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.
New York Times
In eight books, Dr. Michael L. Dertouzosengineer, inventor, theoretician, and director of the Laboratory for Computer Science at MITpredicted the many ways the information revolution would affect human lives.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With wry humor and searing wit, the man Time magazine calls "MIT's #1 computer guru" disparages the high-tech devices (PCs, laptops, Web-friendly cell phones, hand-held digital organizersDwhat the author dismissively calls "weird animals") we've come to rely on so heavily but that often take forever to boot up, then crash and frustrate us to no end. (In a few years, he warns, there will be 10 times as many of these "creatures biting at" us.) Enough is enough, says Dertouzos (What Will Be). Instead, he envisions a time when we alternate ample leisure with intellectually stimulating work, seamlessly integrated by technology that spares us the inconveniences of modern life. The key, says Dertouzos, is "human-centric computing," technological devices that "talk with us, do things for us, get the information we want, help us work with other people, and adapt to our individual needs... [that] truly serve us, instead of the other way around." These are not generic recommendations; the book discusses both the existing technology and what is needed to bring it up to human-centric standards. It then offers a five-pronged approach that takes into account "both the human and computer sides of the relationship." A weakness in Dertouzo's argument, however, is the lack of discussion of competing design views or past failures in implementing these ideas. Human speech interaction, in particular, has been controversial since the 1960s and has occasioned many expensive flops; there is also a school of thought that early adopters have consistently preferred cutting-edge features to user-friendly ones. Still, the book is a readable and sensible application of design principles to computer technology, written at a level accessible to nonprofessionals. Agent, Ike Williams. (Jan. 31) Forecast: A well-known futurist and technology expert, Dertouzos will command significant attention on his 15-city tour to East and West Coast technology hot spots. Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Unfinished Revolution focuses on human-centered computers and how they can change our lives reveals a technology which adapts to people; a new concept in how designers are producing computers. Human-centered computing uses five key technologies which will expand human capabilities: Unfinished Revolution explains how these computers will change our professional specialties and personal lives alike.
Read an Excerpt
Weird animals surround me in my home, at work, everywhere I go. Every day I must spend hours feeding them, healing them, waiting for them. And the fighting! They hold each other hostage in asphyxiating headlocks. I scream at them, but they just grunt or stare back stupidly. When we do get along, and I'm feeling affection for them, they suddenly turn around and bite a chunk off my hide.
You are surrounded by these creatures, too the personal computers, laptops, handheld assistants, printers, Internet-savvy phones, music storage drives, and other digital wonders. They are everywhere and multiplying fast. Yet instead of serving us, we are serving them. We wait endlessly for our computers to boot up, and for bulky Web pages to paint themselves on our screens. We stand perplexed in front of incomprehensible system messages, and wait in frustration on the phone for computerized assistance. We constantly add software upgrades, enter odd instructions, fix glitches, only to sit in maddening silence when our machines crash, forcing us to start all over again, hoping against hope that they didn't take a piece of our intellectual hide with them. We'd never live in a house, work in an office, or ride in a car where we had to put up with a menagerie of such beasts. Yet we do it every day with our computer menagerie.
We shouldn't have to.
We have already gone so far down the road of serving computers that we've come to accept our servitude as necessary. It isn't. It is time for us to rise up with a profound demand: "Make our computers simpler to use!" Make them talk with us, do things for us, get theinformation we want, help us work with other people, and adapt to our individual needs. Only then will computers make us productive and truly serve us, instead of the other way around.
Is this possible? Certainly.
Before I reveal an entirely new approach to computer systems and their uses a new plan for human-centric computing let me assure you that in our new century, we have every right to expect fundamental reform. For 40 years computers have been shrines to which we pay dutiful homage. When something goes wrong, the "user"you and I feel that if we somehow had behaved better the trouble would not have arisen. But we are not at fault. The trouble lies in the current approach to computing.
If computers are to live up to the promise of serving us, they will have to change drastically and never again subject us to the frustrating experiences we have all shared.
Several colleagues from the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science and I are flying to Taiwan. I have been trying for three hours to make my new laptop work with one of these "smart cards" that plug into the machine and download my personal calendar. When the card software is happy, the operating system complains, and vice versa. Irritated, I turn to Tim Berners-Lee, sitting next to me, who graciously offers to assist. After an hour the inventor of the Web admits that the task is beyond his capabilities. I turn to Ron Rivest, inventor of RSA public key cryptography, and ask him to help. He declines, exhibiting his wisdom. A young faculty member behind us speaks up: "You guys are too old. Let me do it." He gives up after an hour and a half. So Igo back to my "expert" approach of typing random entries into the various wizards and lizards that keep popping up on the screen. After two more hours, and two batteries, I make it work, by sheer accident and without remembering how.
My friends on this flight were hardly incompetent. The problem was what I call the "unintegrated systems fault." Technologists design today's hardware and software systems without worrying enough about how these different pieces will work together. If the slightest conflict arises among an operating system, a communications network, a digital camera, a printer, or any other device, the modules become deadlocked, as do their makers, who point to one another, leaving you to resolve their differences. After I published this Taiwan anecdote in an August 1999 article in Scientific American, I received scores of letters from people who said, "I know exactly what you are talking about. Please fix it." The problem is not simply a "bug" to be worked out in existing systems, but rather an endemic mind-set that has characterized computer design for decades. Only a radical change can fix it.
It's 11 P.M. and I check my e-mail. Ninety-eight new messages have arrived since yesterday. At 2 to 3 minutes per message, my average response time, I'll need 4 hours to handle them. I'd like to grant them my highest security classfication, DBR "destroy before reading."
How do we handle this "overload fault?" We don't. Mostly, we feel guilty if we cannot respond to all the messages that come our way. Better e-mail software can relieve a lot of this burden. Better human behavior can go further. Human-centric computing means more than changing the hardware and software of computer systems. We must also improve the ways we use technology.
My son is searching the Web for information on Vespas, the Italian scooters that conquered Europe in the 1950s, which he loves to restore. The search engine has given him 2,545 hits and he is busy checking them out. His eyes squint and his brain labors to minimize the time he needs to decide whether he should keep or toss each entry. I imagine him in an ancient badlands, furiously shoveling through 2,545 mountains of dirt, looking for one nugget of hidden treasure. His shovel is diamond studded and it is stamped "high tech," so he is duly modern. Yet he is still shoveling!