Things that make us smart. Things that make us dumb. Donald A.
Norman's latest book, in spite of its title, focuses as much on the
latter as it does on the former. What effect does technology
have on our cognitive abilities? This is the question addressed by Norman
in the fourth of a series of books related to the design of computers and
complex systems. Norman's answer comes more in the form of a critique
than an approval. Technology makes us "smart in the sense of being
better able to think". It has the simultaneous capacity, however,
to 'entrap', 'confuse', 'control' and 'dominate' us.
As a cognitive scientist and employee of Apple Computer, Norman's
recent research has focused on studying "mental tools" which he
refers to as cognitive artifacts. According to Norman,
artifacts allow us "to think better and more clearly" and expand
our human knowledge. "There is only so much we can remember, only so
much we can learn. But among our abilities is that of devising
artificial devices-artifacts-that expand our capabilities. We
invent things that make us smart."(p.3) Norman classifies these
artificats that aid cognition into the categories of
physical artifacts i.e. pencils, calculators and computers and
mental artifacts i.e. reading, arithmetic, logic, language
and certain procedures and routines such as mnemonics.
These categories are then further subdivided into that of
tools for experiential cognition/learning
and tools for reflective cognition/learning.
Whereas, the experiential mode involves
perceiving and reacting "efficiently
and effortlessly" the reflective mode "is that of comparison and contrast,
of thought, of decision making". Often exploited by entertainment,
the experiential mode
involves use of artifacts that "allow us to experience events as if
we were there."
Reflective artifacts concentrate on abstract "artificial, representing
worlds" of language and thought. While both modes are "essential
for human performance",
Norman argues that it is the reflective mode that "leads to new ideas,
novel responses" and "advances in human understanding". Technology,
posits Norman, can enhance both modes and has the capacity to make
the human ability for reflection more powerful than it has ever been.
The power of cognitive artifacts to allow us to "overcome the
limitations of brainpower" leads Norman to argue that "the real power of
the human mind, today and in the future, lies with our technologies".(p.127)
However, just as these technologies can enhance our powers, so too
diminish them. "Today, much of science and engineering
takes a machine-centered view of the design of machines and,
for that matter, the understanding of people. As a result, the
technology that is that is intended to aid human cognition and
enjoyment more often interferes and confuses than aids and
clarifies." (p.9) What results according to Norman is
"a poor match with human abilities and needs", "a heavy incidence of human error in industry",
"the erosion of privacy" and a "wasteland of the mind". The machine centered point of view
emphasizes complex, precise actions that ignore human skills and
attributes. One of Norman's primary concerns with technology,
especially in relation
to its use in schools, is the overemphasis on
the experiential mode brought about by the
"technologies of entertainment".
Getting students engaged in learning is
too often achieved by entertaining them instead of getting them to reflect.
With a more "person-centered view of technology" Norman
believes we can make cognitive artifacts work more in our favour.
Norman singles out the
hand-held calculator and books as
"softer", more "humane" technologies because they "support our ability", and
allow us to control how they are used. Television, Norman posits, could
make us smart if it afforded more "self-pacing", and interaction as well as
more reflective, less experiential ways of thinking. A more
design would emphasize interfaces that
people find "comfortable", that are "appropriate to
their needs and the tasks they must perform" and that are compatible
with their "fundamental capabilities". "It is time to revolt. We can't conform."
Norman demands that science and technology conform to our needs and
abilities to ensure that people
can be in control and be smart.
Norman's thesis is premised
on a deterministic, man versus machine, view of technology. For Norman,
technology has the ability to control, dominate and entrap. It has the tendancy to be
demanding, unyielding and coercive. This type of language is common of
critics of technology who, in a polemic and moralistic style, take very
complex issues and reduce them to a few simple factors i.e. technology
can make us smart
if we learn how to control it. Norman does concede that "the difficult problems are the social ones".
As such, he seems to be willing to acknowledge that the issues are
complex and perhaps beyond the grasp
of the analysis presented in his book. However, the difficult problems
are also conceptual ones.
There is an inherent
problem in conceiving technology as one entity, as one thing
reified and separate from us. Issues of technology
are fiercely complex
because they are not isolated from us, rather they are intricately and inextricably woven in a seamless fabric
of which we are ourselves a part.
Norman may find it useful in terms of his
theory to be able to
reduce complex phenomenon and relationships to more understandable
proportions. However, such theorizing carries the risk of
ignoring the fact that complexity is an innate and important
part of the phenomenon. Such theorizing also carries the risk of assuming
that the whole
can be understood by isolating only a number of the parts. The cognitive artifacts,
mental tools or technology that Norman describes include language and procedures
and routines that play a role in reasoning. Can we separate and isolate
language or thought processes from the person? To what extent are we
a part of technology that Norman believes we must control? Is the question:
How does technology affect our
cognitive ability? or is it: How are technology and cognitive ability related
and how do they interact?
Our understanding of the relationship between technology and
cognitive ability will be
instrumental in future attempts to improve learning.
Norman discusses the issue of learning and argues that technology can be a useful educational
ally in that it has the capacity to
engage learners and at the same time make them reflect. In a more
general and indirect way, Norman's book inspires many questions related to
learning and technology. If calculators can compute more efficiently
and effectively that can a human, do children need to spend as much time
learning these skills or can we simply do away with teaching long division,
and multiplication tables? If using word processors gives us perfect spelling
and perfectly legible text, do we need to concentrate now on spelling
and handwriting skills?
If instead of having four sets of encyclopedias at our disposal, we have
an almost infinite mass of computerized information, what kind of research
will students need in order to select and make appropriate use of the
information? How soon will the three R's of education become
obsolete? What will replace them?
Technology will affect how and what we learn. And some of this new learning will, in turn,
affect the evolution of technology. As the two interact, they will adapt to and change each other in
complex and likely unpredictable ways. No doubt,
all of this interaction
will result in both profound and subtle changes, not only in the way
humans learn, but also, in how they live, behave, how they are, and,
finally, in the types of machines they create.
Norman subtitles his book: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of
the Machine. Knowing Norman's general thesis, we can guess at
the interpretation he suggests by the subtitle. We can also reflect
Norman's thesis and begin to try to understand
the curious interplay that exists between these machines and
the very attributes that made them possible.