by Dan Cohen
Today Apple will release new iPhones and other gizmos and services, and as they do every year, the tech pundits will ask: "Does this live up to the expectations and vision of Steve Jobs?" I, on the other hand, will ask: "Does this live up to the expectations and vision of Jef Raskin?" Apple likes to imagine itself as the humane tech company, with its emphasis on privacy and a superior user experience, but the origins of that humaneness—if it still exists beyond marketing—can be traced less to the ruthless Jobs than to the gentler Raskin. Jobs may have famously compared a computer to a "bicycle for the mind," but Raskin articulated more genuinely a desire that computers be humane and helpful instruments.
To be clear, Raskin, like Jobs, wanted to sell millions of personal computers, but only Raskin worried aloud about what would happen if that seemingly ridiculous goal was achieved: "Will the average person's circle of acquaintances grow? Will we be better informed? Will a use of these computers as an entertainment medium become their primary value? Will they foster self-education? Is the designer of a personal computer system doing good or evil?" It is remarkable to read these words in an internal computer design document from 1980, but such reflections were common in Raskin's writing, and clearly more heartfelt than Google's public, thin, and short-lived "Don't be evil" motto.
Jobs may have dabbled in calligraphy and obsessed over design, but Raskin was the polymath who truly lived at the intersection of the liberal arts and technology. In addition to physics, math, and computer science, Raskin studied philosophy, music (which he also composed and performed at a professional level), and visual arts (he was also an accomplished artist). He clearly read a lot, which was reflected in his clear and often mirthful writing style, flecked with nerdy guffaws. (The end of one of his long Apple memos: "Summery: That means fair, warm weather, just after spring.") He wrote a book on user interface design called The Humane Interface and sought to build a new computing system called The Humane Environment. For the purposes of this newsletter, and for some ongoing conversations I would like to have with you about the ethical dimension of technological creation, he is one important touchstone.
(Jef Raskin with a model of the Canon Cat, photo by Aza Raskin)
Raskin was one of the earliest Apple employees, hired to direct their publications and documentation, and is widely known for leading the early Macintosh project, before Jobs swooped in and recast it in his (and Xerox PARC's) image. But before that happened, Raskin, as the consummate documenter, got to lay out the founding principles of the Mac. This set of documents became known—in a quasi-religious way—as the Book of Macintosh.
That "book" (really, a collection of documents) is now in the Special Collections at Stanford University, and they have made some of it available online if you would like to read them at the next Apple high holiday. Within these pages, you can witness Raskin pondering computational devices and user experiences that would become gospel within Apple. "This should be a completely self-teaching system." "If this is to be truly a product for the home, shouldn't we offer it in various colors?" "Telecommunications will become a key part of every computer market segment." "The computer must be in one lump." (Note to Apple: Raskin would have hated the proliferation of dongles.)
In one especially cogent document, Raskin summarized the philosophy of the Mac: “Design Considerations for an Anthropophilic Computer," an oddly latinate title considering that Raskin dropped the second F in his first name because he considered it superfluous. Raskin imagines what the computing of the future should look like, once it moves beyond the hobbyists of the 1970s and into the mainstream:
This is an outline for a computer designed for the Person In The Street (or, to abbreviate: the PITS); one that will be truly pleasant to use, that will require the user to do nothing that will threaten his or her perverse delight in being able to say: "I don't know the first thing about computers," and one which will be profitable to sell, service and provide software for.
You might think that any number of computers have been designed with these criteria in mind, but not so. Any system which requires a user to ever see the interior, for any reason, does not meet these specifications. There must not be additional ROMS, RAMS, boards or accessories except those that can be understood by the PITS as a separate appliance. For example, an auxiliary printer can be sold, but a parallel interface cannot. As a rule of thumb, if an item does not stand on a table by itself, and if it does not have its own case, or if it does not look like a complete consumer item in and of itself, then it is taboo.
If the computer must be opened for any reason other than repair (for which our prospective user must be assumed incompetent) even at the dealer's, then it does not meet our requirements.
Seeing the guts is taboo. Things in sockets is taboo (unless to make servicing cheaper without imposing too large an initial cost). Billions of keys on the keyboard is taboo. Computerese is taboo. Large manuals, or many of them (large manuals are a sure sign of bad design) is taboo. Self-instructional programs are NOT taboo.
There must not be a plethora of configurations. It is better to offer a variety of case colors than to have variable amounts of memory. It is better to manufacture versions in Early American, Contemporary, and Louis XIV than to have any external wires beyond a power cord.
And you get ten points if you can eliminate the power cord.
As I've argued elsewhere, I think the iPad, not the Mac, came closest to what Raskin was dreaming of here, although I suspect that as a text-lover, and given his other writing on user interfaces, he would have preferred an iPad that was oriented more toward writing and communication than consumption. But Raskin's deep sense of how most people don't have time to fidget with software or hardware—who just want the damn computer to work, in an understandable and consistent way—was ahead of its time. Most people are busy and tired and don't want to be hobbyists with their digital devices.
Unfortunately, latent in Raskin's understanding is a dark upside down world, the flip side to designing computer environments for the PITS. When you grasp that people don’t have time to fiddle with bits, when you start focusing of the software of the mind—the psychology of the user—rather than the hardware of the computer, the temptation emerges to design platforms where ease of use acts to lock people in, or perform social experiments on them. Those who are busy and tired and don't have time to tinker—that is, most of us—may also prefer using Facebook to maintaining a personal blog or website. And that's one way our computers became more misanthropic than anthropophilic.
What can we do when these platforms turn against us after drawing us in? On the opening podcast of the third season of What's New, I talk to Christo Wilson, who is part of a team at Northeastern University that "audits" the algorithms within the black boxes of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other monolithic internet services that dominate our world. There has been some very good writing recently about how these algorithms have gone awry—I recommend Cathy O'Neil's Weapons of Math Destruction and Safiya Noble's Algorithms of Oppression—and Christo and his colleagues have established rigorous methods for testing these services from the outside to identify their attributes and flaws. They also are able to provide you, the user of Facebook, Google, and Amazon, an understanding of exactly which of your personal attributes these services are using to customize your online environment (and track you). Scary but important work. Tune in.
Next week in Humane Ingenuity: Letting artificial intelligence loose in the archives.