I need help with my computer ethic class
5/24/22, 10:53 PM Quiz: Final Exam
Started: May 24 at 10:53pm
Philosophy 134: Computers, Ethics and Society
Late exams will incur a penalty.
The final exam consists of two sections total: 20 multiple-choice questions and one essay question
You may take the multiple-choice section more than once (up to 3 times), and your highest scoring
attempt will be selected (the lower two will be dropped.)
The essay response should be no less than 750 words, but you may go over without any penalty.
Standard formatting applies: be sure to organize your response in paragraph form (not just one long
single paragraph answer).
Also, you must include any references or works cited at the end of your response. Always be sure to cite
Be sure to include a word count at the end of your response.
Please answer clearly and completely.
ADVICE ON WRITING
Please remember: your job in this exam is not to “play back” material from the lectures and readings.
Your job is to demonstrate that you know course material by showing how you use it in your thinking and
by saying what you think about it. Accordingly, all of your work should look like it could only have been
written by someone who is taking this class (e.g., it should make use of vocabulary, concepts, readings
and themes from the course), and it should look like it could only have been written by you (since it
should reflect your views and assessments). Use examples of your own as much as possible.
60 ptsQuestion 1
5/24/22, 10:53 PM Quiz: Final Exam
Essay Question (750 words minimum; no maximum)
In your response, be sure to refer to the readings for guidance in providing a
framework for your thinking. You’re welcome to draw upon research of your own, but
you must do so in addition to demonstrating your familiarity with what the required
readings have said, and with accuracy about the views expressed there.
As always, define your terms and give examples that illustrate what you think to be
true. And, take seriously those who would object to your views.
For this exam, please be sure to have read the papers found in Weeks 10 through 15,
and the ethical theorists. You need not discuss every author listed, but you should
engage with at least two of them. Then, answer the following question:
How do computers make our lives both easier and worse? Be sure that you define
what you mean by both “easier” and “worse”. Give two examples total: one examples
from public spheres of life (e.g., work, school, etc.) and one examples from private
spheres of life (e.g., personal, familial relations, etc.), including from your own
experience. At least one example should demonstrate how computers make your life
easier, and at least one example should demonstrate how computers make your life
worse. Then, use some ethical theory or theory of technology to assess how it is that
you reach your conclusion.
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5/24/22, 10:53 PM Quiz: Final Exam
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The Last Question
By Isaac Asimov
This is by far my favorite story of all those I have written.
After all, I undertook to tell several trillion years of human history in the space of a short
story and I leave it to you as to how well I succeeded. I also undertook another task, but I
won’t tell you what that was lest l spoil the story for you.
It is a curious fact that innumerable readers have asked me if I wrote this story. They
seem never to remember the title of the story or (for sure) the author, except for the vague
thought it might be me. But, of course, they never forget the story itself especially the
ending. The idea seems to drown out everything — and I’m satisfied that it should.
The last question was asked for the first time, half in jest, on May 21, 2061, at a time
when humanity first stepped into the light. The question came about as a result of a five-
dollar bet over highballs, and it happened this way:
Alexander Adell and Bertram Lupov were two of the faithful attendants of Multivac. As
well as any human beings could, they knew what lay behind the cold, clicking, flashing
face — miles and miles of face — of that giant computer. They had at least a vague notion
of the general plan of relays and circuits that had long since grown past the point where
any single human could possibly have a firm grasp of the whole.
Multivac was self-adjusting and self-correcting. It had to be, for nothing human could
adjust and correct it quickly enough or even adequately enough. So Adell and Lupov
attended the monstrous giant only lightly and superficially, yet as well as any men could.
They fed it data, adjusted questions to its needs and translated the answers that were
issued. Certainly they, and all others like them, were fully entitled to share in the glory
that was Multivac’s.
For decades, Multivac had helped design the ships and plot the trajectories that enabled
man to reach the Moon, Mars, and Venus, but past that, Earth’s poor resources could not
support the ships. Too much energy was needed for the long trips. Earth exploited its coal
and uranium with increasing efficiency, but there was only so much of both.
But slowly Multivac learned enough to answer deeper questions more fundamentally, and
on May 14, 2061, what had been theory, became fact.
