Ah, yes… here we are well into the 21st century. The Information Age and the Age of Mobile Computing are in our rearview mirror. We are quickly approaching the next set of grand challenges of technology — automation and cyber security, as examples. As the waves come in, we rise up in an effort to seize our destiny!
That is, all of us except for the guys on the service desk. I’ll bet anyone a can of Diet Coke that one of their top three problems will be something like…
Help me! I can’t get my document to print!
Printers. A black hole of tech hours, and the scourge of IT support. If a well-managed system is going to break, it’s a good bet that a printer will be involved.
To make manners worse, otherwise timid users develop superhero bravado when faced with a printer issue. Under most circumstances, users are hesitant to press the Return key for fear of causing damage. These same users don’t seem to have any problem tweaking print settings. And the bigger the printer, the better.
This problem begs the question: Why do printers continue to exist??? My friends, we are long past the time where a hardcopy is useful. All of our applications and communications are electronic, and everything is eternally online and searchable.
We’re 50 years past landing a man on the moon, 35 years beyond the desktop computer and 10 years past the iPhone. Yet, there it is. “File-Print” is still a required part of our vocabulary.
At least scanners have some redeeming value. Entering data into a computer is a horrible experience. Manual entry is never a fun exercise, and the age of Big Data brings big problems. If we have a large amount of data to put into a computer, scanners are one of the few tools that make any sense.
That said, I would venture to say that most scanning is almost assuredly useless. I think about all the Exabytes of old business records scanned into management systems or the cloud over the last 5-10 years. All the truly important data was already entered into the database, most likely manually. The remainder of the records was scanned into archives, typically a write-once, read-never operation.
By contrast, the various types of barcode and QR code scanning are entirely useful. With a scanner in hand, the user becomes part of the information system — a cyborg robot moving around in the environment and collecting information for use by the larger system. It begs that question — has the user stopped being a user and stepped across the chasm to become part of the machine?
If you ponder upon the question for a while, you’ll begin to see this entire column is simply an analysis of the pros and cons between different instantiations of the human-machine interface. Printers act as anthropomorphic peripherals, adapting the computer to operate in a human capacity. Conversely, scanners act as cybernetic peripherals, adapting the human to operate as a part of the technology system.
Scholarly individuals will likely utilize various approaches to examine this problem. Deductive logic and machine learning could provide insight into this human-cyborg relationship. Non-linear optimization techniques may even help approximate a solution. However, when all the analyses are completed, I have no doubt that my original thesis will emerge as the universal constant that spans all the theoretical HMI domains.