From DUST OR MAGIC
Bob Hughes © 1999

A big long page (4,500 wds) - straight from the book, but with live "Hrefs" and a dozen or so extra links added (April 1999). Comments welcomed - bob at dustormagic dot net.

Introduction. The Emancipation of the Serfs.
AT A GLANCE: Computer work is where the industrial-style "mass attack" way of doing things finally comes gloriously unstuck - and the more enquiring "serf" or "peasant" approach proves its superiority. Here, I argue that the Serfs have always been the real makers of history but it's only now that we can see why. The argument is supported by the guns on HMS Victory, evidence from the computer industry, William Morris, a great British car-designer, my PalmPilot, and important new discoveries in brain-science.
THIS IS A BOOK FOR SERFS of all ages and income-levels. It is mainly for the "infoserfs" who work in "Cyberia" - but every serf is warmly welcome, especially if they're interested in computers and take serfdom seriously.

It talks about a revolution - but not an obvious one. This one is so big you can easily not notice it - yet it is right under your nose and you (as practising serf) are one of its co-architects. It is the "creative revolution" caused by people who make things; the revolution that made computers (and civilization and Cyberia) possible in the first place.

What is "Cyberia"? The word started off as a rather inspired, ironic term for the multimedia workplaces of the early 1990s. These often felt like a strange, featherbedded Gulag Archipelago where the KGB uniforms had been swopped for corporate suits.

I try to be a bit more rigorous: my Cyberia is the "landscape of possibilities" you enter when you tackle a job on a computer. These possibilities are no different from the ones in other kinds of work - there are just more of them, and they are very much more sharply defined.
Crafty peasants, great captains, and the world of work.
My Cyberia is part of the bigger world of work, and has the same relationship to it that a mountain massif has to the country it emerges from. It is a unique, new vantage-point. This "world of work" has two major traditions which co-exist uneasily.

First, there's the "serf" or "peasant tradition", where things are made by small groups and by individuals. There's a lot of variety here: the people are all "one-offs" and so are the things they make. Some things they make are exquisite, others are rough-and-ready but they all do the job. You can often tell exactly where a thing was made to within a few miles just by looking at it, and even who made it. The makers think with their hands as much as with their brains. There's a large emphasis on what the anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss calls "bricolage": fiddling with whatever comes to hand in an intuitive way to reach your goal. Trust is endemic. Work-projects aren't strictly segregated from the rest of life; they blend in with housework, childcare and leisure; and they tend to be of fairly short duration: a few months at most.

Then there's the industrial tradition, where things are made by big, well-organized teams modelled (according to some historians) on the crews of 18th-century battleships, and led by "captains of industry". Everything is carefully segregated here to avoid explosions. Thinking is done in a separate place from the doing, and by separate people. Work is separate from life. People even dress differently when they come here, and to some extent become different people: they are more uniform - although within the uniformity there's a well-organized system of distinctions that run vertically (between levels of authority) and horizontally (between specialisms).

The products of this system are uniform too - which is often very welcome. The absolute minimum is left to trust. There is great emphasis on discipline. Production is meticulously planned in advance. Where messing about is unavoidable, licensed practitioners do it (designers etc.) working in quarantine from the "troops". Very big things are done - over quite long timescales: years and decades. Everything is so specialized that hardly anyone can see the "big picture", which is in any case well-protected from the vulgar view by tier upon tier of policemen. This produces the illusion that the "important person" at the top is a great visionary who has some wonderful ability to "make things happen" - and its corollary, that "ordinary people" don't do anything very much.
Who really won the Battle of Trafalgar? The British Royal Navy destroyed a French/Spanish fleet off Cape Trafalgar in 1805. The victory is ascribed to Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson, his tactic of "crossing the enemy's T", and his gunners' ability to fire three rounds for every one fired by the French (this too is ascribed to Nelson's enlightened management).

What history does not say (although it stares every visitor to HMS Victory in the face) is that the Royal Navy had a wickedly simple advantage. Every single gun had a little flintlock trigger; the giant 32-pounders are like ridiculously oversized pistols, fired at the twitch of a string. French guns were fired by a slow-fuze. Neither navy's guns were easily trainable. It was a matter of catching your target as it hove briefly into the limited field of view. A French gun-captain had to estimate where his target would be when the gun fired. His British counterpart simply watched for an enemy gun-port and pulled the string. It made overwhelming accuracy almost unavoidable - evidenced by the devastation wrought in seconds on French ships like the Bucentaure that were raked en passant from the stern.

