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What is the story of the 21st century?

Ubiquity, Volume 2000 Issue March, March 1 - March 31, 2000 | BY John C. Thomas 


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"What is the story of the 21st century? Who do you see as the characters in that story?"

"What does the 21st century hold in terms of technological change?"

"What will be the impact of technology on human beings in the twenty-first century?"

These seem like important, natural questions to ask. Yet, the very framing of these questions treats technology as agent and human beings as object. Can we re-frame the question into one that puts us in a more responsible and active position?

"What is the shape of a technology that helps make us more fully human and how can we bring that technology into existence?" This seems closer to the mark and yet there is still something odd. We recognize intuitively that being more fully human is not just a question of technology, but also of the social systems that are intertwined with these technologies. Perhaps then, a central question for the 21st century is this: "How can we design, develop, and deploy socio-technical systems that help make us more fully human?"

Key to designing such systems is to include a wide diversity of expertise from the very beginning. Even from the narrower perspective of productivity gains, Tom Landauer, in The Trouble with Computers, showed that when the expertise of social scientists using iterative design and testing was applied to system design, the average year over year productivity gain was about 30%; when this was not done, the average year over year gain was only about 1%.

Arguably, insufficient attention has been paid to the social aspects of computing from the very beginning of the computer industry. There have been early voices raising these issues, including Fred Brooks in The Mythical Man-Month and Gerald Weinberg's The Psychology of Programming. Doug Englebart's early (and current; see work recognizes the intertwining of social and technical issues. Ben Shneiderman has consistently raised issues about the social impacts of computing for the past three decades. These concerns have included small details, such as the wording of error messages (e.g., to make it clear that the computer is a tool of the user and not vice versa!), and larger issues, such as protecting users' rights. Even the dollars-and-cents economic value of designing human-computer systems with an understanding of the human (as well as the computing) side (and most importantly, the interaction) has been shown again and again. There are dozens of "dot-com" companies today advertising for someone to "take care" of the human factors issues of their development. A close look at these ads, however, makes it clear that they are looking for someone familiar with GUI builders to "add on" a user interface after the functionality has been determined. The "user interface" issues are conceived of as being about making the individual user productive.

In the computing contexts of the future, however, the social aspects of systems will be even more important. Why? Because computing and communication technologies will be potentially available everywhere and always.

Already, we sometimes witness the interesting spectacle of people coming together for a "face-to-face" meeting from all over the world --- and then --- spending the meeting time doing their e-mail. I've seen a person driving 70 miles per hour, more or less in the middle lane of a nearby parkway while reading the paper and talking on his mobile phone. I've been in the audience of a Broadway production when an actor came out of character to tell a patron to take their mobile phone conversation outside. Perhaps, one could say that rudeness is simply not addressable by technology.

I wonder.

If we begin thinking of designing socio-technical systems, bringing to bear knowledge from many disciplines including computer science, economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology, management science and human-computer interaction, might it not be possible to design these systems to make us more fully human? If we were more fully human, would we be less rude or more? If we were more fully human, would we be wiser or more warlike?

I have to come down on the side that says that we would be less rude, less warlike, and wiser. I believe well-designed socio-technical systems could help us see past differences and see into connections. In our culture, we ask the question, "Are you related to each other?" We take the continuous spectrum of genetic similarity and break this continuum into two pieces. We use the term "unrelated" when we only share 99.9% of our genes in common. We use the term "related" if we share 99.95% of our genes in common. This seems to be a rather interesting place to draw the line, if indeed, any line needs to be drawn.

Terminology in every day life has been influenced by the terminology of computers and communications. However, for the most part, the form of our language has not changed much because of the use of technology. Yet. Typically, when we read text on a computer screen, it is still stable, linear text, although the use of embedded URLs in increasing. When we hear synthetic speech, we hear one voice in one place. In a typical meeting, one person may be responsible for the "official minutes."

Experiments are beginning however, which may in this century alter language fundamentally, both as a tool of thought and as a tool of communication. For example, text on a computer screen need not sit still; the words can morph, appear and disappear in interesting ways (see, e.g., and Synthetic speech need not be presented from only one location at a time. There are some meeting aids now that already allow multiple users to input ideas simultaneously.

People are rediscovering the power of some older forms of communication such as Dialogue (e.g., and storytelling (e.g., Such processes, however, can be aided and amplified by technology, provided a broad socio-technical view is brought to bear on the design of such tools. Scientists are finding new ways to collaborate across the globe in fields as diverse as Upper Atmosphere Physics ( and Number Theory (

Given the tremendous challenges that humanity faces to construct a sustainable method of living on this planet, the last question I'd like to raise is this one: "Whose unique perspective can we afford to leave out of consideration in dealing with these difficult issues?" I suggest the answer is: "No-one's." One of the early goals of this century should be to find ways to overcome any and all barriers for willing people to participate in these global issues. We should seek to provide universal usability. To do so effectively requires us to understand and design workable socio-technical systems. For more information, see

The story of the 21st century is one where technology works because it is designed with human beings and human social systems and values in mind. The characters of the story? Every person on the planet. The ending? That's up to us.

John C Thomas is manager of Knowledge Socialization at IBM's T. J. Watson Research Center. project website: personal website:


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