Karen McGrane

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.