Whose idea were the triggers? Not Nelson's. He believed in courage, not technology (he had firmly rejected an offer of improved gunsights). I have discovered that triggers were made standard in the Royal Navy in 1755, but whether it was an admiral, a Sea Lord, a gun-founder or an inventive gun-captain who had the non-obvious idea, then went through all the palaver of trying it, testing it and finally getting it adopted, I cannot say. Whoever it was, it was they who made history - and in a way that's much closer to humdrum, everyday work experience than the do-or-die heroics of the great Nelson (which cost him his life). Whether by coincidence or not, it's only now, in the Cyberian age, that History has begun to take an interest in this kind of history [Footnote 1].
The great unravelling begins.
The military/industrial tradition can be a fine thing to be a part of: to march in step can be intensely exhilarating; the order and logicality can be a great relief from the chaos of family life; but it can also be hell, and outrageously destructive. The peasant life is no picnic yet we tend to feel nostalgic nowadays for the peasant way of doing things - and (it transpires) there are good solid reasons for feeling this way.

The industrial tradition seems absolutely dominant. But as soon as it enters Cyberia the situation is reversed. The peasant tradition (or something very like it) comes into its own. Major pieces of software are produced on a "cottage industry" basis. Instead of minding their machines, people play with them, using them as a "medium of creative expression". These apparently trivial activities increasingly dominate the scene: computer games alone are a $17-billion-a-year business (1998), and nearly all done "peasant-style".

Meanwhile the industrial tradition becomes spectacularly unravelled. Instead of coming in late, computer projects that are run industrial-style often don't come in at all. Instead of ending up a bit over budget and a bit behind schedule, they regularly end up costing many times their original budget, taking twice or three times as long as planned - and then don't work.

Is this because computer work raises completely new kinds of problem? Apparently not.

In 1975 a senior IBM engineer called Fred Brooks analyzed the problem in an important book called "The Mythical Man-Month", and explained that the industrial approach was at the heart of it. He then discovered that he'd touched a deeper nerve than he'd thought. People from quite unrelated disciplines like the law, medicine and social science told him that he'd pinpointed long-running problems in their own fields, and his book had given them badly-needed arguments with which to tackle them.

During the 1980s a treasure-trove of evidence began pouring in from the new field of Human Factors (and the related field of "Human-Computer Interaction", or HCI). As computers became more complex, usability problems emerged, which forced computer companies to take a serious interest in human psychology. The psychologists found that the problems people were having with computers were also present in everything else - from ovens and video-recorders, to cars, buildings, road systems and the organisations where they worked. A well-known name in this field is Donald A. Norman whose 1988 classic "The Psychology of Everyday Things" is now read as avidly by town-planners, architects and product designers as by software developers.

If work is a landscape, it's one whose basic features are everywhere - but only become blindingly obvious when you reach the central massif where little ridges finally rear up into mountains, and little depressions in the ground widen into great valleys and canyons. Here you can see the country's true anatomy. Having been here, you can see the lowlands with new eyes, and how whole classes of long-running problems arise. For me, these new perceptions are some of the chief benefits of the computer age.
The landscape of human needs.
Work-practices are like a country's agriculture, which you can easily mistake for the landscape itself. The more powerful the civilization, the less concern it has for underlying landscape features. A peasant economy will use a limestone ridge's thin turf for grazing and the adjacent plain for crops. An advanced economy can treat it all the same: limestone land can be made to support the same crops as the loam, by aggressive use of nitrate fertilizer - or you can use other nitrates to blow the whole thing up, and then pulverize it to make concrete. Eventually one may find that the peasants' approach was the better one.

So, what are these "geological features" of the world of work? They are simple human needs - mediated by basic but far-from simple human factors that you'd blush to mention in a corporate boardroom: emotion, intuition, trust, personal idiosyncracy, curiosity, playfulness - and the basic urge to make delightful, useful things for other people whether you're paid to do it or not; features industrial culture tends to consider minor, redundant, woolly and "soft". The unprecedentedly complex, stubborn constraints of the computer-medium have finally made them as non-ignorable as the British craftsman and visionary, William Morris, asserted 150 years ago.
The famous woodcut portrait of Morris done in about 1887 (when he was 53).
William Morris and the power of everyday things . [Footnote 2]

William Morris (1834-96) anticipated present-day understanding of intuition, emotion, unconscious awareness and tactile intelligence by well over a century - and a good job too. He recognized their role in traditional crafts - which he forced onto the cultural agenda just when industrialism seemed most hell-bent on eliminating them entirely.

