Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Of Mice And Man


I just realized I saw my first computer mouse exactly forty-six years (and ten days) ago. It was at the IBM Scientific Computing Symposium on Man-Machine Interaction (May 3-5, 1965). By then, its inventor Doug Englebart had exhibited his new device to probably less than a thousand people. It was obvious to those in attendance, this clumsy box would give us better personal control over the not-yet-fully-realized computer. (Good color graphics were still in the future.)


Now, these mice and their cousins (like the track-ball) have come to dominate us. Instead of fulfilling their promise, expanding our control over the computer, they have—intentionally or otherwise—expanded its control over us. The mouse, a truly great idea from the mid-60’s, is still the dominant input device. The touchpad on your notebook is a close second and the finger is gaining (via touch screens). But they’re really all the same virtual pointing device! Digital, indeed.


Consider this: in 1966 it was obvious to the designers of Star Trek that a more natural (and more logical) means of control was the human voice. Forty-six years later and we still haven’t figured out how to make that so. Hell, my computer can’t even recognize my voice. (Anyone remember the old RCA phonograph ad with the dog listening to “his master’s voice”?) Instead of seeking Super Intelligent computers, maybe we should be asking, Is your computer smarter than a dog?

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