Function over Form: What the technology of the past tells us about the future.

Norwich computer

I would really strongly advise not putting this on your lap.

If it didn’t have ELECTRONIC COMPUTER blazoned across it, you’d be forgiven for not realising this was Norwich City Council’s first computer being delivered in 1957. No,it isn’t some kind of portable Large Hadron Collider. It’s not an Ikea-style build-your-own Big Ben. It’s not the daily banana delivery for King Kong. It’s a computer.

I like using this picture as a warning when I give seminars about health technology. The warning is that trying to predict what technology will look like, 10, 20, 30 years from now, is notoriously difficult. And, consequently, trying to anticipate how we should design services to make use of technology, or how to predict what future users of technology might expect health technology to look like, is extremely difficult too. If  – for our sins – we’d been around in Norwich when this computer was delivered, and  tasked with working out how to better integrate technology into our service, we’d probably have suggested getting some bigger doors.

Here’s another one:

robot messenger

“Look, kittens!”

Check it out – it’s basically twitter! (If anyone can design some kind of steampunk app to make the twitter interface look like this, I will give you a kidney.)

I’ve heard academics before talk about how there’s no point getting to grips with something like twitter, because in a few years it’ll be obsolete and it’d be like having done your Masters in MySpace. This is only a half truth of course – yes, twitter may well have bitten the dust and something newer will have taken its place. But the fundamental activity that is performed – sharing, expression, communication – is the same. Our dapper gentleman here is no doubt sharing a Witticism with his Chums about the latest tube strike, or possibly mansplaining something to a suffragette. Because people like to talk, and the need for technologies that let us do that has thrived, even if the Notificator itself didn’t make it out of the 30s.

Understanding the function of such technologies is therefore key, and goes far beyond understanding a particular platform or piece of machinery. Understanding what users want from a technology can help us predict how systems will, or should, look in the future. We can’t predict what technology itself will look like 20 years now. But I quite confidently predict that people will use it to find pictures of kittens.


(HT to Retronaut for the computer photo, and Boing Boing for the Notificator)


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