He didn't preserve them as zoo specimens. He mastered many of them himself, showed how they could evolve in an industrial world, draw ideas from it, become an inspiration, and even a challenge to it, through a work regime that prefigures Cyberia's best in all key respects: the insistence on hands-on knowledge, on experimentation, on compact teams of many-skilled workers with broad personal horizons, and that work should be interesting and enjoyable.

He is the great, original champion of "everyday things" which, he insisted, affect and inform us constantly, unconsciously, and far more powerfully than the reasoning mind easily comprehends. In this he prefigures Donald Norman - but he went much further, connecting it to the intuitive, unconscious aspects of work itself, of fulfilling work to a fulfilled lives, and of these to a truly and sustainably rich society - which he fought politically to create. He then proved these connections not just with words (of which he wrote millions) but with a non-stop flood of beautiful, useful things produced in happy, solidly viable workshops. No Cyberian yet has launched a program as complete and public as his although some seem to be headed in that direction. New knowledge about "soft" human factors should give them confidence: it is ammunition Morris could never have dreamed of having. A Latter-day Morris will be pushing on an open door.

Morris implanted the idea of "well-made things" and all the values that go with them so deeply into the Western mind that we can easily fail to notice we have them: just like his "everyday things" in fact.
Recent research shows that "soft", human factors are anything but soft. If anything, emotion and intuition are tougher, quicker, cleverer and vastly more efficient than even Morris dared to claim.

The quest for "electronic brains" in the 1960s and 70s provoked a spate of discoveries about how the mind works at the level of neurones and synapses. The upshot, in the early 1990s, was not an electronic brain, but new respect for the human one, for the body that goes with it, and for all the soft, "fluffy" things Morris talked about.

Emotion and intuition are now major subjects for science. We find that it is impossible to think rationally if emotion is impaired. Stress and anxiety do impair thought: you can see it on a PET-scan. Hands are just as important for thinking as brains. The unconscious mind does take in far more information, and processes it measurably more quickly and accurately, than the "conscious" part of the mind does, or even notices. Most of what we know, we know unconsciously - and we really do do our best thinking "without thinking". These are no longer matters for impassioned argument, but of plain scientific fact. Names to conjure with here include Michael Gazzaniga, Richard Gregory, Joseph LeDoux, Antonio Damasio and Pawel Lewicki [Footnote3].

The work finally begins to establish a "causal link" between hierarchical work regimes (which strive to eliminate intuition, emotion and individuality from the workplace and cause stress within it) and their high human, social and financial cost. And it shows just why really great work is not and never can be done that way.

The most successful work of every kind, wherever you look, is typically done quasi peasant-style by small teams of idiosyncratic individuals, using their hands and their "feelings" every bit as much as their brains. This has become commonplace in computer work.
Jeff Hawkins's hand-made PalmPilot. I'll mention just one computer-media example here: 3Com's phenomenally successful PalmPilot handheld organizer. This was designed by Jeff Hawkins . His prototype was a block of wood that he cut in his garage workshop, shaped and refined, and carried around for months in his shirt-pocket, pretending that it was a computer. So when you use a PalmPilot, you encounter no other hand but his; you even use his own actual handwriting: his "Graffiti" handwriting-recognition system. There are now dozens of much bigger companies in the "handheld" business but none has achieved anything like the success his tiny company achieved. Many of them boast features that, on paper, should leave the PalmPilot standing - but in practice the Pilot's "feel" is what wins the day, and this is mainly appreciated unconsciously. [Footnote 4]
In the "industrial lowlands" around Cyberia, the best work is also done this way - although you may not know it.
One man's best-selling car: the Mini. Consider two cars: the classic British "Mini" launched in 1959, and its (intended) successor, the "Metro" (1982). The Mini was designed almost entirely by Alec Issigonis. The Metro benefitted from far more market research, analysis and "design input" than its predecessor, but it is generally regarded as a classic victim of "design by committee". It never made the same impact as the Mini - and the Mini has in fact outlived it: it is a "design classic", immune to fashion. One could write a book to analyze the reasons for the Mini's success and the Metro's relative failure, but the general verdict is: the Mini was one man's labour of love - and people love it because it carries Alec Issigonis's handwriting all the way through.
This Mini belongs to Rolf Göpffarth, a computer scientist from Bonn, Germany (picture shown with his kind permission). There are lots of Minis near where I live but I thought I'd show you Rolf's because he's so fond of it that he put it on the Web. His site also has information about Issigonis, and links to other Mini pages.
"Mini stories" are commonplace in the computer world, significant rarities in the rest of the world - but throughout the world the overwhelming tendency is for authorship to remain concealed. For every Alec Issigonis who achieves a certain recognition in his lifetime there are thousands who don't - and that's perpetuated in computerdom. Most PalmPilot users have never heard of Jeff Hawkins. They assume it was made by something called 3Com: an office-building. It took me quite a while to discover that one of CD-ROM's landmarks (the "Living Books" series) was made by a man called Mark Schlichting. His name appears nowhere on the software box - only those of his publishers: Random House and Brøderbund. Here, things seem to have gone backwards: books at least carry their author's names but computer titles very often don't.

