Bret Victor has a solid grip on interface design. And he has a beef with touchscreens as the archetype of the Interface of the Future. He argues that poking at and sliding around pictures under glass is not really the greatest way to do things. Why? Because that just uses a finger! Victor is a fan of hands. They can grab, twist, flick, feel, manipulate, and hold things. Hands get two thumbs up from Victor.
As a result, Victor argues that any interface that neglects hands neglects human beings. Tools of the future need to be hand-friendly and take advantage of the wonderful functions hands can perform. His entire article, “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interfaces” is a glorious read and deserves your attention. One of the best parts is his simple but profound explanation of what a tool does: “A tool addresses human needs by amplifying human capabilities.”
There is, as I see it, one tiny problem with Victor’s vision: hands are tools themselves. They translate brain signals into physical action. Hands are, as Victor shows, super good at that translation. His argument is based on the idea that we should take as much advantage as possible of the amazing tools that hands already are. I disagree.
The most amazing tool built into the human body is not the human hand. Thus, the hand is not the future of interfaces.
The most amazing tool built into the human body is the central nervous system (CNS). It lets me translate what ever my consciousness decides (no free will debates here for the moment, please) into chemical signals that can be read, be it by muscles or by computers. The CNS can also tell me what is going on: what I’m seeing, feeling, hearing, smelling, and tasting. Hands are just a terminal of the CNS. They can feel (input) and manipulate (output), but are ultimately only a tool utilized by my brain.
What a tool does is slightly different than a tool’s purpose: A tool exists to lessen the amount of effort needed to translate human thoughts into human actions.
Every so often we reach a point of technological advancement where a new level of tool is possible and entire categories of action can be redefined. William Gibson describes the civilizational readiness for massive change as “steam-engine time” in which enough foundational technology exists to support a slew of new technologies. Several parts of a given technology might have been available for a long time, but they were individually expensive, or we had no way to make them work together, or we lacked a piece of infrastructure (e.g., electricity, global shipping networks) to support that technology’s existence. When this happens, entire categories of technology are replaced or improved.
Victor’s argument that we should focus on hands, not glass screens, strikes me as critique that fails to realize that we are approaching another technological “level up” in which neuro-computer interfaces eliminate our digital middleman. Whether you’re looking at amputees, paralyzed individuals, locked-in people, the elderly, or those with neurological disorders or body-wasting diseases like ALS, leveraging the wonderful tool that is the hand is suddenly not an option. Why focus our efforts on an appendage that may not always be there for us? If, for a moment, we make a phenomenological leap and presume that we are our brain, everything else on the body is just a tool that can be improved.
Thus, we need tools that address human needs by not merely amplifying, but enabling basic human capacities. Anything that relies on the hands becomes useless when the hands are gone. But let the brain bypass the body and there is no limit to the human capacities we can amplify.
Photo via ElvertBarnes on Flickr Creative Commons