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Leonardo's Laptop: Human Needs and the New Computing Technologies

Author: Ben Shneiderman
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002
Review Published: June 2003

 REVIEW 1: Hugh Miller
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Ben Shneiderman

Ben Shneiderman has been working in the area of human computer interaction and interface design for many years, and has consistently argued for the use of computing to augment and support peoples' activity, rather than to substitute or duplicate human abilities. He and his team at the University of Marylandís Human-Computer Interaction Lab has produced a string of brilliant demonstrations and tools to allow people to work with large data sets easily and fairly intuitively, and even collaboratively, like PhotoFinder.

Shneiderman has argued against the popular Ė and as he sees it, ineffective and dehumanizing (or at least devaluing human skills) Ė approach of using agents to substitute for humans in data search (an entertaining account of some exchanges with Patti Maes on this topic is in Shneiderman and Maes, 1997), preferring the approach of building interfaces that allow direct manipulation of data: "Instead of the machine doing the job, the goal is to enable you to do a better job" (13).

In Leonardoís Laptop, Shneiderman sets out his beliefs about the most productive approach to using computing power to help people, and illustrates the possibilities in four sample areas: education, business, healthcare, and government. It is a plea for a move from "old computing" to "new computing": "The old computing was about what computers could do; the new computing is about what users can do" and "Successful technologies are those that are in harmony with users' needs. They must support relationships and activities that enrich the usersí experiences" (2).

As well as the chapters on the four areas mentioned above, the book covers Shneidermanís ideas about the drawbacks of old computing ("Unusable at Any Bandwidth"), usability, universal access, how human activities and relationships relate to computing, and promoting creativity.

There are two devices that run through the book. The first, as suggested by the title, is the invocation of Leonardo da Vinci as a model of a constructive approach to new technologies. Shneiderman points out that Leonardo had skills in music, theatre, art, science, and technology, and that he nurtured ambitious visions and was involved in public works. He notes: "So, taking Leonardo as our inspirational muse, we can wonder how his thinking would influence our use of technology. How might Leonardoís integrative approach that blends science and art lead us to new technologies, applications and designs?" (13).

The second device is the construction of matrices of activities and relationships. These are based on a model of human activity which has four stages: collect, relate, create, and donate. Shneiderman relates these activities to transactions with self, family and friends, colleagues and neighbours, and citizens and markets to construct a two dimensional matrix: an Activities and Relationships Table (ART).

Both devices are used throughout the book. Leonardo is used productively ("now what would Leonardo have thought of doing with this?") and rhetorically ("if Leonardo would have been favour of an approach like this, it must be a good thing"), as well as a theme to hold the book together. Moreover, each chapter is introduced with an enjoyable Leonardo drawing. ARTs are used descriptively ("what computer-supported activities can we find in each of these cells?"), and productively ("which of these cells can suggest new applications?"). The ART is a useful device for setting out a range of approaches to how computing can be used to human ends, and Shneiderman uses it flexibly throughout the book.

In the end, however, I found the Leonardo device less convincing. While it allows a great, snappy title, and gives the opportunity for reflective sections (labelled with a renaissance script ĎLí in the margin) on what the great one might have thought about things, some of the links are a bit forced (the "New Business" chapter, for example, imagines him buying fancy clothes and high-quality art materials over the Web). Although the argument from Leonardoís multidisciplinary inquisitiveness and preparedness to consider technological innovations beyond the apparently possible is compelling, and maybe uplifting, perhaps there isnít much in Leonardoís actual work which provides inspiration or suggestion. Leonardo is a genius of the material after all, an inspiration for 19th and 20th century technology maybe, but he didnít really have the opportunity to speculate about uses of the immaterial and informational (though itís likely that if heíd been around in the 1940s, he would have been right up there with Vannevar Bush).

Also, I believe the Leonardo device undersells Shneiderman himself, who for years has been firmly committed to promoting computing as though people really mattered, and who has been widely creative in finding ways for people to work with and through computers. The book presents a summary of his ideas for the humane and productive use of computers, a renaissance from old computing to new computing, in his own terms. This seems like a vision and an intellect capable of carrying the book unaided. I was keen to read this book because I wanted more details of Shneidermanís views, not because I wanted to find out what he made of the Leonardo connection. (Less seriously, perhaps, Leonardoís promiscuous inventiveness might not always work for the greater good: Terry Pratchettís character Leonard of Quirm is a commentary on the dangerous exploitation of that kind of genius. For more on this, see here or here.)

