Man is best when doing least?
The development of automation is plagued by a techno-centric world view as enunciated by Birmingham and Taylor (1954) in their observation that man is best when doing least. It is difficult to imagine how this perspective gained currency among designers who, being human themselves, must realize that they do not function well if they are constrained to doing as little as possible. Are we not best when we are active and engaged?
Another manifestation of the techno-centric world view is apparent in the idea that systems work best when we eliminate the error-prone human. The audio track accompanying a video of the 1988 Airbus A320 crash at Habsheim airshow in France offers as a classic illustration. As the aircraft passes in a low fly-by, the narrator observes that aircraft manufacturers have tried to fix that problem (i.e., the problem of the error-prone human) by designing the pilot out of the cockpit. This is the first fully automated plane. Moments later, the aircraft crosses the end of the runway and sinks gracefully into the forest to erupt in a fireball.
No, this was a disaster, not a comedy routine!
The techno-centric ideal of a socio-technical system that will function adequately without human involvement is fantasy, and the problems associated with adding the human as an afterthought are legion. It is hardly surprising that those immersed in the design of technology would be drawn towards automation. However, the common outcome of the technological emphasis is that automation as solution is treated as a design requirement. A basic principle of requirements engineering is that requirements should not be expressed in terms of solutions; they should be developed in response to operational need and should be expressed in solution-independent terms. Automation as a design requirement does not comply with this principle.
But note this: The topic for the 2014 Human Factors Prize is human-automation interaction/autonomy.The Prize, which recognizes excellence in HF/E research, confers a $10,000 cash award and publication of the winning paper in Human Factors.
In human factors, we should know better. Ours is a design discipline. We are struggling towards a robust design perspective but our progress is confounded by the way we allow the issues to be framed around techno-centric ideas. Many forms of cognitive support (such as appropriate displays of information, well integrated communication tools, and support structures for organizing work flow) facilitate meaningful human engagement with work. Automation does not; it restricts human engagement with work. That is presumably why automation has found such favor among those embedded in the techno-centric world view.
We, in human factors, must break from the techno-centric world view!
If we are to make headway in this heavily techno-centric world, we need to forward an alternative; we need to forward an evocative image of a human-centric world view. We need to be assertively adamant in our rejection of design options such as automation posed as design principles and instead focus on the nature of the work and how it might be accomplished. We will then be well-placed to think about how that work might be supported with one or more of the many human-centric design options open to us.