August 2008
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Horseless carriage

My favourite ice cream parlour (which is the target of frequent weekend afternoon bicycle tours) is right opposite of the world’s first filling station (a pharmacy where Bertha Benz bought fuel). Today, for the 120th anniversary, a lot of veteran cars passed by.

They reminded me of the “horseless carriage” metaphor that Stephen Downes used to show how new technology often just emulates previous practice.

This is still the case with most productivity tools used for studying, where I regret it most. At heart, they still serve as typewriter, slide crayon, and library card finder. It is particularly the spatial visualization that disappoints me most. Why are the available tools so unflexible when you want to visualize the relationships of arbitrary text snippets using spatial arrangement on a large canvas and sticking connector lines?

  • Either the text must be tediously copied from text applications to graphic apps,
  • or the zooming between full text and abstract/ name/ handle is too disruptive,
  • or the connector lines don’t stick when moving the items around,

or some other distracting usability obstacle prohibits to use the tool while thinking and studying.

Probably some vendors have the more sophisticated tools already available in their drawers, waiting for consumer demand. But if we are stupid enough to content ourselves with the emulation, there is no need to release them.

2 August 2008 | Personal Productivity | Comments

3 Responses to “Horseless carriage”

  1. 1 Barbara 3 August 2008 @ 7:05 am

    I completely agree. One thing left to add. I think it’s a vicious circle - as tools aren’t sophisticated enough most people tend to try once and abandon it right away.

  2. 2 x28 3 August 2008 @ 9:29 am

    Thank you for the supplement!

  3. 3 Eyal Sivan 19 September 2008 @ 5:28 pm

    I agree that technology emulates previous practice, or contexts; or as McLuhan said, we move forward through a rear view mirror.

    As far as adoption and sophistication, the Technology Adoption Lifecycle is instructive. Geoffrey Moore elaborated on this model in his book, Crossing the Chasm.

    Basically, as technologies develop they move through different adoption cycles. Through the first two, Innovators and Early Adopters, they often innovate for innovation’s sake, whether the features help or not (i.e. late 90’s Internet). After the “hype”, the volume of adoption declines, and it is only after adoption by the Late Majority that the extraneous features are removed, value is corrected and the real usage starts to take shape (i.e. mid-2000 Internet).

    In my opinion, visualization technologies are still in the early stages of the Adoption Lifecycle, which means that, for now, they care more about being “cool” than useful.


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