Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

The origins of the modern world

Marks, R. (2007). The origins of the modern world: A global and ecological narrative from the fifteenth to the twenty-first century (2nd ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Pomeranz, K., & Topik, S. (2006). The world that trade created: Society, culture, and the world economy, 1400 to the present (2nd ed.). Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe.

I recently wrote a column for entitled "Does Culture Matter for Product Design?" Although I argued that the evidence seemed to indicate that for mass-produced industrial design, the answer was no, I wondered whether this was a result of western bias. In my conclusion, I asked:

"how much of this argument derives from my own cultural biases? I've been educated in the West with a technical and scientific education. I've been a faculty member of major research universities in departments of psychology and cognitive science, electrical engineering and computer science, and industrial design. My experiences in business include positions as senior executive at large, multinational consumer electronic companies. Would someone with a very different background and education have reached the same conclusions?"

Just as I was finishing the essay, I discovered the two books listed above that treated history from a non-European point of view, emphasizing the critical role and world leadership, especially in trade, that Asia played until the 1800s.

These books support my hesitation. Had I read the books before I wrote my article, my conclusion would have been stronger: western biases have affected the way we build products.

Both books point out that the claims of European/American superiority in thinking (rational, logical thought) and governance (the rise of democracy) is a modern, western myth. Asia, whether Islamic or Muslim, whether the middle east, India, or China, had civilizations as advanced than those of the west, and probably more so in many areas. Moreover, they developed a deep, rich, trading system that was not ruled by a single power but instead through mutual economic interests, that flourished across the entire Asian and European continents. This held until roughly 200 years ago, when western powers (aided by the abundance of coal in Britain and the advent of the steamship) allowed them to use their military might to take over the long-existing trading routes that governed the substantial trade among the nations of Europe and Asia.

Two hundred years is not long in the total span of history, although it is long enough that most people's memories do not cover the span. What will the next two hundred years bring, especially as we see Asia on the upswing again, regaining its previous world prominences.

These are important books. They overlap considerably, so you need read only one. I recommend both, but I prefer the one by Marks.

Read at least one of them: it will change your view of world history and of the relative importance of east and west.

Links to books at

The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Century (World Social Change)

Kindle Edition: The Origins of the Modern World: A Global and Ecological Narrative from the Fifteenth to the Twenty-first Century (World Social Change)

The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, And the World Economy, 1400 to the Present (Sources and Studies in World History)

Kindle Edition: The World That Trade Created: Society, Culture, and the World Economy, 1400 to the Present