Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine
by Donald A. Norman,

Addison-Wesley, New York, 1993

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 can they 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 human-centered 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 many popular 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 skills 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 beyond 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.


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This page was produced by Elizabeth Murphy , Fall, 1996.