July’s Hot Topic: Human-Computer Interaction

A collection of Choice-reviewed titles on the tightening bond between people and machines.

Carr, Nicholas. The glass cage: automation and us. W. W. Norton, 2014. 276p index ISBN 9780393240764 cloth, $26.95

In this philosophical treatise on man and machine, noted technology writer Carr, author of The Shallows (CH, Nov’10, 48-1521), investigates the effects of technology on the human condition. While conceding to the undeniable benefits of automation in helping people to live longer, healthier, cleaner, and safer lives, Carr warns that humanity also pays a price for such luxury and efficiency. Hidden within our inheritance of ever-advancing technological change are latent and unintentional consequences that damage our perceptions and limit our choices. He posits that these consequences are so great that they counteract the good that technology offers. In attempting to prove his theory, he reviews and reinterprets a broad and diverse spectrum of moments in technological history. The author also draws on a wide range of Western thinkers, including Karl Marx, René Descartes, Plato, Adam Smith, George Dyson, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Frost, to assist him in presenting his view that technology should be adapted to the human condition and not, as he asserts is happening everywhere, the other way around. Those familiar with the historians, writers, technologists, and economists mentioned will gain additional insight through Carr’s penetrating analysis of human experiences like flow, proprioception, focus, and complacency. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.

Georges, Thomas M. Digital soul: intelligent machines and human values. Westview, 2003. 285p index afp ISBN 0813340578, $26.00

This is a delightful, and at the same time thought-provoking, book on the loosely defined zone between “intelligent machines and human values,” as Georges puts it. He examines the fundamental basis and core values of what it is to be a human: intelligence, consciousness, emotion, and morality. He then skillfully presents the extensions of these crucial concepts and argues for their applicability to machine intelligence while examining and reexamining the varied definition and meaning of the less physical concepts and their applicability to higher or indigenous life forms as well to artificial ones. The book is a pleasure to read and easy to understand. Without confining his remarks to today’s limitations of practical robotics, the author freely extrapolates machine intelligence beyond the realm of plausibility, freely drawing parallels in the development of the human culture and the evolutionary development of all things on this planet with the potential development of artificial ones. As artificial machines are ever increasing in speed and complexity, it is never too late to think outside the box and consider the technological impact on the development of the human society, the human culture, the human soul. Summing Up: Highly recommended. General readers; lower- and upper-division undergraduates; professionals.

Hanson, William. The edge of medicine: the technology that will change our lives. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. 248p index ISBN 9780230605756, $24.95

This work has everything to recommend it. Hanson (Univ. of Pennsylvania) is a practicing academic physician with obvious expertise in the medical technologies that he explores for their impact on the future of medical practice. His descriptions and discussions of these technologies, which include nanotechnology and nanoscale medical devices, computer use, patient data integration, robotic surgery, stem cells, prions, proton therapy, and at-a-distance doctor-patient interaction, to name a few, are all concise; he makes very complex subjects easy to understand. To supply meaningful insights regarding these developing technologies, he relates them to the disease states to which they may be applied. Serving the same purpose and adding a level of interest are examples of actual patient experiences. The work is informative, coherent, extremely well written, and easy to read; it will make readers acutely aware of the vast number of high-tech advances with potential to have a profound, positive impact on medical diagnoses, treatments, and outcomes. To Hanson’s credit, he does not oversell the expectation of possible success for these developing technologies. Time will tell. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Lower-level undergraduates through professionals/practitioners; general readers.

