Beam me up, Harry

Much of the world is currently going through a phase in which people are spending more and more time typing on keyboards, moving mice around on their desktops, and staring at computer screens (like I am now). It’s possible that we’ll be spending more and more time doing this kind of thing in the coming decades.

But as Nintendo recently showed with their WiiMote, other paths are possible. Perhaps we are just in a transition period. Arthur C. Clarke famously said that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And I think that J. K. Rowling was getting at something very similar in her Harry Potter books.

Magic took the role of technology in Harry’s world. And all of the magical gizmos in that world had the sort of comfortable homey feeling of old England: People in newpaper photos waved to you, but they were still printed in black and white. Maps showed you the locations of anybody who was transgressing – but the map was printed on old parchment and you could roll it up and slip it in your pocket. People transported instantaneously between one place and another not in a shimmering beam of light but from the platform of an old London train station.

In a sense Rowling was presenting a very forward conception for the future of Human Computer Interfaces (HCI). Why shouldn’t HCI simply be what we want? Rather than people needing to retrain themselves to conform to whatever are the current limits of technology, why not envision a future in which technology conforms itself to precisely what makes us humans the most comfortable, to whatever best supports our social interactions with each other? That future would most likely entail the sorts of face-to-face personal interactions that our brains and bodies have evolved to be so good at.

If you really take Clarke’s dictum to heart (and I do) then there is a strong case that the long term path for interface technology – the way that will lead to information appliances really doing “what we want” – is likely to lead not to Star Fleet Academy, but to Hogwarts.

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