my many years working in the technology industry, I have been inspired
by Michael Dertouzos. Whether it was posting his articles and insights
on my walls and office door, or frequently discussing his work with
colleagues, he has always helped illuminate my path. In fact, Dertouzos
helped inspire one of the most meaningful career changes. Many people
had a hard time understanding how I could walk away from my job
as head of PeopleSoft’s immensely profitable education organization
to launch their smaller User-centered Design department. But for
me there was no other option. I was tired of applying band-aids
to problems instead of caring for their cause. Following Dertouzos’
lead, it became apparent to me that the ultimate source of the need
for many kinds of training is that organizations don’t focus on
being human-centered above everything else; nor do they realize
that technology should support, not be, that effort. I have
since dedicated my career to focusing on the human-factor, and I’m
still being inspired by Dertouzos’ wisdom and humanity. I spoke
with him while he was beginning the media tour for his new book
Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers and What They Can
Do for Us (HarperBusiness, 2001). I hope you find his insights
as profound as I do.
Would you begin by telling us a little about how you define human-centered
computing—especially, what does “human-centered” mean to you?
Human-centered means that machines are here to serve us rather
than we being here to serve them, which is what’s happening today.
directly, it means that we can communicate with our hands free and
hit our level, which means speaking to these machines. There’s a
huge difference between being able to speak to your machine and
having to type or use all kinds of archaic forms of communication
not natural to us. Speaking has been with us for thousands of years.
It’s absolutely the most natural form of communication and the technology
is now ready to move forward much more than ever before. We’ve promised
speech before, but it was never ready. Now it’s bursting at the
seams. That’s the first thing of what it means to be human-centered.
The second thing is to automate the routine things that we do
today. It’s amazing how hard people work with computers now. They
work more than they did before and that’s because we haven’t learned
how to automate things. I give lot examples in The Unfinished
Revolution of how we can do simple things. For example, next
time George calls or sends emails, route everything to me. Or, take
us to Paris this weekend. It takes three seconds to say that to
the machine and then it takes ten minutes to book the flight.
you automate office work, which is 60% of our economy, you can give
each of us a tremendous benefit. So that’s a second thing it means
to be human-centered, automation.
third thing is the ability to work with others across space and
time. That’s not only from poor countries to rich, but from rich
to rich and poor to poor, just working with each other not only
for money but also for free, for personal reasons. Proffering and
receiving human work from a distance and across time is the third
dimension of human-centered.
fourth dimension of human-centered is getting that information sorted
by what we mean, and not by those results that only match words,
which is what happens today with search engines. There’s a tremendous
human need for finding what you need when you need it. The doctor
wants to access diagnostic information and Medline from oncology
databases. The banker wants to access financial information. Most
people want to access simple things like, “What’s the weather?”
and, “Is my grandmother’s train on time?” And we should be able
to have access to good information when we want it and that’s the
whole of what we need. That is possible to get today; much better
than we have it, and it provides an extra dimension to human-centered.
Doing more, customizing our systems to rise to each of us is very
important. In our industrial era, we had the carpenters’ and jewelers’
hammers that were different. Now we have the same word processor
for a six year old, or for you, a journalist, or for me, a technologist
And if anything, we’re seeing fewer of those tools, not more. No
wonder so many of us are frustrated.
Finally, human-centered means attitudes, too. It means not being
happy with only 5% of the people being interconnected when 95% are
not. Speech can open the door to a billion illiterate people who
cannot read or write, but they can speak. Speech also opens the
door to the Chinese who have Idiographic characters, which are difficult
to reproduce with keyboards. Bringing more people into where they
can use these technologies to benefit and help the people in the
African bush with education and agriculture. All that is part of
human-centered on the social front. This is directed to what we
want to do with technology rather than serving its faddishness and
its mechanistic details.
I see in you someone struggling to help the world see where humanity
and technology intersect. Is that accurate?