Concluding each chapter is a section called "The Skepticís Corner" in which objections to the arguments of the chapter, and consideration of the possibly damaging results of computing, are discussed. This is a fair attempt to introduce some balance, but these sections are all quite short and not very hard-hitting: Shneidermanís main interest, after all, is in all the great ideas that he and others have had for using computing for the individual and public good. For instance, the Skepticís section at the end of the e-politics chapter is less than a page long, which is a long way from the kind of analysis put forward, for example, by Darin Barney in Prometheus Wired, recently reviewed on this site by Andrea Matwyshyn and Randy Kluver.

The ideas presented in Leonardoís Laptop fit well with those in Don Normanís books Things That Make Us Smart and The Invisible Computer, and agree with Normanís late 20th century rewriting of an early 20th century epigraph: "People Propose, Science Studies, Technology Conforms." Norman is interested in the product-design end of information technology, and how "computing" can be delivered more useably by devices that donít seem to be "computers" at all. Shneiderman takes a more macro view, calling for stable, reliable, secure networks, but also hopes the new computing might bring "widespread use of low-cost devices that are easy to learn, rapid in performing common tasks, and low in error rates" (26). He points out that this is a goal that can only be produced by a change in expectations and demands, not by technological breakthroughs in themselves. All the same, this book is mainly about what the technologists can do for the people (which includes building tools to support peoplesí creativity and invention): "The challenge for technology developers is to more deeply understand what you, the user, want. Then they can respond to this challenge by creating products that are more useful and more satisfying to more people" (2).

But what can the people do with the technology? An area that is interesting to me which doesnít get much attention here is all the unpredictable uses that people find for whatever technology thatís made available to them. All those unexpected and creative developments of the last few years like Blogs, texting, and file sharing (and even what weíve been doing for years with the telephone, which is completely different from the original 19th century intention), turn Normanís epigraph into something like "science studies, technology proposes, people convert to their own ends in unexpected ways." This is an optimistic message that Shneiderman might be happy with, and it does suggest another direction for new computing: systems that are flexible, even pervertable, and capable of ending up being used for all kinds of different things Ė as the Web has been. In a similar way, Stewart Brand points out in How Buildings Learn that since buildings are destined to be used, reused, modified and remodelled, they would be better built with that kind of development in mind. (Readers who like Leonardoís Laptop might well enjoy Brandís book as a manifesto for one kind of a "new architecture" that has links with Shneidermanís "new computing.")

Ben Shneidermanís Leonardo's Laptop is a wide-ranging review of humane and constructive uses of new technology. Although it it is forward-looking, it isn't just arm-waving, because it is very solidly based in examples from already implemented systems. It might be that the relentlessly positive and hopeful tone of this book will strike some readers as unrealistic, but it follows naturally from the basic orientation of the book: what can technology do to help people? This is about Leonardo-style (fairly) innocent curiosity and inventiveness, after all. Machiavelliís Macintosh will be another book.

Barney, D. (2000). Prometheus Wired: The Hope for Democracy in the Age of Network Technology. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Brand, S. (1997). How Buildings Learn: What Happens after Theyíre Built. London: Pheonix.

Norman, D.A. (1993). Things That Make us Smart: Defending Human Attributes in the Age of the Machine. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Norman, D.A. (1998). The Invisible Computer: Why Good Products Can Fail, the Personal Computer Is So Complex, and Information Appliances Are the Solution. Cambridge MA, MIT Press.

Pratchett, T. (1998). Jingo. London: Corgi Books.

Shneiderman, B. and Maes, P. (1997). "Direct Manipulation vs Interface Agents, excerpts from the debates at IUI 97 and CHI 97." Interactions, IV.6, pp 42-61.

Hugh Miller:
Hugh Miller teaches psychology (and some design) at Nottigham Trent University in England. He is interested in how designed objects are involved in social interaction, and in self-presentation on WWW homepages.  <hugh.miller@ntu.ac.uk>

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