It is important to know "who did that" - and it's a much bigger issue than simply "denial of the author's rights". It is extremely important for makers to know about other makers - and for users to know who made the things they use.
The computer, the community, and the end of the "authorless artefact".
What first made we want to write this book was the realization, around ten years ago, that the computer-media world was just chock-full of the most extraordinarily diverse, interesting and helpful people, but hardly anyone seemed to know about them. Often they didn't even know about each other. This meant that people were working much harder than they needed to, with much less success than they deserved, reinventing perfectly good wheels and falling into the same old pitfalls over and over again.

It was like being in an extremely rugged terrain of steep ridges and deep, narrow ravines. There were plenty of other people nearby, but they were totally hidden from view. It is of course not a uniquely Cyberian phenomenon.
The "unseen local community" problem

In 1845 an expedition led by Sir John Franklin, in the ships Erebus and Terror, set out to find a north-west passage from Baffin's Bay to the Barents Sea, and disappeared. Nearly a century later, some of the expedition's remains were discovered. It seems the lime-juice had frozen, destroying its vitamin-C content, and everyone died of scurvy. The team that discovered the remains interviewed local Inuit people whose ancestors had been in the area at the time of the tragedy. Franklin's people had had no idea there were any Inuit nearby. The "locals" had watched the whole thing, rather afraid of these odd-looking beings, and very puzzled that they seemed so intent on doing things the hard way. This seems a very suitable metaphor for many work projects - which fail in needless isolation.
Ignorance is bad for users.
A Harvard educationist called Brenda Matthis points out that "authorless software" presents you with somebody's world-view - which you just don't question. You don't even realize that it is someone's world-view. It's just "the way it is". What seem to be "natural laws" are in fact someone's assumptions - and they are bound to be half-baked ones to some extent. Thus, interactive games and multimedia encyclopaedias (like Microsoft's "Encarta") can stupefy people instead of enlightening or empowering them. [Footnote 5]

Taking this insight down into the "industrial lowlands", one sees that "authorlessness" is the established norm. Books may carry their authors' names, as do fine-art items and certain underpants but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. We seldom know who made the houses we live in, the offices where we work, the chairs, desks and phones we use, the clothes we wear, or even the food we eat or the crockery we eat it from - and we know even less about how they came to make them. Most of the fabric of everyday life is not, apparently, made by anybody at all - which is even more stupefying than (according to some people) "Encarta" is.

Things are always made the way they are for particular, human reasons - ranging from self-centred laziness, to dire necessity and panic, to sudden insight and care; but when the "authorship" is hidden the history is hidden too. We just assume things are supposed to be that way (the way rocks and trees are [Footnote 6]). If we can't cope with them we must be stupid. If they please us we thank the superhuman genius of Sony, Coca-Cola or God. Either way, we slide into a true "cargo-cult" mentality, which blinds us to the real natures of things - and to our own abilities: it seems "good stuff" cannot be done by mere mortals like ourselves; conversely, people like us don't do the "bad stuff" either. People who feel this way are not much use to anyone.

