Sunday, November 19th, 2000
Life section

Simple emotion stalls paperless future

IT guru Nicholas Negroponte predicted a paperless digital future, but he forgot that human beings are not machines

IN BEING DIGITAL, his 1995 handbook for the information age which predicted the advent of talking household appliances and holographic agents, among other wonderful things, and the disintermediation of self-important folks like newspaper editors, IT guru Nicholas Negroponte took a swipe at the fax machine.

'The fax machine is a serious blemish on the information landscape, a step backward ... ,' he wrote.

To fax a document, we first have to print it. A completely computer-readable form is made to lose all of the properties of being digital. Then we take the piece of paper over to a fax machine, where it is (re)digitised into an image.

'This is about as sensible as reading tea leaves,' said the director of the Media Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who was in town last Monday to present a paper.

The fax is not an intelligent medium. You remove the computer readability, which is the means by which the recipient can automatically store, retrieve and manipulate your message, argued the good professor. But the startling rise of the fax in the lifetime of the office computer goes stubbornly against his vision of the digital future.

In the late 1970s, the people at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Parc) believed, like Dr Negroponte did, that the future would be paperless, and were looking for a new killer application to replace the fax and printer. But the killer app turned out not to be Ethernet or any of the computer software which they were developing, but the laser printer.

Laser printer sales have increased 12-fold in the last decade, even as digital communication has grown exponentially. Also in the last decade, paper consumption has grown from 87 million to 99 million tons a year.

Why have the fax, printer and copier not only endured, but also thrived, when they should have been rendered obsolete by the new information technologies? Because, to put it simplistically, human beings are not machines. Superior technology is of no use to them if it is not geared to their needs and emotions.

In the case of the fax, it is about ease of use. It mixes the rapid circulation of IT with many of the advantages of paper documents. You can mix typescript with manuscript. You can scribble a one-word reply on a fax that's just come in, and send it back right away.

The paperless future may still arrive yet -- but not before the IT revolution is turned around from being technology-driven to being people-centred. The PC with gigabyte power, the cellular phone with 1,001 uses -- have they really been designed for us, or for asocial geeks and cyberpunks who prefer to inhabit cyberspace than 'meatspace'?

We are social beings, and for new technologies to become a part of our lives, they need to be socialised, in the larger context of community and institutions.

THERE are two instructive lessons from the Industrial Revolution:

The great technologist Thomas Alva Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. In the following year, the Edison Speaking Phonograph Company was marketing the first machines.

Great as he was, Edison did not see the entertainment potential of his invention. Instead, he saw it as the way to a paperless office -- yes, Negroponte and company weren't the first to have this vision -- in which dictated letters could be recorded into cylinders and sent to recipients without the need for transcription.

It was not until the early 1890s that the commercial potential of the phonograph was exploited, not by Edison, but by a competitor, Emile Berliner, who produced pre-recorded stamped disc records commercially with his machine, the gramophone.

The gramophone became the Victrola, manufactured by the Victor Talking Machine Company and later RCA Victor.

Berliner and his successors quickly set up studios across the world and recorded the world's most famous musicians.

Edison's phonograph was more superior in technology than the Victrola. He scoffed at the scratchy sounds of the latter. But when he realised he wasn't reaching out to consumers and decided to switch to the latter's technology, he was no longer the market leader.

He made yet another serious mistake when he decided, logically, that big-name, expensive artists were not much different from lesser-known professionals. He thought he could save a lot of money by recording those lesser-known names, without sacrificing quality.

He didn't even list the performers' names on his discs for several years. He thought customers wanted only good music.

He did save a lot of money, but he lost the business, because he didn't understand that consumers preferred the big names, even if others were just as good or even better. It was the name that mattered.

This lesson is recounted in the 1999 book, The Invisble Computer, by Donald A. Norman, who used to head the Apple Research Laboratories and is now Professor Emeritus of cognitive science at the University of California at San Diego.

Norman shows why computers are really difficult to use, and argues that information appliances have to be developed anew to fit people's needs and lives.

In a new book, The Social Life Of Information (2000), John Seely Brown, chief scientist at Xerox Corporation and director of Parc, and Paul Duguid, from the University of California at Berkeley, offer another lesson in people-oriented technology.

Alexander Graham Bell introduced the telephone to the marketplace in the late 1870s. His shareholders were impatient with the slow development of the new technology, and preferred the well-entrenched telegraph. Both Western Union in the United States and the post office in Britain refused Bell's offer to buy the patents -- and without their support, the telephone venture looked set to fail.

But Bell took it to market in incremental steps. First, he put telephones in hotel rooms and encouraged guests to use them to talk to the front desk. He promoted their use for office intercoms, another familiar task like the one in hotels which taught people subtly the use and the ease of use of his new device.

Then he put telephones near lunch counters. People who didn't know how to use them would be likely to see those who did, and in this way they would also learn how to use them.

Bell's was a success story, unlike Edison's. He didn't assume that superior technology and logical analysis of a new product would sell it in the marketplace. He worked with the social context of his day, not against it or in isolation from it. He was customer-oriented.

THE Swiss watch conglomerate SMH, which has 14 different brands, including Swatch, considers three factors to be of prime importance in the sale of its watches: innovation, public relations and emotion.

IT visionaries like Negroponte, much as I admire him -- his book set me on a reading adventure that has led me to people like Donald Norman -- often forget the part about emotion.

Archive 1

03/12/00 Nice work if you can get it

19/11/00 Simple emotions stalls paperless future

04/11/00 A club of pretencious class

21/10/00 Canby's passion for cinema

16/09/00 Clint still a draw at 70

09/09/00 The inspiring Keppel Men

09/07/00 Time and love wait for no man

25/06/00 Seizing opportunity in old-economy biz

11/06/00 Bad news to have more papers?

14/05/00 When my hostesses didn't show up...

30/04/00 Bellow's betrayal -- or act of friendship?

16/04/00 Alone, you don't get to grow up

02/04/00 New Economy

19/03/00 The Good Life

06/03/00 Time for creative destruction

20/02/00 Meet the new superhuman

30/01/00 OK, I don't have to be rich

16/01/00 An intimation of timelessness

02/01/00 Let's not forget to meet F2F