Indeed. That is the center of my interest. And as you call it
an intersection, I call it the juncture. Technology is moving very
fast, like a jet plane and humans are rocks standing still for thousands
of years, physically, intellectually, emotionally, and only rarely
do the screeching, expanding technology and the rock come into alignment.
When they do, great things happen because technology is serving
a human purpose. So, you are absolutely right. Humanity and technology
is my central interest.
In the last chapter of your new book, The Unfinished Revolution,
you say, “Let’s not talk about technology anymore, but what we need
to be doing with our lives...”
That is also a topic of a long over due book that I’m going
to write some day before I die, I hope. As you know, I liken human
beings to a four cylinder car.
That sounds like quite a stretch. Would you explain?
All right. Cylinder number one is our physical dimension and
cylinder number two is our rational, logical dimension. That’s of
course where technology and science reside. The third cylinder is
our emotional, our artistic, humanistic stuff. And the fourth cylinder
is our spiritual dimension, the awe we feel for the unknown.
feel that the human being is the totality of these four cylinders
or dimensions and we’ve been running on those four cylinders for
thousands of years. In fact, that combination really got into the
way of science when (about three hundred years ago) the priests
would not let the scientists work. Then came the enlightenment and
that eventually led to our splitting apart these four cylinders,
letting the scientists grow and the technology flourish. These steps
then led to the industrial revolution and finally to where we are
But, we stayed
split. So, now, we’re running on a single cylinder or maybe two
cylinders at most.
Would you bring that back to Human-centered computing?
What I ask now is, “How can the human-centered computers help
us in these four dimensions of our human activity.” The answers
are straightforward. In the physical dimension (cylinder one) and
the rational or logical dimension (cylinder two), human-centered
computers are going to help us do even more by doing less. We are
going to automate information work. We’re going to really get 300%
of human productivity improvement there. We’re going to be working
with others across space and time obliterating national boundaries.
It’s going to be a honeymoon. If you liked the industrial revolution,
you’re going to marvel at this.
In the emotional,
artistic, and humanistic dimensions (cylinder three), results are
very mixed. There’s a partial gain from the human-centered computers
because you can compose your writings and your poems and your art
(your visual art and your sculpture) and whatever else you’re creating.
Machines can do that and they can do a wonderful job for your research
of background, your accounting, your economies, but they can’t help
you create something better. The results are really a mixed bag.
You get a little help, but not too much.
When it comes
to the fourth cylinder, the spiritual dimension, there is absolutely
no help I can see. It’s an inner situation where no external force
can really help.
Let’s apply that.
All right. If you are a businessperson with a lot of scientists
or “techies” with a strong belief in rationality, then you’re going
to be the winner. You’re going to be tickled pink, delighted with
this new development. If you are a poet, then I think you’re going
to be sort of half and half, maybe less than half because you will
get some help, but not necessarily any that will make you a better
poet. And if you are a monk, forget it.
you mentioned technology and humanity because the closure for me
is that if we really want to look at when technology and humanity
are going to catch up with each other (so to speak) it’s after we
have caught up with our own humanity—learning
how to live running on all four dimensions—all four cylinders.
I’m not saying this because I’m advocating some cockamamie theory
or some religion. But it’s simply because if you believe, as I do,
that it’s the four cylinders that makes us human, we’ve got to run
on all four of them because that’s all we’ve got, no more, no less.
It’s a simple
observation. If we were cockroaches, we might have only two cylinders.
But we’re human and we have four. That’s all we’ve been given by
nature or God. It is my plea that we unite these split apart pieces.
Then we’ll be able to admire the sunset, the wheel, and what may
lie behind them.
That’s quite a plea. I would like to think, however, that the artistic
or the emotional gifts may come out more from people who have been
relying on their rational and logic dimensions because they wouldn’t
necessarily have thought about sitting down and composing some of
these things before.