The Human-computer interaction handbook: fundamentals, evolving technologies, and emerging applications, ed. by Julie A. Jacko. 3rd ed. CRC Press, 2012. 1,452p bibl indexes afp ISBN 9781439829431, $149.95

Without a doubt this is the largest and heaviest book this reviewer has ever reviewed, weighing in at 7.5 pounds. Coordinating and editing the contributions of more than 140 authors, Jacko (Univ. of Minnesota) has done an amazing job in creating a well-organized, uniform reference to the state of the art in human-computer interaction (HCI). Despite its size, the book is an excellent, easy-to-use reference. After reading the foreword by Ben Shneiderman (Univ. of Maryland) and the preface by Jacko, all readers must take the time to read the introduction by Jonathan Grudin (Microsoft Research); it is great history. This third edition (2nd ed., 2008; 1st ed., CH, Apr’03, 40-4648) is composed of 62 chapters organized into seven parts. The 29 chapters comprising the first three parts lay the foundation of HCI. Parts 4 and 5 elaborate on design issues. Part 6, “The Development Process,” is so large that it is further divided into three subsections: “Requirements Specification,” “Design and Development,” and “Testing, Evaluation, and Technology Transfer.” Each chapter contains its own set of references, and the book has separate author and subject indexes, both of which are quite large. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates through professionals.

Isaacson, Walter. The innovators. Simon & Schuster, 2014. 542p index ISBN 9781476708690 cloth, $35.00

Isaacson (CEO, Aspen Institute) follows his Jobs biography, Steve Jobs (CH, Apr’12, 49-4500), with an exceptional history of the innovations that drove the digital revolution. Besides revealing the technologies involved, he integrates succinct profiles of important individuals and corporations, emphasizing the management styles deployed that either encouraged innovation or foiled success. The collaboration between Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage in the 1840s launched the digital revolution. Babbage’s Analytical Engine and Lovelace’s accompanying commentary and algorithms were inspirational for later generations. The author discusses the transformation of the 19th-century world of human calculators into today’s digital world of the web, and explains that ubiquitous computers, smart appliances, and virtual social spaces required many significant innovations. Switching circuits, transistors, microchips, microprocessors, the mouse, and memory storage were prerequisite; the conceptual shift away from single-use computers, e.g., the ENIAC for hydrogen bomb calculations, to multipurpose programmable computers was critical. The journey of innovation continued with the birth of time-sharing and ARPANET, which evolved into the Internet; the successful launch of personal computers by Gates and Jobs; e-mail, Usenet groups, and bulletin boards creating community; and operating systems like Linux becoming open and free. Isaacson concludes his engaging history with recent innovations that are building the web. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All readership levels.

Johnson, Steven. How we got to now: six innovations that made the modern world. Riverhead Books, 2014. 293p bibl index ISBN 9781594632969 cloth,$30.00

This book is for anyone who is curious about how all the gadgets making up modern culture came to be. Johnson, a journalist and an author, e.g., Where Good Ideas Come From (CH, Jun’11, 48-5785), covers six topics in chapters titled “Glass,” “Cold,” “Sound,” “Clean,” “Time,” and “Light,” addressing each subject from its ancient origins to many of the offshoots people take for granted today. Tales include the attempt to lift the entire city of Chicago with jacks to make the sewers work, the man taken to court for daring to test chlorinated drinking water, and the inventor who tested a sound recording device decades before Bell but forgot one essential feature: a means to play it back! The book’s conclusion is one of the most interesting tales and concerns Charles Babbage, the inventor of the first primitive computer. Especially fascinating is the story of his programmer, Ada Lovelace, a countess and daughter of the notorious poet Lord Byron. The book is profusely illustrated and is supported by six pages of notes and a 12-page bibliography. It would fit well on the shelves of public and school libraries as well as on the bookshelves of anybody interested in the evolution of science and technology. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.

Kaku, Michio. Physics of the future: how science will shape human destiny and our daily lives by the year 2100. Doubleday, 2011. 389p bibl index ISBN 9780385530804, $28.95

Predicting the future, not just of individuals but of cultures, nations, and humanity, is an ancient game. Once this was done through speculation, astrology, interpretation of scriptures, etc. In the 19th and 20th centuries, fiction writers began expressing their ideas of the future through reasonable extrapolations of current science and technology. Some 50 years ago, the subject of futurology emerged. This is an exemplary book showing what futurology is all about. Kaku (CUNY), a theoretical physicist known for his clarity in explaining technical ideas, presents visions of the future in fields ranging from computers and medicine to space travel and wealth. The book is based on serious study and on interviews with pioneers in science and technology. The reader will learn about driverless cars, photographing dreams, resurrecting extinct life-forms, hot fusion, robots becoming conscious, reversing aging, and much more. Kaku talks about a planetary civilization. He ends with fiction in a chapter titled “A Day in the Life in 2100,” and concludes with an insightful quote from Mahatma Gandhi. The subtitle describes the book better than the title, for it is about the science/technology of the future and their impact on human life and civilization, rather than about the physics of the future. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.

