I’m nearly done with Leonardo’s Laptop. Reading it is a curious experience. The book irritates and occasionally disappoints me, but it’s also very stimulating. I keep finding fault with it, yet I don’t put it down.
All in all, it’s an unusual reaction. Normally, when I don’t like a book, it’s because I find it pointless. That’s definitely not the case with Leonardo’s Laptop.
The book is organized around three big ideas:
- Computers and interfaces suck, and we know how to make them better;
- The information device of the future will be designed around human needs, not technical specs;
- In the future, we’d damn well better make them better, because more and more, our lives will depend on it.
(Take this breakdown with a grain of salt, as I tend to read everything that’s not fiction or history in terms of what it says about today, and what we can divine from it about the future. It’s the curse of being a futurist.)
So what’s wrong with these claims? Nothing. I think we’d all agree that, with remarkably few exceptions, computer interfaces aren’t as good as they could be, computers are harder to use than they should be, and they’re more unreliable and failure-prone than we’d want any technology that we depend on every day to be. Designing for human needs makes eminent good sense. Likewise, as computers become woven ever more densely into the fine structures of our lives– as we get RFID chips in ordinarly things, sensors helping us keep down the energy costs in our houses, etc. etc.– the opportunities bad design will create for serious, life-threatening mischief will increase.
The problem I’m having is that while I’m agreeing with the book, I’m not learning why computers aren’t already better. I mean, if this is so self-evident, why hasn’t the computer industry– which is supposedly a paragon of intense competition and relentless innovation– already done some of this stuff? Are there professional impediments, impediments caused by the way software and hardware and designed and built, other things going on on the retail side? When you make the case for something really worthwhile, and it isn’t already being done, it’s probably smart to make the case for why it hasn’t already happened and needs to happen now.
But this might have yielded a more complicated, technically detailed book, and I sense that either the author or publisher wanted something different. This is definitely intended to be a popular book, and I sense a lot of interesting complexity sacrificed at the atlas of accessibility. Shneiderman knows a lot of stuff, but not as much of it comes through in this book as I’d like.
Some of the examples also seem a bit dated. For example, a discussion of device design includes illustrations from the original Palm Pilot interface. Now, the early Palms are iconic technologies, but they’re not exactly the most up-to-date examples of good design that you can find. It would have made more sense to do one of two things: 1) include screen shots from later Palm OSes, or 2) explain why the early one was better than the later ones (assuming that the choice of the earlier screens was a conscious one, and not because it was either easier to reprint or was easy to hand).
Finally, I think the whole Leonardo hook isn’t played as well as it could. The basic problem is this: a lot of what we want to create and use are technologies that not only make us smarter as individuals, but also smarter and more creative as groups. Leonardo, despite his working or various patrons on a wide variety of projects, is an exemplar of the Great Man, a figure who by definition doesn’t need to rely on technology to be creative. The rest of us, in contrast, need help, and we often need help not just with thinking for ourselves, but thinking with others.