Computing History

Why technology history matters

I am a huge nerd for computing history, particularly the history of interaction design. I think the story of how designers figured out ways to make computers easier for people to use is just plain fascinating. I’ve given talks on this subject for about five years now.

When I tell people a little bit about this they say things like “That sounds really interesting, I would love to take that class” and “I wish I you would come over to my house and tell me more about that” or “I would give up my addiction to playing Civilization if only you’d come over to my house and tell me more about that.”

Attendees at my talks say nice things afterward like “You were right, that really was fascinating” and “I didn’t know any of that, and I am better off now that I do” and “That was almost as fun as playing Civilization.”

When I give talks about this at conferences, and I meet people in the hallway before my session, here’s what they say: “I’d love to come, but I should really go to this session about SEO/social media/mobile app development/HTML5.”

I understand.

You’re spending the boss’s (or your own) money, and you want to get something of tangible value out of your conference time. Something you can put to good use when you go back to work. A talk about history just doesn’t seem very practical.

I believe the (short) history of our field is still relevant to our work today, if only we knew more about it. The conventions we follow, the interface metaphors we take for granted, the patterns we rely on—these didn’t spring out of nowhere. They evolved over time. People—people not unlike us—invented and refined them. Learning more about how all these decisions happened helps inform our own work. The story of the history of technology is the story of how we learned to understand our own behavior: how we learn, how we move, how we see, how we make choices. We taught machines to get smarter and friendlier and more responsive because we learned more about ourselves.

This missive is aimed mostly at the people who will be attending IxD11 in Boulder but who haven’t registered for my workshop with Bill DeRouchey, called Interaction Design History for Interaction Designers. Consider signing up, will you? I promise it will be relevant, informative, and inspiring. And entertaining.

But I want to make a point that applies to everyone, even if you’re not coming to Boulder. Take a moment and marvel at how far technology has come in the past hundred years or so. Particularly be amazed at the rapid evolution of digital computing over the past 65 years—and then get dizzy thinking about how much more work we have to do. Pay your respects to all the inventors and pioneers who made the decisions that got us here today. Maybe someday, there will be a designer looking back and giving thanks to you.

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3 thoughts on “Why technology history matters

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Why technology history matters « Karen McGrane -- Topsy.com

  2. Karen, you always prompt me to write long replies to your blog posts!

    —> Let me know the next time you have a presentation on the history of computing, as if it’s within 200 miles of Philly, I’ll come.

    Just the other day, I found the antenna switcher for my Magnavox Odyssey on the back of the Zenith console B&W TV in my basement, so I’ll be restoring the system. This was the very first video game from summer 1974; and I remember buying it at Wanamaker’s for $199 — That’s about $1000-$1200 in today’s dollars. All we could really play was Pong on it; and if we wanted to play Tennis, we would tape the green vinyl sheet to the TV!

    Also, You’d get a kick out of our high school computer club project, started in December 1975: An Altair 8800, serial number 007, from MITS in Albuquerque. It came as a chassis, four boards, and a bag of IC’s we had to solder in by hand(!)It had the new S-100 bus, 1024 bytes of RAM; plus 8 data and 16 address switches in groups of three on the front with LED’s above them, and when you powered up, it would start at address 000 000 (octal). After toggling in your i8080 machine code, you could then run it, or single-step it through each instruction to debug your code.

    Once we spent an additional $400 to get a 4k memory board (again, a bag of parts & circuit board) and a 110/300 baud serial board in late 1976, we could then hook up a surplus 110 baud ASR-33 TeleType with a paper tape reader. After we wrote the code (again in i8080 machine language), we could then toggle in about 12 bytes of code to get it to jump to the address which had the ROM on the serial I/O board. Next, from an ad in the back of BYTE magazine we bought a 4k BASIC interpreter paper tape from a couple of guys working out of their garage in Albuquerque. Then, we added a (gasp!) 8 kilobyte board, and upgraded to their 8k BASIC. I’ll leave it as an exercise for you to figure out who these two guys are…

    In many ways, something important to both of us has also suffered from “institutional memory loss:” Hearing aid fitting. Years ago, it was a real art to properly fit hearing aids, including fine-tuning the earmold acoustics, as there was little control on the electronics. Now, that critical skill is rapidly becoming a lost art.

    Dan Schwartz
    Cherry Hill, NJ

    PS: I’m returning to school in the fall, to get my AuD or PhD doctorate in audiology~

  3. I’d love to comment on your blog post, but I should really comment on this other blog about SEO/social media/mobile app development/HTML5. No, seriously, excellent post. I love how you sort of emotionalized interaction design. It is not only about productivity and intuition, it is also about who we are and how we operate, logically and emotionally. As we progress, we will be discovering more and more about who we really are. What you proved with your blog post is that interaction design will be a substantial part of that.

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