marney_morris's picture
Professor of Interaction Design, Engineering Department, Stanford University
The Consequences of Choices Made About The Internet Today

"America, where are you going in your automobile?" Allen Ginsberg

The years of 1939 and 1999 were snapshots in time ­ revealing the world as it was and as it would be. At the 1939 New York World's Fair, General Motors' "Futurama" and Ford's "Road of Tomorrow" showcased freeways and spiral ramps scrolling around urban towers. The future was clear. American would rebuild its cities and highways to sing a song of prosperity and personal freedom.

In 1999, a snapshot of the Internet revealed what was and what will be. Wires are still being strung. The Ecommerce structure is still being built. And content is still incunabulum.

What is today's most important unreported story? That the choices made about the Internet today will have great consequences in the next century. Like the automotive age, exuberant times make it easy to forget that a bit of thoughtful design will profoundly influence the fabric of our future society.

What's the issue? Access. Half the people in the US don't have computers, but 98% have TVs and 97% have phones. Why do they say they don't have computers? "Too complicated."

Using a computer should be as easy as turning on a TV. And it could be.

Computers interfaces should be self explanatory. And simple. And they could be.

The quality of information design in the US is declining. Good information design should reveal relationships about the information. It should make you smarter. Learning disorders are on the rise. It's not because we are getting better at diagnosing them. It's because we are creating them. All too often our textbooks are confusing or misleading. And that same lack of thoughtful design pervades the personal computer, and the Internet. Information design is a science that needs to underpin our society if we are going to remain democratic and vital.

The biggest difference between 1939 and 1999? The automobile was simple at the outset. It took years to make it complicated and inaccessible. Computers have been unnecessarily complicated since they began. It is hard to make things simple. But they could be.