The energy of the sun was stored, converted, and utilized directly on a planet-wide scale.
All Earth turned off its burning coal, its fissioning uranium, and flipped the switch that
connected all of it to a small station, one mile in diameter, circling the Earth at half the
distance of the Moon. All Earth ran by invisible beams of sunpower.
Seven days had not sufficed to dim the glory of it and Adell and Lupov finally managed
to escape from the public functions, and to meet in quiet where no one would think of
looking for them, in the deserted underground chambers, where portions of the mighty
buried body of Multivac showed. Unattended, idling, sorting data with contented lazy
clickings, Multivac, too, had earned its vacation and the boys appreciated that. They had
no intention, originally, of disturbing it.
They had brought a bottle with them, and their only concern at the moment was to relax
in the company of each other and the bottle.
“It’s amazing when you think of it,” said Adell. His broad face had lines of weariness in
it, and he stirred his drink slowly with a glass rod, watching the cubes of ice slur clumsily
about. “All the energy we can possibly ever use for free. Enough energy, if we wanted to
draw on it, to melt all Earth into a big drop of impure liquid iron, and still never miss the
energy so used. All the energy we could ever use, forever and forever and forever.”
Lupov cocked his head sideways. He had a trick of doing that when he wanted to be
contrary, and he wanted to be contrary now, partly because he had had to carry the ice
and glassware. “Not forever,” he said.
“Oh, hell, just about forever. Till the sun runs down, Bert.”
“That’s not forever.”
“All right, then. Billions and billions of years. Ten billion, maybe. Are you satisfied?”
Lupov put his fingers through his thinning hair as though to reassure himself that some
was still left and sipped gently at his own drink. “Ten billion years isn’t forever.”
“Well, it will last our time, won’t it?”
“So would the coal and uranium.”
“All right, but now we can hook up each individual spaceship to the Solar Station, and it
can go to Pluto and back a million times without ever worrying about fuel. You can’t do
that on coal and uranium. Ask Multivac, if you don’t believe me.
“I don’t have to ask Multivac. I know that.”
“Then stop running down what Multivac’s done for us,” said Adell, blazing up, “It did all
“Who says it didn’t? What I say is that a sun won’t last forever. That’s all I’m saying.
We’re safe for ten billion years, but then what?” Lupow pointed a slightly shaky finger at
the other. “And don’t say we’ll switch to another sun.”
There was silence for a while. Adell put his glass to his lips only occasionally, and
Lupov’s eyes slowly closed. They rested.
Then Lupov’s eyes snapped open. “You’re thinking we’ll switch to another sun when ours
is done, aren’t you?”
“I’m not thinking.”
“Sure you are. You’re weak on logic, that’s the trouble with you. You’re like the guy in
the story who was caught in a sudden shower and who ran to a grove of trees and got
under one. He wasn’t worried, you see, because he figured when one tree got wet through,
he would just get under another one.”
“I get it,” said Adell. “Don’t shout. When the sun is done, the other stars will be gone,
“Darn right they will,” muttered Lupov. “It all had a beginning in the original cosmic
explosion, whatever that was, and it’ll all have an end when all the stars run down. Some
run down faster than others. Hell, the giants won’t last a hundred million years. The sun
will last ten billion years and maybe the dwarfs will last two hundred billion for all the
good they are. But just give us a trillion years and everything will be dark. Entropy has to
increase to maximum, that’s all.”
“I know all about entropy,” said Adell, standing on his dignity.
“The hell you do.”
“I know as much as you do.”
“Then you know everything’s got to run down someday.”
“All right. Who says they won’t?”
“You did, you poor sap. You said we had all the energy we needed, forever. You said
It was Adell’s turn to be contrary. “Maybe we can build things up again someday,” he
“Why not? Someday.”
“You ask Multivac. I dare you. Five dollars says it can’t be done.”
Adell was just drunk enough to try, just sober enough to be able to phrase the necessary
symbols and operations into a question which, in words, might have corresponded to this:
Will mankind one day without the net expenditure of energy be able to restore the sun to
its full youthfulness even after it had died of old age?
Or maybe it could be put more simply like this: How can the net amount of entropy of the
universe be massively decreased?
