“I Think We Have to Start Over”: Usability Guru Don Norman on the Next Internet

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they weren’t very powerful. But today they are. Today, we have a thing called deep learning, which actually Geoff helped invent. And he now works for Google. I met him there and I said, “So, what was the great theoretical advance that made deep learning possible?” He said, “Nothing. The great advance was that in the last 20 years, computers have gotten a million times more powerful.” We never would have thought that we could get such huge databases and hold them and store them and then use them effectively in our computational devices. That wasn’t possible, and we could not have predicted that.

X: At what point, if ever, will we reach 100 percent internet penetration? Will it happen before 2069?

DN: Communication networks will soon hit the entire planet. I suspect it’s only people who deliberately do not wish to be connected or people who are living in remote, difficult places that won’t do it. But that isn’t the real issue. I think the real issue is, we may well find nations that will cut it off—nations that will close, that restrict themselves from interacting with others. We already see that happening.

And look how difficult it is in the United States to get onto the internet. And why is that? Well, because—and this is a completely different topic now—it’s our economic system and the way that our version of capitalism has worked. And it’s not just us, it’s basically Europe and the United States and maybe most of the developed nations of the world.

And we’ve gotten to the point where—again, I’m not going to say anything that’s new—but Milton Friedman is, in my opinion, the enemy. It’s not just him. But he codified it. He said that the business of a corporation is basically to make profit, and it owes its loyalty to the stockholders as opposed to the community in which it’s embedded, as opposed to its employees, as opposed to its customers. And what this has led to in the end has been the short-term emphasis on quarterly profits and the obscene rewards that senior executives in large companies are getting and a complete disregard to what it does to the environment, what it does to the community, what it does to your customers, and what it does to the people who work for you. And that’s evil and immoral in my opinion, and more and more people are starting to say that in business schools. Milton Friedman took the statement as law, but it is not a law, it’s an opinion. And now, starting to back off and say it differently. But this has governed the whole world, and now it’s very, very difficult to back out of the infrastructure that has resulted.

You can predict a horrible, dysfunctional society. Or you could predict an optimistic and altruistic society. And quite often, the difference between these two is the butterfly flapping their wings in Brazil. It could be very small events that tip you one way or another way.

When radio was first developed, it was supposed to be the democratizing new technology that allowed people themselves to broadcast to others. And it was all going to be university and public-spirited broadcasting stations. But when the commercial value started to be recognized, companies, in particular RCA, simply lobbied the US government and helped develop the Federal Communications Commission to develop radio as a restricted property. They changed the whole course [of broadcasting]. It didn’t have to be that way. A different president might have changed that, or a different group of people. As a result, all of our information sources have become commercialized to an extreme extent.

I think we have to start over. And we may need very separate networks. The notion that there is one network that is for everything maybe is wrong. We used to have separate networks. They were, in fact, determined by the technology. Hence radio was different than telephones, which was different than television, which was different than printed books. And today we say, “Nah, it’s all information,” and that this isn’t that neat, because on the internet you can do all of that. Well, OK. But the content is really what’s important, not the technology or the way it’s distributed. And I would love to find a different scheme where people are controlling their own data.

Right now, it’s really hard, in fact it is impossible for me to just subscribe to the internet without paying a fortune. Why is it so expensive? Because the people providing the internet are big monopolies, basically, and they say, “You can only get the internet if you also take these other services.” I don’t want any other services. I don’t need them anymore. But that isn’t good for their profits.

So, where am I going in all of this? Well, the truth is I don’t know where I’m going because, in fact, you’re asking me to predict the future 50 years from now. I’m trying to predict the future five years from now. I see where the issues are, and I’m in contact with large groups of people, in various kinds of digests and mailing lists and conversations, who are very concerned about these issues and are trying to move it in different ways. You know, looking at the morality of artificial intelligence, looking at the way that we use data, and trying to see how we can make it so the people own their own data and have a say, but without overwhelming them. Because if I have to say how each of my little pieces of data were used in every single instance, I’d be so bombarded with it, it would be like trying to read the horrible license agreements. I’d say, “The hell with it, just do it.”

X: It would be like those cookie disclosures on every website now, thanks to the European General Data Protection Regulation.

DN: Yeah. The GDPR sounded like a very nice regulation, right? But the result is I can’t read anything anymore because there are all these big banners saying, “We use cookies for your benefit,” and it’s awfully hard to get rid of the banner. And that isn’t helping our lives.

I want to remind you that when the automobile was invented, back in the early days when they were just starting to become popular, one of the great virtues of the automobile was it would reduce pollution in cities. The streets were all littered with horseshit. And that prediction turned out to be true. But nobody predicted the vast numbers of automobiles that would result, and the vast pollution of the air that would result. And, for that matter, the paving over of vast amounts of our territory to hold these automobiles, most of which are idle most of the time. And the fact that people suddenly became second-class citizens because the cars dominated the streets and not people. Why was that? It didn’t have to be.

So, I don’t want to predict the future of the internet. What I would like to predict is the future of our lives, and how we live them. There will be an infrastructure beneath it that helps and supports it. And whether that’s called the internet or whether we actually have all sorts of multiple services, that isn’t so important. What I want is to worry about what the goals are.

Let me take an example of a really positive thing that has resulted. The conversation you and I are now having, this video conference, couldn’t have been done a number of years ago, and it was not predicted, again. People have talked about video conferencing for a long time, and the phone companies tried it forever and ever and ever. And I had friends who work in the high-tech industry telling me, “Forget it, it is never going to happen. People don’t want to do it.” Well, here we are doing it. And not only is the sound quality really excellent, better than the telephone system provides, the image quality is really fantastically good. I can almost read the titles of the books in your bookcase.

The point is technology’s been wonderful. It has really enhanced our lives in many, many different ways. At dinnertime we’ve had to be careful because it’s so tempting when we’re having a discussion and we don’t remember something, to turn on the computer and get the answer. You get hooked. Actually, we do say, “Alexa, what is the whatever.” Well, these are good things. I don’t care what the underlying technology is. I’d be happy to have multiple technologies that do it or maybe different networks that do it—as long as I can avoid the problems with privacy we’re having today.

Private conversations are reasonably private now. Can somebody sneak in and listen? Yeah. But actually it’s not easy. And that’s the way privacy, in some sense, has always worked. Can somebody steal my car? Yeah, but it’s not easy. Can someone break into my house? Yeah, but it’s not easy. We put in enough hurdles so that only the professionals can do it, and not the average everyday person. The problem with the internet now is that you don’t have to be a real professional to break in. The tools are available to anybody.

So, how can we get the benefits without the downsides? I think it may require … Next Page »

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