Sunday, September 20, 2009

Learning Log V: Talkin' Biometrics

In chapter 3 of Don Norman’s The Design of Everyday Things, the author discusses a supposed “conspiracy against memory” and how the use of knowledge in the head can become overwhelming as we are presented with more and more things to remember each day (Norman 63). Norman lists the codes and numbers he is expected to retain in his daily encounters, and I must agree with him on the troubles generated by this culture. He goes on to cite the importance of reminders in keeping oneself connected to the outer world (72). As knowledge is in both the head and the world, connecting the two is quite helpful.

These observations, made in a book published in 1988, bring to mind a frustrating aspect of modern interface design: how are we expected to remember everything? The problem lies in more than just passwords and numerical codes but computer commands, parameters, and other quirks. The fact that no one has managed to standardize any of these systems in the past 20 years is quite puzzling. There ought to be a way to unify your social security, credit cards, etc. without security issues. At the very least, why aren’t computer commands unified? Apple-G or what have you may do something completely different in one program than another. As I type this in Microsoft Word, I realize that to close a document you must remember to press Apple-W rather than the fairly standardized Apple-Q. Why are these deviations accepted?

A piece of fiction may have unintentionally shown the way. The fantastic movie Gattaca (1997) portrays a society where your fingerprints and individual characteristics allow access to nearly everything you would attain with a code or card. Of course, the film’s world limits access to this new society to a process of eugenics, a rather grim outlook on the future, but the idea is fascinating. I mean, if they use biometrics at Disney World to check your ticket, then why not in other aspects of life?

(screenshot of fingerprint-processing device from Gattaca)

Surely time will tell if this process becomes the norm.

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