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 The
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
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 author.
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 today.
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,
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
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
How has technology changed the way that you, personally, have
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
It goes back to the finding the information you want and when
you need it.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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