Well exactly. The notion is that if we save three and a half
days out of the workweek, which is what 300% does, you work one
and a half days and you have three and a half days free. Or if you
prefer, you work three months and have the rest of the year free.
The question is, “What do we do with that extra gain?”
I like the
term “elected leisure” because it contains a lot of what you said
but it also has other things in it. You don’t necessarily have to
be creative. You can rest if you want. You can sit and admire a
flower. Or, you can work on something else. You can really do what
you want to do even if it’s not that attractive to others.
The kind of behavior and thinking we all adopted in the industrial
era, which is that we work twice as hard to get two cars and a house
(now we are going to get three cars) becomes a trap to us. What
are we going to do with the extra time, the wins from the productivity
gain? I would like to see us unite our four cylinders and ride on
all four of them as we tackle that question. But make no mistake;
that is an individual decision and beauty of life lies in making
that decision individually, each of us, for the one thing we can
control, more or less, our lives.
I often refer to the basic model of simplicity where the intent
is not for simplicity’s sake but rather to provide the time to do
whatever matters—and hopefully to have fun.
It should be fun. I’m basically optimistic because it’s tremendous
fun being human, you know. If you are pessimistic, you’re forgotten
in the next hour. I have no use for pessimists. I am optimistic
about this human race. I really believe that if we run on all four
of our cylinders, we’ll enjoy our lives more. I’m not trying to
impress my own principles on anybody else; I’m simply observing
that to be human is to have different dimensions and to run on them.
How has technology changed the way that you, personally, have been
I’ve been fairly impressed in the simulator and kinetics areas,
learning how to fly. The training provided by a simulator is pretty
powerful. I can extend that beyond me to doctors learning how to
do surgery without cutting into people and things like that. Unfortunately,
as you go beyond that, the jury is really out as to how computers
can help education and we don’t really know very much.
Has the learning actually improved with the Internet and technology?
I love to program and I love to find books I thought would be
impossible to find. Both of those have improved. My wife’s grandparents
have been conservationists. Her two grandfathers have written ten
books among them and so I’ll end up on Bibliofind, where there
are these very old books, and I just put in two grandfathers’ names
and I got all ten books. There are some five or six hundred bookstores
on it united worldwide and they have a common search engine. So,
if you ask for a book you just find it wherever it is.
It goes back to the finding the information you want and when you
That’s right. You know I could have never done this in pre-Internet
days. So, I certainly have been able to extend my abilities with
that. It’s wonderful to be able to go on the Internet and look for
other things that I like. I happen to be designing sundials these
days so I like books on sundials. I find things like that on the
Internet. It’s also great for email. It’s a love and hate relationship
there. I have benefited immensely from things all of us have: the
credit card system, the airline reservation system, and things we
could never have done without computers. I love to program and enjoy
being able to control my computer to do what I want it to do. I
program everything from games to, right now, I’m working on a sundial
that I’ve programmed. So there are many, many, many dimensions of
what this has meant to me. But if you ask have I learned from this
more than I have by reading, I would say, “No.”
You probably have a little less time to do that reading, though.
No, I have plenty of time to read. I make it.
Well I hope everyone makes the time to read what you have written.
I know that I’ve learned an awful lot from you.
That is very kind, Marcia. Please don’t lose your faith.
L. Dertouzos has been heading the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's
Laboratory for Computer Science for more than 25 years. He
is author of numerous articles and books including The
Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers and What They Can
Do for Us, What
Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives
and co-author of Made
in America: Regaining the Productive Edge. A visionary
noted for infusing idealism with realism, Dertouzos has spent much
of his career studying and forecasting technological shifts and
their impact on society, and leading his lab to make these shifts
a reality. Learn more about him at http://www.lcs.mit.edu.
Conner is editor in chief of LiNE Zine and CEO of Learnativity. Her work
as a writer, consultant, and executive coach all stem from her fanatical
drive to help people excel in life by learning all of the time and
focusing on what matters most. Tell her what you’re learning at
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