Human-tech revolution fails to catch on
A quick scan of the culture and technology aisle in any bookstore reveals a stream of new and ominously titled non-fiction books issuing grim warnings of global technological perils - a stream that seems to reinvent and replenish itself almost as quickly as the fast-forward technology it laments.
Still, some of these books greatly advance our thinking and are deservedly acclaimed, including Thomas Homer-Dixon's The Ingenuity Gap, winner of the Governor General's Literary Award for Non-Fiction in 2001. Others are not so celebrated, often because they attempt to ride on the coattails of true groundbreakers. Though interesting and well-intentioned, Kim Vicente's The Human Factor: Revolutionizing the way people live with technology is one such "me too" attempt.
Dr. Vicente is a distinguished professor of engineering at the University of Toronto, but in this, his first book targeting a non-academic reader, he simply aims too high and reaches too far. The revolution promised in the book's sub-head never really catches on.
Warning signs appear in the preface, where the author relates how his original and modest goal, "to explain the social relevance of my discipline [human factors engineering] to an educated, lay audience," became something much more ambitious as he progressed:
"Instead, I was writing a book about a new world order, a way of thinking about the role of technology in society that was much broader than what my discipline has achieved to date, a way of thinking that could - actually must - encompass many diverse disciplines and professions."
So the stated aim is lofty and sweeping, but most of The Human Factor actually hinges on a single and not-so-startling idea: that an endemic shortage of humanistic design (that is, design carefully accounting for the ways humans interface with machines and systems) has created dangerously complex and ill-fitting technologies, and, by extension, the critical need for a "human-tech revolution."
Haven't we heard this before? At several points Dr. Vicente answers in the affirmative, for example (on page 51):
"Some readers may feel that Human-tech thinking isn't revolutionary at all, but just plain old common sense. They're right (sort of)... psychological roadblocks can obstruct our vision of reality and make it excruciatingly difficult - sometimes impossible - to see the obvious."
From this we glean that the author intends to help his lay audience look beyond the trees to see the entire technology forest, and in this he largely succeeds. Over the next 233 pages, the author illustrates and reiterates the central premise through anecdotal accounts of sparkling product successes and catastrophic system failures.
Among the successes are the Reach toothbrush, the Fender Stratocaster guitar and the Aviation Safety Reporting System. On the catastrophe side are accounts of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the Walkerton water tragedy and the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
While his analyses are authoritative, Dr. Vicente's determination to neatly (and naïvely) fit all of them into a mechanistic-humanistic dichotomy leads to a repetitive conclusion far too narrow to be revolutionary: that flawed technologies are simply the result of overly mechanistic design. No alternate, complex or penetrating explanations - ones that might substantiate an actual revolution - are thoroughly explored in the book.
For instance, the author includes only passing reference to the global economic forces that drive technology forward at dizzying speed, speed that usually renders humanistic design a time-consuming luxury. Dr. Vicente virtually ignores the effect of the western world's limitless hunger for the latest, sexiest, sleekest gizmos and for hi-tech solutions to largely human problems. Common sense tells us that our growing lust for technology puts tremendous pressure on designers to build the "next-generation" as quickly as possible. As soon as a prototype reasonably functions, it goes into production and then into use. Good humanistic design rarely fits that schedule.
Despite its lofty promise, Dr. Vicente's human-tech revolution never convincingly appears. Only in the 24-page final chapter does the author posit any kind of societal prescription, but here too he relies mostly on common sense. The chapter includes predictable appeals to consumers, corporations, governments, international development organizations, the media and universities. We must all do our part, says Dr. Vicente, in adopting and promoting human-tech thinking. (This is no doubt true, but the author's conclusions are so brief and so polite that they're easy to set aside.)
More a collection of insightful anecdotes than a book of revolutionary thought, The Human Factor gets swept up in the publishing trend towards looming disasters and startling realizations. Yes, our world is increasingly dependent on, and transfixed by, complicated technology. And yes, unbalanced technology design regularly leads to lethal human error. But these issues are far too complex to be addressed through revamped design practices alone. After all, what we're really talking about is an ingenuity gap.
The Human Factor: Revolutionizing the way people live with technology, by Kim Vicente, Knopf Canada, 305 pages, $37, cloth.
Tony Martins is a freelance writer who recently launched a magazine to examine Ottawa culture at ground level (www.getguerilla.ca).