Book Review: 'Leonardo' meets computer

By JESSIE THORPE, United Press International  |  Feb. 15, 2003 at 7:00 PM
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In one of life's little ironies, the very week I began reading "Leonardo's Laptop" -- an absorbing book about new computing technologies -- the modem for my MAC went haywire and I spent days fuming and waiting for a fix. Professor Ben Shneiderman managed to hold my attention during that period with his insightful views and forward thinking on the subject of computers.

It is frustrating in the extreme to have computer problems. Once we become accustomed to a new and convenient technology, we tend to take it for granted and almost forget how to function otherwise. I blush to confess how annoyed I was recently when driving a rental car without automatic windows or key entry. There are other examples of this sort too trivial to mention. Yet I am unembarrassed to say I just hate it when my computer is down. I want to turn it on the way I do my dishwasher and see it work through the cycle.

Which is why Shneiderman's book was so comforting. He understands this trauma completely and is convinced this must be the focus of future computer technology -- reducing frustration for the user while at the same time enhancing delight in these machines.

Shneiderman begins with this premise: Computers to date have put technology first. He calls this "old computing." Yet in the wonderful world of "new computing," we will see a much more user-friendly era -- the users being you and me! Meanwhile, he outlines many present problems of poorly designed software, wasted hours of crashes and downtime and failures of all types. He acknowledges the anger people experience when attempting to install balky upgrades and the fear of losing files in transition. He quotes historian Lewis Mumford, who stated the goal of technology must be to "serve human needs." What humble brilliance!

Shneiderman explains how difficult this might be to achieve. Computer scientists and IT professionals are highly introverted people who would rather work in isolation than suffer the discomforts in dealing with the problems of actual users, he says. They are more interested in pure technology -- what the computer can do -- than what the user might need to do. The professor likens shifting this point of view to the difficulties of Copernicus and Galileo endured persuading scholars the sun was at the center of the universe.

Throughout his book, the author uses Leonardo da Vinci and reproductions of his works as an "inspirational muse" to lead us into brave and futuristic thinking -- an excellent choice. The original Renaissance man, an icon for the ages, used his inquisitive and independent mind to create powerful works of creative genius and established a rich legacy in art and science.

A few years ago, Bill Gates purchased Leonardo's notebooks for around 30 million dollars. These "notebooks" consisted of loose papers covered with cramped, almost unreadable scribbles. Evidently, as Leonardo moved from palaces to artists' studios or along the streets and markets, several notebooks always dangled from his belt. He used them to jot down ideas and sketches and, thankfully, most of these works are easily decipherable. He left behind engineering plans for machines and drawings of statues impossible to build in his lifetime because the technologies had not been invented. He could only dream and design in ways that one day might have application.

Shneiderman imagines a modern Leonardo II with many Web sites and wall-sized projections. The figure presented here of the great Leonardo, busily trying to integrate art and science in the service of practical purpose and human needs, is delightful.

In the same vein, Shneiderman offers visions of future human-computer interaction (HCI) and interface designs that will be useful and enjoyable and even improve one's ability to expand relationships with family, friends and co-workers. I love his concept of the InfoDoor. It is a Palm Pilot display with an Internet connection placed on office doors. A visitor or colleague could leave a message, learn your whereabouts, offer suggestions or any number of useful bits of communication.

The point is we are in an evolutionary pattern with computers. As with automobiles, we will move away from production-controlled products into considering what the consumer wants and demands. Just as we grew to want safer and more comfortable cars, it seems we now desire less complicated software, faster ways to keep in touch with people and easier access to information.

Shneiderman considers how new computing could apply to many broad social issues, such as more equitable use among various economic and age levels and greater empowerment in learning, healthcare, business and government. Whether or not you agree with his theories and enter into his imaginative scenarios, this able professor challenges you to think about the ways we receive and use information and disseminate this into ideas or art.

I think sitting in his classroom might be fun and enlightening. He is blessed with an engaging writing style and the ability to make this material interesting and lively. Even more, he presents a reader with possibilities and hope. What a wonderful accomplishment.

("Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies" by Ben Shneiderman, The MIT Press, 243 pages, $24.95)

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