Interview with Sir Clive

Sir Clive Sinclair (BBC image)Chris Vallance of Radio 4’s excellent iPM has done a thoughtful interview with Sir Clive Sinclair, ranging across many subjects, from personal flying machines to the Asus Eee, and touching on the subject of consumer understanding of technology, and the degree to which the public can engage with it:

Your [Chris Vallance’s] generation really understood the computers, and today’s generation know they’re just a tool, and don’t really get to grips with them… When I was starting in business, and when I was a child, electronics was a huge hobby, and you could buy components on the street and make all sort of things, and people did. But that also has all passed; it’s almost forgotten.

It’s true, of course, that there are still plenty of hobbyist-makers out there, including in disciplines that just weren’t open before, and if anything, initiatives such as Make and Instructables – and indeed the whole free software and open source movements – have helped raise the profile of making, hacking, modding and other democratic innovation. It’s no secret that Clive himself is a proponent of Linux and open source in general for future low-cost computing, as is mentioned briefly in the interview, and the impact of the ZX series in children’s bedrooms (together with BBC Micros at school) was, to some extent, a fantastic constructionist success for a generation in Britain.

But is Clive right? How many schoolkids nowadays make their own radios or burglar alarms or write their own games? When they do, is it a result of enlightened parents or self-directed inquisitiveness? Or are we guilty of applying our own measures of ‘engagement’ with technology? After all, you’re reading something published using WordPress, which was started by a teenager. Personally, I’m extremely optimistic that the future will lead to much greater technological democratisation, and hope to work, wherever possible, to contribute to achieving that.

I’ve worked for Clive, as a designer/engineer, on and off, for a number of years, and it’s pleasing to have an intelligent media interview with him that doesn’t simply regurgitate and chortle over the C5, but instead tries to tap his vision and thoughts on technical society and its future.

Silicon Dreams

Incidentally, Clive’s 1984 speech to the US Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, mentioned in the interview, is extremely interesting – quite apart from the almost Randian style of some of it – as much as for the mixture of what we might now see as mundanities among the far-sighted vision as for the prophetic clarity, with talk of guided 200mph maglev cars and the colonisation of the galaxy alongside the development of a cellular phone network and companion robots for the elderly. Of course, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.

Talk of information technology may be misleading. It is true that one of the features of the coming years is a dramatic fall, perhaps by a factor of 100, in the cost of publishing as video disc technology replaces paper and this may be as significant as the invention of the written word and Caxton’s introduction of movable type.

Talk of information technology confuses an issue – it is used to mean people handling information rather than handling machines and there is little that is fundamental in this. The real revolution which is just starting is one of intelligence. Electronics is replacing man’s mind, just as steam replaced man’s muscle but the replacement of the slight intelligence employed on the production line is only the start.

And then there is this, which seems to predict electronic tagging of offenders:

Consider, for example, the imprisonment of offenders. Unless conducted with a biblical sense of retribution, this procedure attempts to reduce crime by deterrence and containment. It is, though, very expensive and the rate of recidivism lends little support to its curative properties.

Given a national telephone computer net such as I have described briefly, an alternative appears. Less than physically dangerous criminals could be fitted with tiny transporters so that their whereabouts, to a high degree of precision, could he monitored and recorded constantly. Should this raise fears of an Orwellian society we could offer miscreants the alternative of imprisonment. I am confident of the general preference.

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Paper Rights Management

Springer delivery note
Springer delivery note

This delivery note from Springer informs me that the book I’ve bought “must not be resold”. Good luck with that. So have I bought it or not? Or have I bought a licence to read it? What if I give it away?

Many companies would love to be able to control what users can do with things they buy, or with information after someone’s learned it. We know that, and we know that, fundamentally, it’s not going to work. You can try and shape behaviour, to guide users into helping themselves, but nonsense such “end-user licence agreements” for books has no mechanism of enforcement, and offers no benefit to the reader if he/she obeys it anyway.

How valid, legally, are any of these “post-purchase conditions”, anyway? Surely the first-sale doctrine or its equivalents allow users to re-sell items they buy with impunity?

Cross-purposes?

Last week I was at a seminar where a fellow student was outlining some (very interesting) research about how to adapt ‘professional’ products to be usable by a ‘lay’ audience (what functions do you retain, what do you lose, how do you deal with different mental models? and so on)

He repeatedly referred to the importance of ‘user experience’ throughout the presentation, and it took me a while to realise that he was not talking about UX, but “the degree of prior knowledge/understanding a user has, having dealt with similar products/systems”. That made a whole lot more sense. Yet no-one else in the room – including a number of people with backgrounds in human-centred design – asked about or pointed out this (quite important) difference.

It made me think: how often in science, technology – indeed any subject – are people talking about very different things yet using the same terminology? Do they realise they’re doing it? And can this ever be used as a deliberate provocation tactic to generate new ideas or ways of looking at things? Can we think of third and fourth meanings for terms that might give us insights? (E.g. with ‘user experience’, can we think of the ‘experience’ a product has with a user – his or her quirks, errors, misperceptions and so on – rather than the other way round? Is that ever helpful?)