A trippy pattern
2.9.2018

don norman & heraclitus

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus made the claim that one can never step into the same river twice. The water is always moving, the river one thing and then, in the instant one identifies it, the water has passed and the river is something else.This concept of flux (everything changes, nothing remains) may rattle our twenty-first-century inclinations, which thrive on consistency, integration, and predictability.

But the very field that allows for our first-world creature comforts is itself changing as rapidly as Heraclitus' river.

HTML, the language that made the World Wide Web possible, was created in 1990. Twenty-eight years later, a world without Tim Berners-Lee's contribution is difficult, even impossible to imagine.Yet there is a book, first published in 1988 and updated throughout the technological revolutions that have rocked our tiny, pale, blue planet, that remains. Full of insight first gathered before the internet changed humane existence, the book is called The Design of Everyday Things (from hereon referred to as DOET).You've seen Don Norman's title at the top of every must-read-on-your-journey-to-becoming-a-designer listicle; and it is probably cited in seventy-five to eighty - if not ninety! - percent of articles, textbooks, or other works on design.I had the pleasure of reading the revised edition, published in 2013, and let me tell you, it greased my gears.The most commonly cited feature of DOET are Norman's principles of design, a lens through which he deconstructs everything from thermostats to doors, light-switches to stovetops.If you want to learn more about the seven principles, a cursory Google search will get you there in a flash. DOET helped me start thinking as a designer, a feat of subtle and excellent writer's craftsmanship that I am eternally grateful for.At the end of the latest edition Norman makes a few remarks on the nature of the rapid advancement of technology. His claim is simple: technology is not the end goal. It is the tool.

The power of the unaided mind is highly overrated. Without external aids, deep, sustained reasoning is difficult. Human intelligence is highly flexible and adaptive, superb at inventing procedures and objects that overcome its own limits. The real powers come from devising external aids that enhance cognitive abilities.DOET p. 288

Or, to quote Joe MacMillan from Halt and Catch Fire:

"The computer is not the thing. It is the thing that gets us to the thing."

Humans are creative, flexible, and versatile. Machines are rigid, precise, and fixed. Human collaboration with technology makes us powerful.The river is raging these days: Blockchain. The horizon of ubiquitous artificial intelligence. The dominance of online consumerism. If I sound like a Luddite, it's because I maintain a healthy dose of skepticism about the future.Nevertheless, collaboration is a meeting of two wills.

If one will is showing up out of fear of the other, then that is not collaboration at all. It is just submission.

The digital record is challenging the very foundation of Hercalitus' concept of flux. In ancient Greece, the text itself had a limited lifespan. Don Norman's principles will likely remain and unlike Heraclitus, the majority of whose writings were lost to history, the entirety of DOET is likely to be preserved in whole for future generations.

✌️Last updated 
November 13, 2021