Creating the Future

Being married to someone with a masters degree in professional counseling has its drawbacks, but also, on occasion, has benefits. Last night I came home from work quite distracted. After eating dinner and getting the kids to bed Liz asked me what was wrong. I told her nothing was wrong, I was just ruminating. So we talked for a while about human-computer interaction. Then she stopped me and asked, “what’s the deeper issue here, you seem kind of pissed off.” You know, I am kind of pissed off.

I’m pissed off because Bret, in his post about the future of interface design, denigrated the very thing I’m most passionate about and spend every day working on — Multi-Touch user interfaces on touch screen devices. Well, just iOS really. In his follow up post, Bret did clarify that he doesn’t think the iPhone and iPad are bad, for now anyway, but overall the follow-up was similarly dismissive.

I’ve already said enough about some of Bret’s arguments I think are flawed, but I want to talk more about the tone of his post. I think it was arrogant, distasteful, and ultimately counter productive.

“I call this technology Pictures Under Glass. Pictures Under Glass sacrifice all the tactile richness of working with our hands, offering instead a hokey visual facade.”

“Pictures Under Glass is an interaction paradigm of permanent numbness. It’s a Novocaine drip to the wrist.”

“To me, claiming that Pictures Under Glass is the future of interaction is like claiming that black-and-white is the future of photography. It’s obviously a transitional technology. And the sooner we transition, the better.”

“The next time you make a sandwich, pay attention to your hands… Then compare your experience to sliding around Pictures Under Glass. Are we really going to accept an Interface Of The Future that is less expressive than a sandwich?”

“This photo could very well could be our future. But why? Why choose that? It’s a handheld device that ignores our hands.”

“Pictures Under Glass is old news.”

“With an entire body at your command, do you seriously think the Future Of Interaction should be a single finger?”

[There were a few other choice bits that Bret has now removed from his post. I’m not going to dig them up just to prove my point, I’m glad he was embarrassed enough to remove them.]

I’m not a luddite. I love thinking about and discussing the future, and Bret’s post did inspire me to think more deeply about the potential for more tactile human-computer interaction, but part of creating the future is understanding and building upon the past. In “Everything is a Remix”, Kirby Ferguson put it this way:

“The act of creation is surrounded by a fog of myths. Myths that creativity comes via inspiration. That original creations break the mold, that they’re the products of geniuses, and appear as quickly as electricity can heat a filament. But creativity isn’t magic: it happens by applying ordinary tools of thought to existing materials.

And the soil from which we grow our creations is something we scorn and misunderstand, even though it gives us so much… and that’s copying. Put simply, copying is how we learn. We can’t introduce anything new until we’re fluent in the language of our domain, and we do that through emulation.”

To think that denigrating the past will inspire the future is a fundamental misunderstanding of creation.

And in regard to Pictures Under Glass, it’s not even the past — it’s the present and the near-term future. We’re still in the infancy of this revolutionary technology. And we don’t even fully grasp why it’s so revolutionary.

Maybe this is a joke that just went way over my head, but I can’t believe Bret would say in his follow-up: “You know, I kind of wish Jean Piaget was still around to watch kids using touch screens and figure out what’s really going on.” What’s really going on is that kids, people with learning disabilities, people with visual impairment, people who have never touched a computer in their lives are all interacting with computers in ways we never thought possible. It’s absolutely astonishing — we do need to study it! And what we learn will help inform the future of interaction design, not validate Bret’s dismissive attitude.

Let’s celebrate and strive to better understand the past as we create the future — it works much better that way.