Men Behind Machines

Developments in computer technologies, in the past decades, have had their impact on human life in more than one way. But where this increasing interaction between human beings and computers is leading and how is it defining the focus of research in the field are some of the valid fields of study that are likely to make difference in human lives in future.

The emergence of information technology (IT), the availability of the web, and the user friendly designs are rapidly increasing the use of computers. Despite odds like literacy, availability (and reliability) of phone connection and affordability, the use of computers is significantly increasing in Pakistan as well. E-mail, real-time text correspondence and voice exchange are already popular asides from word processing and spread sheets. But in Pakistan, most of the new concepts are still untested, which makes any analysis inconclusive.

In developed world, concepts, such as video communications, virtual discussion groups, and forums have become routine and a normal part of corporate culture, education, and entertainment pursuits alike. There the evolution and success of IT aided commerce, telemedicine, distance education, newspapers, and play are all using rapidly developing communication technologies that reach out to bigger number of audience.

In the face of universally increasing interaction between humans and computers, there are some users who are very well integrated with the use of computers, while others still feel estranged. But is that what makes computers friendly or unfriendly in the first place? This question is central not only for users but also for manufactures of computers, related products, and software.

Human and computer interaction is entirely user-based. Which is why computer users have become one main focus of the research and development in the field? The factors that define the computer users and how they will approach any computers are important to the researchers and designers. Talking about the market trends, Amir Hamza, a local assembler and computers’ trader and himself computer literate told, “The buyers come with diverse demands. Some ask for iPods, laptops and palmtops but most are looking (and settle) for full-colour, massively high-resolution, large-format display desktop computers.” Through the futuristic views of the computer users, manufactures get ideas that keep their research and development departments busy. “But it still may take some time when more sophisticated computer gadgetry becomes affordable in our market,” predicted Hamza.

Understanding computers should be easy. For any user, the main area of concern is usability. And, for computer designers, usability has three commonly recognized components: Functionality to ensure that the computer solves the correct problems, ergonomics – an application of scientific information concerning humans to the design of computers, systems and environment – to guarantee the elimination of physical and psychological problems that may arise from the use of the product, and product’s accessible and supportive nature. “That is why the hardware and software manufacturers are going long way to obtain the opinion of consumers,” said Mansoor A. Sheikh, a local software developer.

When discussing human and computer interaction, the focus is on all aspects of the human use of computers to improve the usability of IT systems. The actual physical design of computer parts also affects how a person interacts with the computer. The goal of ergonomics is to optimize the human-machine and human-environment relationships by basically, fitting the systems to the needs of users. Many research works have been done that suggest that human factor improvements can yield substantial productivity gains savings cost in the process.

The repetitive motions, such as mouse clicking, constantly typing or staring at screen, can result in serious health hazards. Ergonomically sound products, such as wrist supports or glare screens to avoid eyestrain are useful for those whose time is mostly spent in front of computers. Using such products would help users to work more efficiently by minimizing the chances of any injury in the long-run.

With culture as the foundation, users still need to be identified in a much more specific manner in order to ascertain their specific needs and wants. The computer and the Internet being relatively recent phenomenon, the manufacturers can even sensitize the people and initiate cultural trends favourable for the computers. For that the interested companies have to examine the local culture and adapt to it. A marketing expert Dr Professor Ehsan Malik opined, “Any firm that can familiarize to the local cultural needs will have a bigger niche for its products.”

Considering only the existing users – from those using computers for entertainment to those professionals engaged in producing say an Urdu software – the division can be based on the frequency of use, the computer expertise of the user, the knowledge of each task tackled, trained users versus untrained users, and finally the comprehensive understanding of the system in its entirety.

The users may also be defined by the type of interaction they have with computer. For instance, someone may use computer as an aid to data collection. And then use the computing features to improve the quality of data by bringing completely new dimension into it. Notwithstanding the fact that only the Internet users will constitute the population and the result may not necessarily reflect the view of the general public. Computer assisted interviewing is an innovation in which the role of the interviewer (biases, interpretations) is eliminated. The interviewing program, on the screen, simply guides the respondent through the questionnaire. There are several advantages, such as no routing errors, the immediate revision of data, new possibilities of question formulation, the quick availability of results, and most importantly, protection against persuasive behaviours. However, the computer user, who probably has not been exposed to computers in some ways, may be affected by just the presence of the computer.

But where the user is more comfortable with computers, the user-respondent would enjoy more privacy and freedom, as they do not have to relay their responses to a middleman, a human interviewer. Moreover, if the theory of social exchange is deemed effective, the user-respondent, in the case of computer assisted personal interviewing, in which an interviewer types in the responses, will be more confident.

Different plans to integrate computer with human as an every day life are under way in numerous institutes and firms manufacturing computers and related products. The days are not far when using computer would be as simple as interacting with another human being. Looking even further into the future, one can subscribe to Raymond Kurzweil’s so far quasi-fictional idea in which he has predicted about “merging of mind and machines” in the future.

We are likely to see rapid changes in the fields. But what ultimately matters, as they say in the army, is the man behind the gun (read in front of the computer)!

What you think matters most: people or machines?

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