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Making Peace with Machines
on July 29, 2000
What if we put aside worrying about how computers will replace human thought and behavior and focused, instead, on the fundamental differences and complementary strengths of humans and machines? Perhaps then we could make best use of the things that have the potential to make us smart. Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, takes the insights he is famous for, regarding the design of everyday objects, and turns these towards a thoughtful consideration of the high tech objects in our lives.
Norman contends that what machines are best at are memorization and calculation, and that part of our fears about them come from comparing ourselves mentally to computers with regard to these dimensions. This is a fundamentally flawed way to think about the relationships between humans and computers.
He encourages us, instead, to optimize the powerful potential of computation in order to liberate ourselves for more important ends, such as the time and capacity for deep reflective thought. In this way, and in other ways, he advocates for a human-centered approach to technology.
Humans make tools and build objects, or artifacts; and the artifacts we build help to make us smart. They remind us of important things and when designed well help us accomplish important things and provide "affordances" for desired behaviors and outcomes.
We need to develop better and keener senses of design. With regard to computers, the more we can unload, the more conceptual knowledge that we can convert into "experiential" knowledge through the use of such things as powerful computer-based data representations, the more we will free ourselves for higher order reflective thought and human judgment.
Norman convincingly argues that rather than locking ourselves in a battle of turf with machines, we should take advantage of the ways machines, like other human-designed objects, can, indeed, help to make us smart.