List of Influences: Ben Shneiderman

Ben Shneiderman’s name has been with me through my entire computing life. In high school, we used to draw Nassi-Shneiderman diagrams to understand structured programming. In the HCI course at my university, his name was on the papers and book chapters we read. When I got into information visualization, he was still everywhere, with treemaps, the visual information seeking mantra, and many other greatly influential pieces of work. What follows below is Ben’s list of influences, in his own words.

Ben Shneiderman’s List

It was a pleasant, yet challenging task to reflect on the key influences on my professional and personal life.  As I thought about my college years and beyond, I found that my identity has been shaped by diverse thinkers, but the ones I treasured most were more likely to be social scientists, philosophers of science, psychologists, and artists or architects.

While the invitation was to think of specific books, I think it is really the people that influenced me, when their entire body of work represented a set of values that I shared.

The first to come to mind is Marshall McLuhan, whose book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964) engaged me for months in deep reading and re-reading to absorb the complex theory of hot and cold media, as well as global village and aural-oral cultures. He described the immediacy of electronic environments that present simultaneous rather than sequential (as in print) experiences.  I went to see McLuhan lecture at the 92nd Street “Y” in New York and spoke with him after, which remained a memorable experience.  After his talk I was less defensive about my multiple interests in sciences and humanities, technology and arts.  I printed up business cards that listed my job title as General Eclectic, and added Progress is not our most important product, playing on the then popular GE advertisement that claimed Progress is our most important product.  McLuhan enabled me to accept my multiple interests in the face of strong pressure to specialize.  I no longer wanted to be the best at some specialty, but secretly hoped to be the best generalist.

The other global thinker I appreciated was Buckminster Fuller, whose ambitious visions and actual constructions, such as the geodesic dome, set a high standard for me.  His playful style attracted me as well.

Reading Robert Pirsig’s classic book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (1974) was another life-changing experience.  His meditations on quality with thoughtful clarifications of excellence still resonate with me.  For many years, I used quotes from his books in my writings.

Lewis Mumford was an amazingly productive sociologist who wrote deeply philosophical commentaries on the history of science and technology. His 1934 masterpiece Technics and Civilization is filled with great insights, which I quoted for years.  In particular, I appreciated his lucid understanding of how anthropomorphic designs are natural first steps for new technologies, but never remain in mature technologies.  I agreed that anthropomorphic ideas distract designers and slow progress.  I became an even greater Mumford fan when I was negotiating to do my book FORTRAN Programming: A Spiral Approach (1975) with  Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, who was also Mumford’s publisher.  The editor, eager to get me and Charlie Kreitzberg to sign with him, took us to the Four Seasons for lunch in New York, and when he proudly told me HBJ was Mumford’s publisher I asked if he would send me 1-2 books.  A few days later a huge box with 30-35 of Mumford’s books arrived, providing me with more than I could handle, but impressing me with how productive Mumford was.  Our book went on to become the best-selling FORTRAN book in a market with 200+ competitors.

Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) was another brilliant book with compelling analysis of how periods of normal science make progress, then run into trouble until the paradigm shift explodes the old reality with a new system of thinking.  This made great sense and seemed like a remarkable insight.  It has been challenged by many, but paradigm shifts became a cultural meme.

Jerome Bruner’s beautiful characterization of human nature so grandly respected the unique human qualities that I admired, and celebrated what I saw as the differences with machines.  I wanted to be the human that Bruner so deftly described.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s writings on Creativity (1993) and then Finding Flow) (1997) gave me fresh ways of thinking of the world and further supported the uniquely human ways of knowing, living, working.  His appealing socially embedded model of creativity shaped my thinking for a decade:

  1. Domain: e.g., mathematics or biology “consists of a set of symbols, rules and procedures”,
  2. Field: “the individuals who act as gatekeepers to the domain…decide whether a new idea, performance, or product should be included”, and
  3. Individual: creativity is “when a person… has a new idea or sees a new pattern, and when this novelty is selected by the appropriate field for inclusion in the relevant domain”.

On the professional side of computing:
Donald Knuth’s series of books on The Art of Computer Programming (1968, 1969, 1973) were a startling demonstration of how deep, careful thinking could produce a steady stream of powerful results.  I loved his precision and clarity with discrete mathematical constructs that led to results that were objective, provable, and measurable. The lucidity of this book and the clever solutions to specific problems were a source of enduring inspiration.  I’m also continuously  impressed by my colleague Hanan Samet whose books have the same clarity and power.

Joe Weizenbaum’s Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation (1976) and his lectures contained powerful ideas, which helped build my strong and clear distinctions between people and machines.  I was thrilled to meet and photograph him when he came to speak at UM-CP.

Ted Nelson’s clever and innovative Computer Lib (1974) book and other writings demonstrated what truly innovative thinking was like.  I’ve had the chance to meet Ted occasionally and am constantly impressed by his innovative thinking, but I am among those who wish he would link himself more closely to practical realities.  Maybe that is too pedestrian of me, but it reflects my desire to be innovative while also having an impact.

Gerry Weinberg’s Psychology of Computer Programming (1971) opened my mind to the ways in which psychology could be applied to programming.  I’ve often thought that his work was really “The Anthropology of Computer Programming”, but his insights about how programmers worked lured me into working on psychological studies of programming and then user interfaces.  I was pleased to work with him on some professional courses and spent three life-changing days at his Nebraska home.  A truly original thinker, whose lessons remain with me daily.

Herb Gelernter was my professor for two semesters of recursive function theory that were mind-expanding, in an almost hallucinogenic way.  I had a profound out-of-body experience, in being able to see my own mind at work, metaphorically resembling Turing’s or Gödel’s diagonalization proofs.  Gelernter remained my most inspirational professor, although I did my dissertation work at Stony Brook under Jack Heller.  I eventually got to meet Gerlernter’s son, David, who I greatly respected for his strong opinions and brilliant insights.

Doug Hofstadter’s books, especially Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (1979), were amazing to read, and raised my aspirations for what I should produce.  Crystalline perfection in thought, that did a masterful job of presenting deep theorems in recursive function theory in a way that dedicated, but non-technical readers could understand.  Although I met him only a few times, it was always a source of pride and connection that he took the computer science faculty position that I vacated at Indiana University in 1976.

One fascinating story is the turn-around with Terry Winograd whose 1972 MIT Ph.D., Understanding Natural Language, really annoyed me with its assertion that machines could do that.  I wrote skeptically about his SHRDLU in my 1980 book Software Psychology.  By 1985 Terry (with Flores) published Understanding Computers and Cognition: A New Foundation for Design, which clearly wrote that “computers cannot understand natural language”.  I called him up to discuss and found he was sympathetic to my critique, so we went on to be close professional colleagues, although we never worked or published together.  I am regularly inspired by his talks and writings, which provide a clear analysis of issues and wonderfully respect unique human capacities.

I was also entranced by Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and Kubrick’s movie version) (1968).  This vision of the future was engrossing, but of course I deplored HAL, adding to my rejection of AI scenarios.  Other visions, such as Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and The Third Wave) were more influential in my thinking, since they dealt with social/economic/cultural/technology scenarios that I thought I could learn from and change.

Ben Shneiderman, December 16, 2011

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Robert Kosara

Robert Kosara is a Research Scientist at Tableau Software, and formerly Associate Professor of Computer Science. His research focus is the communication of data using visualization. In addition to blogging, Robert also runs and tweets.

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