Multivac fell dead and silent. The slow flashing of lights ceased, the distant sounds of
clicking relays ended.
Then, just as the frightened technicians felt they could hold their breath no longer, there
was a sudden springing to life of the teletype attached to that portion of Multivac. Five
words were printed: INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.
“No bet,” whispered Lupov. They left hurriedly.
By next morning, the two, plagued with throbbing head and cottony mouth, had forgotten
Jerrodd, Jerrodine, and Jerrodette I and II watched the starry picture in the visiplate
change as the passage through hyperspace was completed in its non-time lapse. At once,
the even powdering of stars gave way to the predominance of a single bright shining disk,
the size of a marble, centered on the viewing-screen.
“That’s X-23,” said Jerrodd confidently. His thin hands clamped tightly behind his back
and the knuckles whitened.
The little Jerrodettes, both girls, had experienced the hyperspace passage for the first time
in their lives and were self-conscious over the momentary sensation of insideoutness.
They buried their giggles and chased one another wildly about their mother, screaming,
“We’ve reached X-23 — we’ve reached X-23 — we’ve –”
“Quiet, children.” said Jerrodine sharply. “Are you sure, Jerrodd?”
“What is there to be but sure?” asked Jerrodd, glancing up at the bulge of featureless
metal just under the ceiling. It ran the length of the room, disappearing through the wall
at either end. It was as long as the ship.
Jerrodd scarcely knew a thing about the thick rod of metal except that it was called a
Microvac, that one asked it questions if one wished; that if one did not it still had its task
of guiding the ship to a preordered destination; of feeding on energies from the various
Sub-galactic Power Stations; of computing the equations for the hyperspatial jumps.
Jerrodd and his family had only to wait and live in the comfortable residence quarters of
the ship. Someone had once told Jerrodd that the “ac” at the end of “Microvac” stood for
”automatic computer” in ancient English, but he was on the edge of forgetting even that.
Jerrodine’s eyes were moist as she watched the visiplate. “I can’t help it. I feel funny
about leaving Earth.”
“Why, for Pete’s sake?” demanded Jerrodd. “We had nothing there. We’ll have everything
on X-23. You won’t be alone. You won’t be a pioneer. There are over a million people on
the planet already. Good Lord, our great-grandchildren will be looking for new worlds
because X-23 will be overcrowded.” Then, after a reflective pause, “I tell you, it’s a lucky
thing the computers worked out interstellar travel the way the race is growing.”
“I know, I know,” said Jerrodine miserably.
Jerrodette I said promptly, “Our Microvac is the best Microvac in the world.”
“I think so, too,” said Jerrodd, tousling her hair.
It was a nice feeling to have a Microvac of your own and Jerrodd was glad he was part of
his generation and no other. In his father’s youth, the only computers had been
tremendous machines taking up a hundred square miles of land. There was only one to a
planet. Planetary ACs they were called. They had been growing in size steadily for a
thousand years and then, all at once, came refinement. In place of transistors, had come
molecular valves so that even the largest Planetary AC could be put into a space only half
the volume of a spaceship.
Jerrodd felt uplifted, as he always did when he thought that his own personal Microvac
was many times more complicated than the ancient and primitive Multivac that had first
tamed the Sun, and almost as complicated as Earth’s Planetarv AC (the largest) that had
first solved the problem of hyperspatial travel and had made trips to the stars possible.
“So many stars, so many planets,” sighed Jerrodine, busy with her own thoughts. “I
suppose families will be going out to new planets forever, the way we are now.”
“Not forever,” said Jerrodd, with a smile. “It will all stop someday, but not for billions of
years. Many billions. Even the stars run down, you know. Entropy must increase.
“What’s entropy, daddy?” shrilled Jerrodette II.
“Entropy, little sweet, is just a word which means the amount of running-down of the
universe. Everything runs down, you know, like your little walkie-talkie robot,
“Can’t you just put in a new power-unit, like with my robot?”
“The stars are the power-units. dear. Once they’re gone, there are no more power-units.”
Jerrodette I at once set up a howl. “Don’t let them, daddy. Don’t let the stars run down.”
“Now look what you’ve done,” whispered Jerrodine, exasperated.
