The year was 1981. I was 12 years old. My sister and I eagerly opened the box to a new Sinclair ZX81 that my dad had bought us. “The ZX81 was a home computer produced by Sinclair Research and manufactured in Scotland by Timex Corporation. It was launched in the United Kingdom in March 1981 as the successor to Sinclair's ZX80 and was designed to be a low-cost introduction to home computing for the general public. It was hugely successful and more than 1.5 million units were sold before it was eventually discontinued.” (wiki) The ZX81 had 1kB of onboard memory that you could expand to a massive 16kB if you had the need;-)
I can’t really begin to explain the feeling of excitement as we set it up, plugged it into the mains, connected the tape player and wired it to our TV set. That black and white start up screen will stick in my memory forever. We bought a book to learn “basic” the programming language used for these computers and we were ready to change the world.
My sister and I had seen and heard about the amazing games that you could play from some of our early adopter, tech savvy friends at school and we rushed out to spend our pocket money buying “Input” magazine. We stared in awe at the front cover showing what looked like a mega space explosion with superhero’s flying out of the TV screen. Everything was alive and in neon. This was the future for sure and we wanted some of that.
My dad was pretty excited too, he covered the keyboard with his hands to make sure he had first go. I guess he deserved that, it was at least his hard earned cash that bought this marvelous machine for us. We watched for what felt like an hour as my dad clumsily typed away.
“Draw a hat” he wrote.
We all looked at the screen without breathing, nothing happened. We waited, nothing happened. He typed it again and we waited, we held our breath. Nothing happened. You could sense the disappointment from all three of us as the realization dawned that the future was not quite here just yet. We were going to have to work a little harder if we wanted anything mind blowing to happen in our living room that day way back in 1981.
From that day on I have always viewed computers as stupid machines that construct barriers to the super powerful, enormous imagination and never ending creativity of the human mind. I remember laughing at my dad on that day, pretending to be smarter and more street cred than him, making him look stupid was the only way I could cover up my own disappointment and dashed hope. I guess humans have been trying to “draw that hat” ever since.
Fast-forward 34 years and I still feel very much the same. As a designer, I use computers a million times more powerful than our old trusty ZX81, but now I know how to use them and where they add value rather than strip it away and slow us down.
I’ve always encouraged designers to take time away from the computer, time to stretch that amazing imagination and creativity. Time to unleash the power of the human brain.
There’s no computer on earth that can listen with empathy to another human, extract insightful information and translate that into a meaningful concept, there’s no machine on earth that will build on the ideas of others and create something unique, there’s no tool out there that can innovate new business models or one that understands how to move society forward into the future. There are no robots that can host a room full of fearful business men and inspire them to take a leap of faith into the unknown. There are no computers that can challenge the infinite superiority of the human mind and for the record there never will be.
When humans connect their brains, to their hands to a pencil to a piece of paper, I’m always amazed at what comes out. I hope as designers we don’t forget this unique human strength and we remember to use computers to do what computers are good at and to trust our intelligence and human-ness above everything else.