.... No longer will we be seduced by fancy buzzwords like 'multi-media,' 'intelligent agents,' 'push-versus-pull technologies,'...and a few hundred others already with us and yet to come."
The most refreshing thing about Dertouzos's new work is the fact that it never abandon's his "keep it simple" philosophy. He uses simple metaphors to help readers envision the creation of truly human-centric systems. (One of my favorites is an "e-bulldozer" that helps us with the overwhelming amount of "information shoveling" that we face every day.) The book's different sections present five human-centric forces -- speech understanding, automation, individualized information access, collaboration, and customization -- and clearly explain why the existence of all five is entirely plausible in the near future. Unlike so many business and technology books of the past five years, this is not a collection of pie-in-the-sky futurist hype. Instead, it's a common sense refashioning of our collective focus when it comes to technology.
If Dertouzos is at all guilty of futuristic fantasizing, it's in his argument for breaking down economic barriers and making computers available to individuals in the world's developing nations. "Imagine a new breed of useful counseling exchanges between the rich people of the West, who are often troubled by depression, divorce, and family problems, and the poor people of the East, who seem to counterbalance lack of money with strong family ties and inner peace." Although this reviewer is all for equal access to technology, it's hard to imagine, as Dertouzos suggests, that leveling the technology playing field will eliminate our need for psychotherapy and family counseling.
Despite such minor faults, The Unfinished Revolution will be a great start to your new year's reading. It will help you begin 2001 on an optimistic note. Instead of throwing that printer out the window or forcefully pressing Control-Alt-Delete, you'll want to join Dertouzos in finishing what is sure to be one of this century's most important revolutions.
--Amy Lambo is a freelance writer and editor living in New York City.