Invisible Computers

Amidst all the excitement around Siri, I came across an interesting article1 from the 90’s, where Mark Weiser, ex-principal scientist at Xerox PARC, voices his skepticism about intelligent agents. His main argument is that computers are first and foremost tools, and as such, should not be the center of attention.

Eyeglasses are a good tool—you look at the world, not the eyeglasses. […] Unfortunately, our common metaphors for computer interactions lead us away from the invisible tool, and towards making the tool the center of attention.

He argues that voice-based digital assistants such as Siri should not be designed to behave like human beings, just as airplanes are not designed to fly like birds. He goes on to explain that they are often portrayed in science-fiction as prominent and attention-grabbing, which makes them inherently bad tools:

A computer that I must talk to, give commands to, or have a relationship with, is a computer that is too much the center of attention.

Siri screenshots Siri on iOS 6

I’ve given this some thoguht, and I agree that good interfaces should not compete for user attention. But then, the computer he imagined talking to is certainly not one you can fit in your pocket. From that angle, we are by all means moving one step closer to invisibile computers.


  1. Perspectives. Interactions issue 1 (January 1994)