Review: The Unfinished Revolution–Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do For Us

4 Star, Information Technology

Amazon Page
Amazon Page

4.0 out of 5 stars Great Thoughts, Limited Reality, More to Do….,

January 14, 2002
Michael L. Dertouzos
In some ways this is the gold-collared knowledge worker counterpart book to Ted Halstead and Michael Lind’s The Radical Center: The Future of American Politics (citizen-centered). Those who liked The Cultural Creatives or IMAGINE: What America Could be in the 21st Century, can adopt this book as their user’s guide for demanding change in information technology.I recommend it because it is full of common sense, is the first really helpful “requirements document” for a clean sheet new approach to software and hardware and ergonomics ($3000 word for user friendly). The bad news is that nobody is listening. We are ten years away from this being a reality because the legacy providers (big hardware, one certain software company) are not about to retool their empires for the sake of delivering better value.

It is more than a little amusing to me to have this book endorsed by the CEO of the one company that prides itself on producing software with mutated migrated Application Program Interfaces that are used to extort tribute from third party software developers, where no sane consumer will invest in his products until they’ve had three years to “mature” in the marketplace.

The opening listings of the “standard faults” in today’s “consumer electronics” is alone worth the price of the book–unintegrated systems fault; manual labor fault; human servitude fault; crash fault; excessive learning fault; feature overload fault; fake intelligence fault; waiting fault; ratchet fault…

The book ends on a low note and high note. The low note is a description of Oxygen, a $50M project seeded by DARPA and including several major company partners such as HP and Nokia. This project has some excellent ideas, including a new focus on an architecture for nomadic computing with three aspects: a Handy 21 (hand-held), Enviro 21 (intermediate personal computers at home, office, and in car), and N21 Network (Intentional Naming System, every computer and peripheral everywhere is in the public domain and broadcasting its location and status, use on the fly). Good stuff. What he doesn’t mention is that the U.S. Government is spending over half a billion dollars on completely uncoordinated desktop analysis toolkits, and there is probably 2-3X that much being spent in the private sector. He does note that we will never get our act together if we continue to develop hardware and software in a very fragmented and hardware-based manner.

On the high note, the author has clearly thought about the consequences of having an information revolution here in the USA, creating information royalty, while leaving the rest of the world dispossessed, in poverty, and unconnected. He has a very practical appreciation for the fact that the USA must fund two distinct foreign assistance programs–a Digital Marshall Plan (my phrase) to jack in the entire world; and a commensurate literacy, birth control, disease control, and famine control program to stabilize populations to the point where they can be productive within the global grid.

I read this book on the airplane coming back from the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (Federal Emerging Technologies Conference sub-set), and I was really struck by the contradiction between the vast fragmentation spread out over Las Vegas (the man who has everything also has to carry it) and the elegant simplicity of this book’s vision–one hand-held able to be any of 100+ devices. “It’s the software, simpleton….”

What saddens me, especially when considering the billions of dollars being given away by our richest software developer, someone who seems to favor gestures on the margin instead of quality control and open source at the core, is that we knew all this in the mid-1980’s. The eighteen distinct functionalities needed for a desktop analysts’ workstation were identified by CIA in 1986–everything from data ingestion and conversion softwares to modeling and simulation and pattern detection and of course desktop publishing. The year after the CIA prototypes were working so successfully on UNIX (Sun), CIA decided that the PS2 would be the standard “dumb” terminal, and all UNIX efforts were ordered to shut-down. The big organizations, the ones with the power to make the revolution, chose control and dumb terminals over freedom and smart software. I am very skeptical that the vision in this book will come to fruition…

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