But when you peel back the surfaces of things the exact opposite happens. A "mere mortal" is what you find—and one who's surprisingly like yourself. It cuts the "bad stuff" down to size - yet it doesn't reduce your appreciation of "the good stuff"; it increases it enormously - and it enhances your self-respect: a fragile item in most people, and essential for anyone who strives to do "good stuff". Things that seem awesome, impossible for a "mere mortal" to achieve, turn out to be what they are precisely because of some aspect of their creator's own, unique and idiosyncratic kind of "mere mortality". This makes you realize that your own "mere mortality" may be some use after all! For example:
Geniuses aren't what you expect. I had been aware of "Conway's 'Game of Life'" for years - it is a fundamental example of "artificial life", "emergence", "complex systems" etc [Footnote7]. All I knew about Conway was that he was a legendary Cambridge and Princeton mathematician who invented "Life" back in the 1960s. The mathematics writer Martin Gardner has called him "one of the world's undisputed geniuses" [Footnote8]. I assumed he was long-dead. Then I saw an announcement that he was not only alive, but giving a talk just down the road from where I live. I went, expecting some ancient, posh, distant Cambridge don-stereotype. When I got there I thought I'd got the wrong room: here was a wiry middle-aged rascal with a shock of brown hair and a slight Scouse accent, getting members of the audience to do mathematical tricks with skipping ropes. He told us afterwards that he'd discovered his passion for tricks and games in the playground of his Liverpool primary school in the 1940s and 50s, and everything grew from there. In the course of that short meeting the remote, towering edifice of math collapsed into something infinitely friendlier and closer to hand than I had ever imagined it could be.
Discovering "who did that?" is some of the best therapy there is - whether the thing in question is a mathematical theory, a song, a chair, a website or a massacre.

This is precisely where the computer begins actively to make a real difference. It can present you with an event or an artefact, without stripping away its origins as other media do. A Mini on the street gives no hint of the story behind it - but the one on Rolf's Mini Page comes with a trail of links that bring more and more of the story to light as time goes by. This reverses the historic trend to "authorlessness". Self-serving governments can gag the local press, but not the Internet - at least, not yet.

The Voyager Company's work (Chapter 2.2) showed that "revealing authorship" has immense emotional impact - and marked this out as ripe and profitable territory for new-media developers to explore.

The new mind-science begins to explain how this works. Knowing the maker (or culprit) explains things that you'd been affected by, but not been aware of consciously.

Afterwards, things that were unconsciously enjoyed (or suffered) become consciously appreciated - and this gives a very special and important kind of pleasure. It confirms to us that our subjective feelings about things had a real basis. We learn to trust and respect ourselves: the sine qua non for doing "good stuff".



Notes:

Back to the bit about Trafalgar
1. I refer to the "history from below" movement, whose leaders (in Britain) include the late Raphael Samuel - founder of History Workshop Journal - and Christopher Hill: mentioned in the introduction to Section 2.

Back to William Morris
2. The best biography of Morris is Fiona McCarthy's "William Morris - a Life for out Time". There is an excellent website dedicated to him at the City University of New York - and you can find many of his best political writings at "marxists.org".

Back to Unconscious Awareness etc.
3. It was Gazzaniga who discovered that the two halves of the brain are specialized - leading to a spate of popular books about "Right-brain thinking". His latest work is "The Mind's Past". Gregory is the long-time champion of "hands-on science", and has shown how physical interaction is essential for thought. LeDoux and Damasio have both written recent important books that demonstrate the key role played by emotion and intuition - and the "neural circuits" that are involved. See the bibliography for details. Lewicki heads the Nonconscious Information Processing Laboratory at Tulsa Oklahoma: http://centum.utulsa.edu/~PSY_PL/www/. For a very good overview and analysis of this entire field see Guy Claxton's "Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind".

Back to PalmPilot
4. Hawkins had previously designed one of the very first "handhelds": the GRiDPad - which failed to catch on (as Apple's wonderful Newton probably failed) because it was too big and costly. For more of the story, read David Jackson's March 1998 "Time" article "Palm-To-Palm Combat" (see bibliography).

Back to "concealed authorship"
5. See her paper "Authorship in Software" - presented at The International Workshop on Hypermedia and Narrative - at The Open University's Meno project website: http://meno.open.ac.uk/meno/ht97.html. My own "Narrative as Landscape" is also there.

Back to "rocks and trees"
6. Clifford Reeves and Byron Nass have written a whole book about this phenomenon: "The Media Equation" - Cambridge University Press 1996.

Back to John Conway
7. Briefly: you have an arbitrarily large checkers or "Go" board on which counters are placed at random. Then, they "breed" or "die" according to a few very simple rules. It turns out that "organisms" emerge: patterns of counters called "blinkers", then bigger ones called "gliders" that travel across the board, then "glider guns" that emit gliders - and so on. For a really good explanation of the Game of Life, try Phil Johnson-Laird's "The Computer and the Mind".

I recommend an interview with Conway by Charles Seife, which you can find on the World Wide Web at http://www.users.cloud9.net/~cgseife/conway.html
See also Mark Alpert's Profile of him in the April 1999 Scientific American.
Back to John Conway
8."A quarter-century of recreational mathematics", Scientific American, August 1998

Bob Hughes © March 1999