Important Ed Tech Book Reviews

 From Now On
The Educational Technology Journal

 Vol 11|No 9|June|2002

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The Invisible Computer

by Donald Norman

Reviewed by Laura C. Lewis
About the Author


Technology-driven design often results in the highest percentage of disuse and screensavers.
--Jamie McKenzie

Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, sees an end to complexity in the form of information appliances in his new book The Invisible Computer.

In the preface to The Invisible Computer, Donald Norman states that the goal of his book is "to hasten the day when the technology of the computer fades away out of sight, and the new technology that replaces it is as readily accepted and easy to use as a cassette tape recorder or CD player." Technology is the easy part to change - "the difficult aspects are social, organizational, and cultural."

Most educators will read that sentence and immediately conclude that Norman is going to tell us how to change our beliefs about technology and blame our social, organizational and cultural idiosyncrasies for blocking the way to technology innovation.

In a refreshing reverse Norman points his finger at the technology industry that spawned computers become increasingly complex in an effort to corner the market. When Norman speaks to a need for social, organizational, and cultural change, he is speaking directly to those companies that are at the forefront of designing and innovating computer hardware and the operating systems that go with them.

He sums up the agony of living with technology today; technology that over the past two decades has crept into our classrooms and schools.

Today's technology is intrusive and overbearing. It leaves us with no moments of silence, with less time to ourselves, with a sense of diminished control over our lives.

How many of us have had to juggle the demands of e-mail with an already burdensome schedule of activities. Does it ever seem that technology has increased the amount that we are expected to produce? When it fails us or eludes us with its complexity we must pay the price in lost time and energy?

Norman unmasks the computer industry, which like the sneaker industry, is run on a six-to-eight month innovation cycle. Innovation plays out in the form of more features or added complexity rather than simplicity.

His is a solo voice in today's world of techno-glitz. He makes the case for the need to redesign and rethink computers from the user perspective. He envisions the computer evolving into an appliance similar to a toaster, something that is so ubiquitous is has become invisible.

This is where he is at his strongest: in his critique of why technology does not work for the vast majority of us who cannot overlook its digital-ness and in his vision of a better world where computers are designed on a human frame of reference. His argument is weakest in framing how to get from the present day computer, which he calls a "disruptive technology" to an information appliance.

In this book I show how to make a new start, how to start with simple devices-information appliances - then slowly establish this new paradigm as the natural successor to today's complexity. The proper way, I argue, is through the user-centered, human -centered, humane technology of appliances where the technology of the computer disappears behind the scenes into task-specific devices that maintain all the power without the difficulties.

In many ways this is an insider's book written for designers of computers and CEOs of computer companies. Norman goes to great lengths to explore how the industry ended up with its present day crop of personal computers and operating systems. It is an interesting read full of stories lifted from our past to explore why we continue to live "in a world created by technologists for technologists."

When we finally reach the last chapters he comes up a little short, prophesizing that one day there will be information appliances in the areas of printing, photography, medical and new service, and that devices like radios, telephones, and cameras will become smaller and smaller. That's about it.

I would argue that it is the very complexity of the computer - its ability to do many things in one place - that makes it so compelling and useful. To break it apart into appliances seems repetitive. If I want to format digital photos that is what I do on my computer - selecting the programs and hardware to achieve this end. And when I'm done, without moving from my chair, I can e-mail these photos to a friend, or print them for my wall or upload them to my website.

Norman's book validates what so many of us believe but are afraid to admit - that these symbols of power and knowledge may in fact be the product of too much market driven poor design. They do not address our needs in the classroom of today or tomorrow - not until a technology is as "invisible," easy to use and cheap as a chalkboard will it replace the tried and true.

There are innovators in the industry trying to find ways to make this complex technology more useful to the classroom. IBM, Microsoft, and Apple are experimenting with handheld devices in the classroom. There have been experiments with ibooks, palm pilots, and play stations to cross the boundary between classroom and home. There are university think tanks like MIT's media lab ( that are looking into the future and contemplating the intersection of learning, play, culture and society with technology. Or take a look at the refereed Journal of Interactive Learning Research. In particular, Volume 11, Number 3/4 2000 has a special Issue on "Intelligent Systems/Tools in Training and Lifelong Learning." View the contents at

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Credits: The photographs were shot by John Lewis.

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