Many years ago, I responded to a broad query by Jefferey Bonar asking what was the interface metaphor we really wanted. I responded something to the effect of wanting ‘magic’. This was in the early days of the desktop metaphor, and we were already looking to go beyond, and I was looking for the ultimate metaphor of control.
Now I didn’t mean magic in the ‘legerdemain’, sleight-of-hand type of thing, nor the magic I feel when sitting on the deck on a warm summer evening with my family, but instead the classic form with incantations, artifacts, etc. What I really wanted was to be empowered, and the best metaphor for total power I can imagine is having the ability to bring things into being, to have questions answered, to control the world with mere gestures and commands. And yet, even that has to have some structure. As Clay Kallam wrote in a recent column comparing two recent fantasy books:
“The plot of both books relies heavily on the magic, but Coe is careful to explain how his works and its limitations and impact. Drake seems to just call on some whenever it suits him, and nothing is explained.”
So, what I meant was that there was rigor underlying the metaphor of magic, rigor that roughly parallels the structures of programming languages. For example, Rob Moser (my PhD student) prototyped a game for his thesis that taught programming via learning to cast magic spells in a fantasy world. My vision was that in any place you wanted to, you could learn the underlying magic (language) to accomplish what you wanted, but if you didn’t, you’d be able to buy artifacts (e.g. wands, crystal balls, etc) that did specific things that you wanted without having to program.
The reason I mention this, before you think I’m going off with the fairies and unicorns, is that there are reasons to start thinking about magic. As Arthur C. Clarke has said:
Any truly advanced technology is indistinguisable from magic.
And I really think we’re there. That is, our technology has advanced to the point that the technology is no longer a barrier. We can truly bring any information, any person (at least virtually), anywhere we want. We can augment our world with information to make us substantially more effective: we can talk through ‘mirrors’ (video portals) to others, actually seeing them; we can bring up ‘demons’ (agents) to go find information for us, we can send out commands to make things happen at a distance, we can unveil previously hidden information about the environment to start making conceptual links between there and our understanding to make us smarter.
There’s more required, such as Andi diSessa’s “incremental advantage”, and more accessible ways to specify our intentions, but with really powerful metaphors emerging (styles is something everyone should get their minds around), with gestural interfaces, and the ability to control games with our bodies, and with augmented reality aka Heads-Up Displays for civilians, we’ve got the tools. What we need is the perspectives and the will.
This is important from the point of view of designing new solutions. Years ago, when I taught interface design, I told my students that one of the pieces in their exploration of the design space should be to imagine what they would do when they had ‘magic’. To be more specific, once you’ve gathered the requirements, before you see what others have done and start limiting yourself to pragmatics, imagine what you’d do with no limitations (ok, except mind-reading, I’m just not going there). Given that among our cognitive architectural pre-dispositions is to prematurely converge on solutions, we need lateral input. By exploring the possibilities space in a more unhampered way, we might come across a solution that’s inspired, not tired, and revolutionary, not evolutionary.
This, however, is not just interface design, but specifically learning and performance support design. What would you do if you had magic to help meet your learning and performance needs? Because you have it. Really.
So think magically, not in the trivial sense, but in the sense that we have awesome powers at our command. The limitations are no longer the technology, the limits are between our ears (and, occasionally, in our wallets or will). Go forth and empower!