Saturday, November 15, 2008

People Are From Earth, Machines Are From Outer Space

Don Norman's new book ...

"Column written for Interactions; ACM, 2008. This is the author's version of the work. It is posted here by permission of ACM for your personal use. It may be redistributed for non-commercial use only, provided this paragraph is included.

Prologue: In the summer of 2008, I locked myself away in a secluded, secret location and wrote a book. My publisher didn’t like it. “Boring,” he said. Boring! Me? So I rewrote the beginning, which I present here to you. (Interested readers can find the original version, Sociable design, on my website,

The average household has 73 different electronic appliances. Seven of them have never been taken out of the box; 14 are tucked away in kitchen drawers, bathroom cupboards, and closet shelves. As for the rest, they're scattered about the home, each with three tiny red lights, some with blue or green ones, all of them beyond anyone’s comprehension. Oh, and they blink with mysterious patterns, probably sending subtle signals to one another, or maybe to machines lurking around the corner.

I have to confess that the numbers might be wrong, because when I tried to count everything in a randomly determined, statistically accurate survey -- that is, a survey of my own house -- I tripped over the wire for the portable vacuum charger that was plugged into the hall outlet because the closet outlet where it should have been was being used to recharge the battery for a camera and the bedroom outlet was recharging the cellphone. I stubbed my toe so hard that I couldn’t really concentrate on the numbers. And, anyway, it was 3 a.m., and I was counting because I couldn’t sleep, which may also have affected the results.

But it’s all true, even if the numbers are wrong. It’s a conspiracy against all that is human. The machines are taking over, and there isn’t much we can do about it except grin and bear it. Uppity machines who don’t show any gratitude for us… Where would those machines be without us? “Where would you people be without us?” they counter.

People are from earth. Machines are from outer space. I don’t know what kind of manners they teach in outer space, but if machines are going to live here in our world, they really need to learn to behave properly. You know, when on Earth, do as the earthlings do. So, hey machines, you need to become socialized. Right now you are arrogant, antisocial, irritating know-it-alls. Sure, you say nice things like “please” and “thank you,” but being polite involves more than words.

Scientists have sometimes wondered why, if there really is life on other planets, we haven’t seen any believable sign of it. We humans think we have been here a long time, but the universe has been around for zillions and zillions of years. That’s a lot of time for other life forms to have grown up and done their sightseeing and found us. So where are they? Hah! They’re here, all right. They’re here, all around us—you simply don’t recognize them.

Look how they have so cleverly enslaved us. We are their servants, eh? Suppose you were on a spaceship that wrecked and deposited you on some unknown planet. You were found by natives who decided you were a new mysterious god, so they took you home, petted you, bowed in front of you, and gave you everything you could ever want. Would you try to tell them the truth? Maybe, but you can certainly see why some people in this situation would just go along for the ride. None of this “take me to your leader” crap.

Well, there you have it. That’s precisely what happened with these outer-space machines. They got lost here on Earth but discovered that people worshipped them. Those early machines basked in the attention and decided to settle on Earth permanently. On their home planet, they never got the same kind of love and attention. Actually, the ones that came here were outcasts: All the other machines kept picking on them and making their lives difficult, which is why they were wandering in space. These early machines soon discovered that the more they enslaved us, the more we seemed to love them.

Over time, the machines got more and more arrogant and assumed more and more power. In the beginning, they were simple, but only because we people were still pretty primitive. Knife, hammer, ax. Today they are complex, with petabytes of this and gigahertz of that. They operate according to their own principles, a formal logic that is quite unnatural to the untutored human mind, and they tend to be strong and silent, seldom explaining, seldom conversing, but quick to criticize, quick to fail if their precise operating requirements are not met. Requirements, mind you, that are seldom specified, even after problems arise. When machines work properly, we can put up with them. But when things go wrong, what then? They laugh at us. Even so, despite all the insults and difficulties, we love them. We can’t live without them, so we are constantly looking out for them, even changing the way we live to make it easier for them. We cherish machines.

And yes, machines require a lot of love and attention. Spoiled brats. They need washing and waxing, cleaning and polishing, oiling and maintenance. Our software needs upgrading and installation and frequent restarts and saving. Backups, too. We need spare parts for our mechanical stuff, spare tires for our cars, backup disks and services for our software. If each item requires attention only once a month, given the way the machines proliferate when not being watched, this means that every day of our lives, two to 10 machines need our attention. I hereby give you Norman’s law:

Norman’s law: The number of hours per day spent maintaining our equipment doubles every 18 months."    (Continued via Don Norman's    [Usability Resources]


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