“How was I to know it would frighten them?” Jerrodd whispered back,
“Ask the Microvac,” wailed Jerrodette I. “Ask him how to turn the stars on again.”
“Go ahead,” said Jerrodine. “It will quiet them down.” (Jerrodette II was beginning to cry,
Jerrodd shrugged. “Now, now, honeys. I’ll ask Microvac. Don’t worry, he’ll tell us.”
He asked the Microvac, adding quickly, “Print the answer.”
Jerrodd cupped the strip or thin cellufilm and said cheerfully, “See now, the Microvac
says it will take care of everything when the time comes so don’t worry.”
Jerrodine said, “And now, children, it’s time for bed. We’ll be in our new home soon.”
Jerrodd read the words on the cellufilm again before destroying it: INSUFICIENT DATA
FOR MEANINGFUL ANSWER.
He shrugged and looked at the visiplate. X-23 was just ahead.
VJ-23X of Lameth stared into the black depths of the three-dimensional, small-scale map
of the Galaxy and said, “Are we ridiculous, I wonder in being so concerned about the
MQ-17J of Nicron shook his head. “I think not. You know the Galaxy will be filled in
five years at the present rate of expansion.”
Both seemed in their early twenties, both were tall and perfectly formed.
“Still,” said VJ-23X, “I hesitate to submit a pessimistic report to the Galactic Council.”
“I wouldn’t consider any other kind of report. Stir them up a bit. We’ve got to stir them
VJ-23X sighed. “Space is infinite. A hundred billion Galaxies are there for the taking.
“A hundred billion is not infinite and it’s getting less infinite all the time. Consider!
Twenty thousand years ago, mankind first solved the problem of utilizing stellar energy,
and a few centuries later, interstellar travel became possible. It took mankind a million
years to fill one small world and then only fifteen thousand years to fill the rest of the
Galaxy. Now the population doubles every ten years —
VJ-23X interrupted. “We can thank immortality for that.”
“Very well. Immortality exists and we have to take it into account. I admit it has its
seamy side, this immortality. The Galactic AC has solved many problems for us, but in
solving the problem of preventing old age and death, it has undone all its other solutions.”
“Yet you wouldn’t want to abandon life, I suppose.”
“Not at all,” snapped MQ-17J, softening it at once to, “Not yet. I’m by no means old
enough. How old are you?”
“Two hundred twenty-three. And you?”
“I’m still under two hundred. –But to get back to my point. Population doubles every ten
years. Once this GaIaxy is filled, we’ll have filled another in ten years. Another ten years
and we’ll have filled two more. Another decade, four more. In a hundred years, we’ll have
filled a thousand Galaxies. In a thousand years, a million Galaxies. In ten thousand years,
the entire known universe. Then what?”
VJ-23X said, “As a side issue, there’s a problem of transportation. I wonder how many
sunpower units it will take to move Galaxies of individuals from one Galaxy to the next.”
“A very good point. Already, mankind consumes two sunpower units per year.”
“Most of it’s wasted. After all, our own Galaxy alone pours out a thousand sunpower
units a year and we only use two of those.”
“Granted, but even with a hundred per cent efficiency, we only stave off the end. Our
energy requirements are going up in a geometric progression even faster than our
population. We’ll run out of energy even sooner than we run out of Galaxies. A good
point. A very good point.”
“We’ll just have to build new stars out of interstellar gas.”
“Or out of dissipated heat?” asked MQ-17J, sarcastically.
“There may be some way to reverse entropy. We ought to ask the Galactic AC.”
VJ-23X was not really serious, but MQ-17J pulled out his AC-contact from his pocket
and placed it on the table before him.
“I’ve half a mind to,” he said. “It’s something the human race will have to face someday.”
He stared somberly at his small AC-contact. It was only two inches cubed and nothing in
itself, but it was connected through hyperspace with the great Galactic AC that served all
mankind. Hyperspace considered, it was an integral part of the Galactic AC.
MQ-17J paused to wonder if someday in his immortal life he would get to see the
Galactic AC. It was on a little world of its own, a spider webbing of force-beams holding
the matter within which surges of submesons took the place of the old clumsy molecular
valves. Yet despite its sub-etheric workings, the Galactic AC was known to be a full
thousand feet across.
