Another moment when my old and new intellectual lives collide.

One of the really interesting things computer designers are going to have to do in the coming decade is become aware of assumptions they’ve carried regarding how their technologies are used that they didn’t even realize they had, or which had never been important before. For example, not only has the personal computer’s interface been designed around the metaphor of the desktop; the PC itself has taken for granted that it would be used on real desktops. The assumptions that you can make about industrial and interface design are going to be undermined by the growing use of mobile devices– or what you might call in-motion devices, electronics that you use when you’re in your car, walking down the street, shopping, or in any number of different types of environments or situations.

You might think that the laptop computer challenges this claim, since it frees people from the confines of their offices and desks. But look in a cafe, an airport lounge, or an airplane: what are laptop users doing? They’re recreating their offices around them. They spread out the notebook here, a pad of paper there, the book over here. In my eclipses book, I made the case that one key to the success of eclipse expeditions– both in a logistical sense, and in a deeper epistemological sense– was Victorian astronomers’ ability to recreate key features of the modern astrophysical observatory in the field. By so doing, it was possible to conduct the same kinds of precise observations that they did back home at Greenwich or Cambridge. Laptop users are doing the same kind of space reconstruction, but on a very personal scale.

More generally, there’s a whole interesting history of computer furniture, and the spaces we create around our desktop machines, waiting to be written. This is one of those kinds of subjects that has gotten zero attention in the history of computing, but which is rich with possibilities. I’ve had a couple short exchanges on the subject with Jack Kelley, a designer at Herman Miller, and it’s made me realize that if you want to understand interface design, and the ways people use computers, you need to broaden out past questions of the GUI and ergonomics, and look at how people have arranged the spaces around their computers. Jack actually has a lot of experience with this subject: he spent just enough time in Engelbart’s lab at SRI to invent the first mouse pad, and was one of the people who discovered that the armoire made an excellent computer workspace for the home.