Brain Pickings

People-Dependent Technology: Designing with Our Highest Ideals for One Another

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“…design everything on the assumption that people are not heartless or stupid but marvellously capable, given the chance.”

Someone dear once lent me a remarkable out-of-print book by John Chris Jones, the first professor of design at the Open University, entitled The Internet and Everyone* (public library) — a tiny, thick tome printed in an impossibly small font that embodies the uncomfortable, nonlinear urgency of the budding medium it explores. It contains a series of letters Jones had written in the mid-90s, as the Internet was beginning to take shape, “without knowing what was coming next.” Sometimes erratic, often intense, always insightful, these meditative missives present a rare time-capsule of a tipping point in the history of contemporary culture and media — an early vision for the Internet as a force of cultural awakening.

Among Jones’ many keen observations is a response to a question by Thomas Mitchell about what constitutes bad design. This particular portion, exploring “people-dependent technology,” is reminiscent of Paola Antonelli’s insistence upon humanized technology:

3 ‘PEOPLE-DEPENDENT TECHNOLOGY’

That is a new term for which as yet I can think of no examples — it is my current hope.

What I envisage is that, instead of designing everything (and particularly computer software) on the assumption that ‘people are going to behave like machines’ — that is, without feeling, love, hatred, anticipation, intuition, imagination, etc. (the very qualities we think of when we ask what it is to be human) — we design everything on the assumption that people are not heartless or stupid but marvellously capable, given the chance, each and every one. I’d like to see machines, systems, environments of all kinds, made such that if they are to work well everyone who uses or inhabits them is challenged to act at her or his best and that there are no built-in obstacles to doing that. The main obstacles to this at present are not so much the machines and technical processes but the presence of our other selves, as paid guardians, ‘protecting’ every one of us from our ‘mechanically stupefied selves’ and enforcing rules of behaviour and design which assume that ‘users know nothing and producers know all’.

An edited version of this correspondence appears in Mitchell’s 1996 book, New Thinking in Design: Conversations on Theory and Practice.

* Does the cover feel familiar? Perhaps it’s because it inspired the cover of another, much more recent and equally important media bible — James Gleick’s The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood.

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