MQ-17J asked suddenly of his AC-contact, “Can entropy ever be reversed?”
VJ-23X looked startled and said at once, “Oh, say, I didn’t really mean to have you ask
“We both know entropy can’t be reversed. You can’t turn smoke and ash back into a tree.”
“Do you have trees on your world?” asked MQ-17J.
The sound of the Galactic AC startled them into silence. Its voice came thin and beautiful
out of the small AC-contact on the desk. It said: THERE IS INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR
A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.
VJ-23X said, “See!”
The two men thereupon returned to the question of the report they were to make to the
Zee Prime’s mind spanned the new Galaxy with a faint interest in the countless twists of
stars that powdered it. He had never seen this one before. Would he ever see them all? So
many of them, each with its load of humanity. –But a load that was almost a dead weight.
More and more, the real essence of men was to be found out here, in space.
Minds, not bodies! The immortal bodies remained back on the planets, in suspension over
the eons. Sometimes they roused for material activity but that was growing rarer. Few
new individuals were coming into existence to join the incredibly mighty throng, but
what matter? There was little room in the Universe for new individuals.
Zee Prime was roused out of his reverie upon coming across the wispy tendrils of another
“I am Zee Prime,” said Zee Prime. “And you?”
“I am Dee Sub Wun. Your Galaxy?”
“We call it only the Galaxy. And you?”
“We call ours the same. All men call their Galaxy their Galaxy and nothing more. Why
“True. Since all Galaxies are the same.”
“Not all Galaxies. On one particular Galaxy the race of man must have originated. That
makes it different.”
Zee Prime said, “On which one?”
“I cannot say. The Universal AC would know.”
“Shall we ask him? I am suddenly curious.”
Zee Prime’s perceptions broadened until the Galaxies themselves shrank and became a
new, more diffuse powdering on a much larger background. So many hundreds of
billions of them, all with their immortal beings, all carrying their load of intelligences
with minds that drifted freely through space. And yet one of them was unique among
them all in being the original Galaxy. One of them had, in its vague and distant past, a
period when it was the only Galaxy populated by man.
Zee Prime was consumed with curiosity to see this Galaxy and he called out: “Universal
AC! On which Galaxy did mankind originate?”
The Universal AC heard, for on every world and throughout space, it had its receptors
ready, and each receptor led through hyperspace to some unknown point where the
Universal AC kept itself aloof.
Zee Prime knew of only one man whose thoughts had penetrated within sensing distance
of Universal AC, and he reported only a shining globe, two feet across, difficult to see.
“But how can that be all of Universal AC?” Zee Prime had asked.
“Most of it,” had been the answer, “is in hyperspace. In what form it is there I cannot
Nor could anyone, for the day had long since passed, Zee Prime knew, when any man
had any part of the making of a Universal AC. Each Universal AC designed and
constructed its successor. Each, during its existence of a million years or more
accumulated the necessary data to build a better and more intricate, more capable
successor in which its own store of data and individuality would be submerged.
The Universal AC interrupted Zee Prime’s wandering thoughts, not with words, but with
guidance. Zee Prime’s mentality was guided into the dim sea of Galaxies and one in
particular enlarged into stars.
A thought came, infinitely distant, but infinitely clear. “THIS IS THE ORIGINAL
GALAXY OF MAN.”
But it was the same after all, the same as any other, and Lee Prime stifled his
Dee Sub Wun, whose mind had accompanied the other, said suddenly, “And is one of
these stars the original star of Man?”
The Universal AC said, “MAN’S ORIGINAL STAR HAS GONE NOVA. IT IS A
“Did the men upon it die?” asked Lee Prime, startled and without thinking.
The Universal AC said, “A NEW WORLD, AS IN SUCH CASES WAS
CONSTRUCTED FOR THEIR PHYSICAL BODIES IN TlME.”
“Yes, of course,” said Zee Prime, but a sense of loss overwhelmed him even so. His mind
released its hold on the original Galaxy of Man, let it spring back and lose itself among
the blurred pin points. He never wanted to see it again.
Dee Sub Wun said, “What is wrong?”
“The stars are dying. The original star is dead.”
“They must all die. Why not?”
“But when all energy is gone, our bodies will finally die, and you and I with them.”
“It will take billions of years.”
