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The Human Factor: Revolutionizing the Way People Live with Technology

by Kim Vicente

Notwithstanding the soporific title, this book on technology is a lot of fun. Professor of human factors engineering – what we lay people often call ergonomics – Kim Vicente gives readers plenty of real-life examples to support his thesis that the pace of new technology is outstripping our ability to adapt to it.

The ingenious but impossible-to-execute automatic oil checker on a Mercedes, the byzantine VCR timer, and a lathe built for long-armed dwarves are just a smattering of the examples Vicente gives to suggest the tyranny of a mechanistic view of the world. This ideology celebrates technology for its own sake, with little regard to how humans will – or won’t – interact with it. It doesn’t matter how cool the technology is: if it’s counterintuitive or has no affinity with human nature, it won’t succeed. Vicente proposes what he calls a human-tech revolution, one that would maximize the safety and efficiency of technologies while considering the human beings who use them.

Vicente uses the aviation industry as an example of how this human-tech thinking can transform the way people work with technology. The adoption of such safety measures as Cockpit Resource Management (CRM), which involves psychological research on team dynamics and communication between pilots and crew, have saved many lives and reduced stress for aviation workers. The health system has been more reluctant to adopt human-tech thinking, but that is slowly changing. The Critical Incident Technique system, now used in the aviation and health care industries, allows close calls to be candidly and honestly reported rather than covered up for fear of punishment, thus missing a chance to improve the system.

From Chernobyl to Walkerton, Ontario, Vicente examines the human error behind well-known disasters, but, he suggests, more important is the need to evaluate system or design flaws that increase the occurence of such tragedies. Despite some of the ghastly and heartbreaking incidents discussed, Vicente ends on a hopeful note, showing that the tools for a human-tech revolution are all around us. Whether companies adopt this mode of thinking instead of blindly adding more doo-dads to their products in an attempt to gain market share is another question entirely.