Kelly, John E., III. Smart machines: IBM’s Watson and the era of cognitive computing, by John E. Kelly III and Steve Hamm. Columbia Business School, 2013.147p afp ISBN 9780231168564, $22.95; ISBN 9780231537278 ebook, contact publisher for price

This book is a gem. However, some readers might say that the story they are telling has a bit of an IBM bias, since the two authors work for IBM (Kelly, senior vice-president, IBM Research; Hamm, writer and videographer) and are writing about Watson, IBM’s computer superstar that was showcased on Jeopardy!. Individuals who have this concern are missing the point. The digital age is here; learn how to participate or fall behind. Smart Machines tells an important story, beginning with Watson’s success on Jeopardy! In seven well-constructed, compact chapters, the authors explain their vision of where humankind and computing are going. In the process, they provide a history of computing from the Turing test, to past and current hardware issues, to computing’s future, including the roles that will be played by learning systems and data-centric computing, and the computer’s ability to handle large volumes of data. The book portrays a somewhat optimistic view of a future where people’s decision-making capabilities are enhanced by the power of computing in this digital era. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.

Rosen, Larry D. iDisorder: understanding our obsession with technology and overcoming its hold on us, by Larry D. Rosen with Nancy A. Cheever and L. Mark Carrier. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012. 246p index ISBN 9780230117570, $25.00

Rosen (California State) is a recognized expert in the “psychology of technology.” As he did with the term “TechnoStress” in his 1997 book by the same name (coauthored with Michelle Weill), he has coined the term “iDisorder” to describe society’s growing obsession with technology. Whether it will enter the popular lexicon is hard to say, but there is much about this book that is interesting and important, making it required reading for anyone who divides the day between various electronic devices. Rosen notes that those who routinely engage with devices can be suffering from mood/personality disorders as described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR; 4th ed., 2000). He realizes that technology is a permanent part of daily life, but he promotes balance and moderation. In each chapter, he examines known psychological disorders and links them to technology-affected behaviors. Drawing on behavioral/neurological research, he illustrates why people display “disinhibition” when communicating from behind the “safety of our computer screens.” Chapters conclude with basic advice on how to avoid iDisorder. Rosen writes with a wide readership in mind. Though he is not immune to occasional hyperbole or awkward phrasing, these occurrences are few/minor. Valuable for readers interested in their increasingly complex relationship with technology. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries.

Streeter, Thomas. The net effect: romanticism, capitalism, and the Internet. New York University, 2011. 221p bibl index afp ISBN 9780814741153, $65.00; ISBN 9780814741160 pbk, $22.00

The Net Effect is an excellent resource for anyone researching the influence of society on technology. Traditionally, corporations and computer information specialists that emphasized “technological determinism” (i.e., technology shapes society) seemed to have a larger voice. This book does a good job of offering counterarguments to this technological determinist view and other commonly held beliefs. Streeter (sociology, Univ. of Vermont; Selling the Air, CH, Nov’96, 34-1621) takes readers through the history of computers, with a focus on people as active participants in technology developments, not just as recipients of technology. The author provides an endless number of historical examples of how society, politics, and businesses influenced the direction of computers and technology. This work is perfect for a student searching for a specific example or case study for a paper. It is also useful for computer information specialists, especially those interested in human-computer interaction. The coverage of the romanticism intrinsic to the open source community will be important to many programmers. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Academic, general, and professional readers, all levels.

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