Enabling and Constraining Effects of New Technologies

Jonathan Grudin, Information and Computer Science Department, University of California, Irvine

Seminar on People, Computers, and Design
Stanford University October 6, 1995


Computers have not yet receded ubiquitously into our environment. We still confront them, but our perception of what they are is shifting. Container and computer metaphors or conceptual models are giving way to those based on windows and visibility. What we see through these windows is of course filtered, but the conceptual model of transparency is being adopted and the metaphor has uses that are explored in this talk.

In thinking about technologies such as the WWW, we usually stress the wealth of opportunities that access and visibility bring. What is enabled is not always positive (e.g. monitoring is seen in different lights), but on the whole we see technologies such as WWW, like earlier cases such as print, as unleashing creative and expansive capabilities. Which they certainly do. At the same time, again like print, these new technologies also introduce powerful constraining, conservative influences, many of which are consequences of increased visibility. Although I am very positive toward these new technologies, I think that we can only hope to anticipate the nature of their use by considering the interaction of these liberating and their constraining forces.

I'll illustrate these points with examples from print and other earlier technologies, before speculating as to effects of new technologies. One element in this is how we, as designers and users, will reconcile the increased visibility of work and other activities with what we have learned from ethnographers and others about the mismatch between the reality and our conceptions of activity.


Jonathan Grudin joined UCI in 1991 following two years at Aarhus University (Denmark). Previously he worked three years at MCC in Austin, Texas, studying software development practice in large organizations, with emphasis on computer-supported cooperative work. He also worked five years at Wang Laboratories as a developer. He received a Ph.D. in cognitive pyschology in 1981 from UC San Diego working with Donald Norman.


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