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Universal usability


A new book tries to raise expectations of what we should get from technology - but fails to understand creativity

Judging by his cheerful jacket photo, Ben Schneiderman is an utterly amiable computer academic at the University of Maryland.He has written an undemanding book, with a main title to kill for - Leonardo's laptop: Human needs and the new computing technologies. You can imagine old Leon sitting up there on the ramparts at Amboise, sketching the Loire on a Wacom LCD tablet using Photoshop and thinking of maybe using Studio 3D or even Poser to animate the peasant ox carts on the distant riverbank below.

The book itself is not anything like as surreal as that. Schneiderman uses Leonardo for several prosaic purposes. One is as an exemplar of the virtuous union of sciences and arts over which old C P Snow (Schneiderman actually cites him) made his reputation. The second is as a kind of moral authority: Schneiderman makes a point or relates an anecdote and, if he's happy with it, grants it the ultimate imprimatur: 'Leonardo would have liked that.'

The trouble with both these propositions is that the arts-sciences split occurred at least partly because both have become infinitely more complicated cognitive and physical activities than Leonardo could ever have imagined.

So winding back the clock in this way does not really bear scrutiny. In any case, it exists. So what do you do about it? Schneiderman's simple solution seems to be: 'The Renaissance integration of disciplines that Leonardo da Vinci exemplified could guide us in repairing the split in our modern world.'Hmm, you think, and where are the flying pigs?

Second, the device of calling down the approval of Higher Authority for your ideas has a long history. It is not that Schneiderman abuses this technique in the manner of television evangelists accidentally visiting sleazy motels.Worse, he uses it in the cause of banality: 'Leonardo would probably be a promoter of universal usability, ' and 'Emphasising high quality is probably just what Leonardo would do.'

There is, of course, nothing sleazy about Schneiderman or this book. For it is a continuous, virtuous homily about how to be nice in the context of computing in 11 chapters with titles such as 'New methods, new goals', 'Understanding human activities and relationships', and 'Mega-creativity'.

You hope for one tiny big idea among all this. If not that, maybe a kick in the groin here, a poke in the eye there. But no. Despite the inclusion of a 'Skeptic's Corner' at the end of each chapter, the ramble rolls on its relentless, commonplace way.

At one stage, at the beginning of the book, Schneiderman puts up a vision: 'Imagine that after a sunrise climb, you reach the summit.

You open up your phonecam and send a panoramic view to your grandparents, parents and friends. They hear the sound of birds, smell of mountain air, feel the coolness of wind' Actually what is happening back at the ranch is that the relatives are shrieking, 'No, No. Not another panorama with smell of birds and sound of mountain air. Aargh.

Everybody, change your email addresses again. He sends this crap every time he climbs a bloody hill.'

It is a case of ignoring that great computing dictum: 'Just because you can, there's absolutely no reason why you have to.' I guess that also sums up this text. Somebody has said:

'Hey Ben, you're a great teacher. You should put it all down in a book.' And he has.

I'm not entirely convinced, anyway, that hard covers would be the right place for this kind of thing, even if it had been interesting. Everything moves so fast in the great smorgasbord that is the electronic world. The science, manufacturing, marketing, design, the conceptual structures, the cartels, security, the obsessiveness, the ethics of computing are all on the move. So that it is really only ephemerally on the Internet itself or in magazines that you can say something and not be several years - the time it takes between starting a book and seeing it published - out of date.

And so to the chapter on Mega-creativity, where Schneiderman outlines various theories of creativity, offers a few diagrams and ends up with an architectural scenario in which an architect, Susan, is commissioned to design a hotel in a national park.

'To get ideas, she searches an architectural library for digital examples of thousands of hotels from around the world, such as Swiss chalets, Austrian lodges, or Rocky Mountain log cabins she visualises the data in a two dimensional scattergram that shows heating requirements and' well you can almost guess what follows. She takes on the project management, rows with dilatory and cheapskate subcontractors and the hotel opens on time. All the while she has been using a variety of computer programs.

Oh, she has opted for the log-cabin model and paid the creator a fee. You think at the end of this description of how things are more or less done in real life (paying a fee for ripping off a design excepted) that Schneiderman is about to draw a significant lesson from the story. But no. That is it.

You begin to grasp that Schneiderman does not quite get the nature of creativity except in, maybe, a scientific method sense: 'Thomas Edison methodically tried four thousand materials for light bulbs until he settled on a carbon filament.' But I ask you, which of you would think you were exercising your mega-creative talents by opting for the log cabin model and paying the originator a fee?

Leonardo's laptop: Human needs and the new computing technologies.

Ben Schneiderman.MIT Press, 2002

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