Monday, June 20, 2011

This has all happened before, and it will all happen again

Pretty regularly, I read or read a discussion of how technology is forging new ground, either for good or ill. But either way, it's all new and therefore we have no idea how it will turn out, etc. Except far too often that's not true. Maybe I look at things too broadly (e.g. I think bound paper things are relatively interactive), but I see lots and lots and lots of parallels throughout history. One example that has stuck with me is the development of the spreadsheet (like Excel, but it very much wasn't the first one). There are a number of pundits that say not just that VisiCalc was the first killer app, but that it was developed from whole cloth. Nothing existed like it before. Except it did. Go look up how to use a ledger book. They're not even like slide rules or abacuses (abacaii?) and are still sold at, based on the variety, a pretty good clip. Another is the ongoing discussion of the future of news media. The old-school reporting staff and well-curated model is, well, old and traditional. What ever will happen to us when this all new world of information gathered from anyone who wants to write up their version of events, from eyewitnesses, and so on? Well, maybe the same thing that happened in the early days of papers, when that's just where the content came from. They'd just print letters on the front page, and often multiple conflicting accounts with no overview or attempt to rectify it. What will the whole world be like when it's nothing but aggregators of individual articles like this?
And I'm not even just being a naysayer here. You can learn valuable lessons from these history lessons. Spreadsheets were designed to be computerized ledgers, adding a few shortcuts to increase accuracy and efficiency like calculation. But that has empowered them to be even more capable, in ways that could not have been predicted. News in the old days More recently, I've been reading this history of the development of the Mac and considering how they came to these decisions on UI which we now see as being fundamental truths. And I often like to re-visit the early history of computing (later chapters are not as good) to remind myself of the difficulties they had in creating computers in the face of tabulating machines. You did know tabulating machines were not computers, right? If not, get out and read some more. There's all sorts of good history out there, that tells you why things are the way they are, and which you can put to use when making design decisions about contemporary interactive products.
Now, back to writing my own -- hopefully sufficiently short and comprehendible -- history and explanation of the basics of mobile telephony as an appendix to the forthcoming book on Designing Mobile Interfaces.

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