Today, thoughts about the "user interface" and
technological change. The University of Houston's
College of Engineering presents this series about
the machines that make our civilization run, and
the people whose ingenuity created them.
Have you ever noticed how
form survives technological revolutions? It's
astonishing when you think about it. Huge
similarities always remain when our best machines
undergo radical change.
The circular face of a sundial, with its shadow
moving left to right, was copied straight into the
faces of water clocks. Water clocks used a float,
in a steadily filling or draining tank, to tell
time. But that float drove gears, and the gears
drove hands around a dial.
Then the tick-tock mechanical escapement radically
improved clock accuracy. It also made clocks
smaller and cheaper. But, changed as they were,
clocks still had dials, bells, and gears. Medieval
writers had almost nothing to say about the new
mechanism inside, so historians still aren't sure
when that change took place. You see, the outward
form, the clock face, did not change.
Then, around 1920, another radical change. This
time, electrical timing elements used the steady
oscillation of alternating current to replace the
mechanical escapement. Accuracy took another leap
forward. But clocks still looked the same.
Now quartz crystals confuse the issue again. My
desk clock not only has the circular face of a
sundial or a water clock. It also has a second hand
that moves in little jumps -- as though it were
controlled by an escapement mechanism. Designers
understood on a visceral level that the meeting
ground between the user and the machine should
never change any more than it has to.
Try another technology: printed books tell the same
story. Hand-written manuscript books had the
familiar features of books today. Pages were folded
into gatherings and gatherings sewn together and
laced between hard covers, as they still are today.
When Gutenberg began printing with movable metal
type, he did far more than just copy the old
structure of books. He also made print look just
like the work of scribes. It often takes a trained
eye to tell an early printed book from a manuscript
book. Movable type made books cheap and abundant.
Yet we readers still receive information the same
way we did 1000 years ago.
Now I sit before a personal computer, working on
what's clearly recognizable as a typewriter
keyboard. Once more, the place where I meet the
machine, for all its imperfect arrangement, is old
and well loved. It simply will not be abandoned.
Friends ask me, over and over, "How much change
will we have to undergo?" The answer is a surprise:
where the user meets the machine is where we will
not tolerate change -- even though the machine
itself is mutating into something so different as
to redirect human history.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds