In 1945 Vannevar Bush wrote a visionary and influential essay called 'As We May Think'. He foresaw key components of the Information Age – we would be able to store, transfer and access inconceivable masses of data, and this would transform the way we lived and worked. Interestingly, his article was a provocation to the scientists of the day, immediately following WWII, to divert their efforts from machines of war to machines of knowledge.
It's been important to me to root my examination of transitioning interaction paradigms in an understanding of the origins of modern computing. From the pioneering work of Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace, through John von Neumann, Alan Turing, Claude Shannon and countless others, leading to the first forays to make computing personal and establish a consumer industry.
What sets computers apart from all other tools previously invented is something called there universality. The computer was initially built and understood as an "arithmetic organ", yet it turns out – as nearly everything can be translated into numbers of some sort – to be able to process just about everything: images, sound, text, you name it. Furthermore, as Alan Turing established in a shocking 1936 paper, certain computing machines exist called "universal machines," which can, by adjusting their configuration, be made to do absolutely anything that any other computing machines can do. All modern computers are such universal computers.
Perhaps the most potent historical moment for me, through the lens of human computer interaction, is the work of Doug Englebart. Deeply inspired by Vannevar Bush's essay referred to at the start of this post, Englebart pioneered both the mouse and graphical user interface that are so familiar today. He understood that the new 'universal computing machines' in development could be personal, and in being personal could augment a person's intellect and abilities. I love his use of the word augmentation – the lab he founded at Stanford was called the Augmentation Research Center – and he explained the concept as follows in this key report:
By "augmenting human intellect" we mean increasing the capability of a man to approach a complex problem situation, to gain comprehension to suit his particular needs, and to derive solutions to problems. Increased capability in this respect is taken to mean a mixture of the following: more-rapid comprehension, better comprehension, the possibility of gaining a useful degree of comprehension in a situation that previously was too complex, speedier solutions, better solutions, and the possibility of finding solutions to problems that before seemed insoluble. And by "complex situations" we include the professional problems of diplomats, executives, social scientists, life scientists, physical scientists, attorneys, designers--whether the problem situation exists for twenty minutes or twenty years. We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human "feel for a situation" usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.
Here is his famous "Mother of All Demos":
Less well known than the mouse and graphical user interface is Englebart's Chorded Keyboard for typing, which never caught on. As he explains here, many years later, though the learning curve is steeper than a QWERTY keyboard the technique is actually more efficient once learnt.
Not only this, but the QWERTY keyboard is not even the most efficent key layout for a 'traditional' keyboard. It orginated as a solution for typewriters, and was introduced to digital computers simply because it was familiar to typists – creating an inefficient legacy solution that perists to this day, used by billions of people who will never touch a typewriter.
In some ways I'm looking at potentially inefficient legacy solution of the future. As I'll examine in a future post, multi-touch capactive touchscreens are excellent at certain types of tasks, and poor at others. But our desire for versatile devices that "do everything" means we may accept such inefficiencies as necessary evils – just as we have with the QWERTY keyboard.