Thursday, November 08, 2007

Designing the Future

Donald Norman has written extensively about design, education, information technology, and a host of other topics. His latest book, The Design of Future Things(New York: Basic Books, 2007), will be of interest to faculty in our school, especially for those interested in social computing.

Norman presents his thesis early on his book, suggesting that “as machines start to take over more and more, . . . they need to be socialized; they need to improve the way they communicate and interact and to recognize their limitations. Only then can they become truly useful” (p. 9). Norman is dealing, of course, with the “limitations” of machines – “they do not sense the world in the same way as people, they lack higher order goals, and they have no way of understanding the goals and motives of the people with whom they must interact” (p. 14).

One of the more interesting points Norman makes, at least a point that is interesting for SIS, is the interdisciplinary nature of design: “Design cuts across all disciplines, be it the arts or sciences, humanities or engineering, law or business. In universities, the practical is often judged less valuable than the abstract and theoretical. Universities, moreover, put each discipline into separate schools and departments, where people mainly talk to others within their own narrowly defined categories. This compartmentalization is optional for developing specialists who understand their narrow area in great depth. It is not well suited for the development of generalists whose work cuts across disciplines. Even when the university tries to overcome this deficit by establishing new, multidisciplinary programs, the new program soon becomes its own discipline and grows more and more specialized each year” (pp. 171-172). Norman’s assessment seems awfully close to the nature of the challenges we face here, from the reorganization of the School to the design and offering of a common introductory course. Norman argues that we need a “science of design” (p. 172). “We need a new approach, one that combines the precision and rigor of business and engineering, the understanding of social interactions, and the aesthetics of the arts” (p. 173) – and even here we can hear echoes of our discussions about technology, people, and society.

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