Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Things That Make Us Smart: Forbes article

Forbes.com published a series of articles on "the 20 tools which have had the biggest impact on human civilization." They asked me to be on their advisory board.

"Writing," I proclaimed. "The invention of writing is probably the most important tool for human advancement, making it possible for each new generation to build upon the work of the previous, to transmit knowledge from person to person, across cultures and time."

"Sorry," came back the response. "We decided early on to try to limit the list to handheld objects that could be physically manipulated to complete a task.”

So I advised them. They rejected my choice, but they did ask me to write an essay defending my point: they have now published it as "Things that make us smart."  It is also reprinted below. Read their list, you will find it interesting. And then see if you agree with me.

 

Things That Make Us Smart
Donald A. Norman

The power of the unaided mind is greatly exaggerated. It is "things" that make us smart, the cognitive artifacts that allow human beings to overcome the limitations of human memory and conscious reasoning.

And of all the artifacts that have aided cognition, the most important is the development of writing, or more properly, of notational systems: number systems, writing, calendars, notational systems for mathematics, engineering, music and dance. So when I was asked by Forbes to help them "rank the 20 tools which have had the biggest impact on human civilization," I was ready.

"Writing," I proclaimed. "The invention of writing is probably the most important tool for human advancement, making it possible for each new generation to build upon the work of the previous, to transmit knowledge from person to person, across cultures and time."

"Sorry," came back the response. "We decided early on to try to limit the list to handheld objects that could be physically manipulated to complete a task."

What? Handheld objects? Hmph. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words--ah, the power of words has no limits.

Poor Forbes: They are facing a fundamental problem with this list. There are many different kinds of tools, and it is really quite impossible to rank them in importance. One set of tools is essential for life: knives and other hand tools, fire and other tools for clothing and warmth, agricultural tools and transportation tools such as packs, wheels, wagons, harnesses and saddles. Another set is essential for the advancement of knowledge, civilization and culture: notation, reading and writing, and the algorithms for logical thinking. How can one compare these sets? Comparing apples with oranges is easy compared to this: This is comparing apples with algebra.

But I'll stick with my choice. Sure, the traditional handheld tools allowed us to survive, to clothe and feed ourselves, to keep us warm and to develop thriving homesteads. But cognitive tools transformed us from a band of surviving clans to a true civilization. These are tools of the mind, the hidden invisible routines of language, thought and culture. Hey, the question didn't ask for tools that allowed us to survive: it asked for tools that impacted civilization, the principles of logical reasoning, the development of laws and cultural mores.

So, good list, Forbes, but you left out the most important tools of all, the cognitive artifacts that have truly made us smart: writing and notational systems, objects of travel and information technology, which really picked up somewhere around the development of the telegraph, but could be argued to have developed earlier with the wide variety of signaling systems. These cognitive tools are so essential to civilization, that we send our children to school for decades. Society knows that the educated mind is its most important asset. So I stick to my choice. What tools have had the biggest impact upon civilization? Cognitive artifacts. Tools for the mind.

Donald Norman is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group. He is a cognitive scientist & design theorist who teaches at Northwestern and Stanford Universities and, in his spare time, authors books, including Things That Make Us Smart and Emotional Design: Why we love (or hate) everyday things . He lives in northern California. Write him at don at jnd.org

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