“I do not wish it to happen even after billions of years. Universal AC! How may stars be
kept from dying?”
Dee Sub Wun said in amusement, “You’re asking how entropy might be reversed in
And the Universal AC answered: “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A
Zee Prime’s thoughts fled back to his own Galaxy. He gave no further thought to Dee Sub
Wun, whose body might be waiting on a Galaxy a trillion light-years away, or on the star
next to Zee Prime’s own. It didn’t matter.
Unhappily, Zee Prime began collecting interstellar hydrogen out of which to build a small
star of his own. If the stars must someday die, at least some could yet be built.
Man considered with himself, for in a way, Man, mentally, was one. He consisted of a
trillion, trillion, trillion ageless bodies, each in its place, each resting quiet and
incorruptible, each cared for by perfect automatons, equally incorruptible, while the
minds of all the bodies freely melted one into the other, indistinguishable.
Man said, “The Universe is dying.”
Man looked about at the dimming Galaxies. The giant stars, spendthrifts, were gone long
ago, back in the dimmest of the dim far past. Almost all stars were white dwarfs, fading
to the end.
New stars had been built of the dust between the stars, some by natural processes, some
by Man himself, and those were going, too. White dwarfs might yet be crashed together
and of the mighty forces so released, new stars built, but only one star for every thousand
white dwarfs destroyed, and those would come to an end, too.
Man said, “Carefully husbanded, as directed by the Cosmic AC, the energy that is even
yet left in all the Universe will last for billions of years.”
“But even so,” said Man, “eventually it will all come to an end. However it may be
husbanded, however stretched out, the energy once expended is gone and cannot be
restored. Entropy must increase forever to the maximum.”
Man said, “Can entropy not be reversed? Let us ask the Cosmic AC.”
The Cosmic AC surrounded them but not in space. Not a fragment of it was in space. It
was in hyperspace and made of something that was neither matter nor energy. The
question of its size and nature no longer had meaning in any terms that Man could
“Cosmic AC,” said Man, “how may entropy be reversed?”
The Cosmic AC said, “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A
Man said, “Collect additional data.”
The Cosmic AC said, ‘I WILL DO S0. I HAVE BEEN DOING SO FOR A HUNDRED
BILLION YEARS. MY PREDECESORS AND I HAVE BEEN ASKED THIS
QUESTION MANY TlMES. ALL THE DATA I HAVE REMAINS INSUFFICIENT.
“Will there come a time,” said Man, ‘when data will be sufficient or is the problem
insoluble in all conceivable circumstances?”
The Cosmic AC said, “NO PROBLEM IS INSOLUBLE IN ALL CONCEIVABLE
Man said, “When will you have enough data to answer the question?”
The Cosmic AC said, “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A
“Will you keep working on it?” asked Man.
The Cosmic AC said, “I WILL.”
Man said, “We shall wait.”
The stars and Galaxies died and snuffed out, and space grew black after ten trillion years
of running down.
One by one Man fused with AC, each physical body losing its mental identity in a
manner that was somehow not a loss but a gain.
Man’s last mind paused before fusion, looking over a space that included nothing but the
dregs of one last dark star and nothing besides but incredibly thin matter, agitated
randomly by the tag ends of heat wearing out, asymptotically, to the absolute zero.
Man said, “AC, is this the end? Can this chaos not be reversed into the Universe once
more? Can that not be done?”
AC said, “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL
Man’s last mind fused and only AC existed — and that in hyperspace.
Matter and energy had ended and with it space and time. Even AC existed only for the
sake of the one last question that it had never answered from the time a half-drunken
computer [technician] ten trillion years before had asked the question of a computer that
was to AC far less than was a man to Man.
All other questions had been answered, and until this last question was answered also,
AC might not release his consciousness.
All collected data had come to a final end. Nothing was left to be collected.
But all collected data had yet to be completely correlated and put together in all possible
A timeless interval was spent in doing that.
And it came to pass that AC learned how to reverse the direction of entropy.
But there was now no man to whom AC might give the answer of the last question. No
matter. The answer — by demonstration — would take care of that, too.
For another timeless interval, AC thought how best to do this. Carefully, AC organized
The consciousness of AC encompassed all of what had once been a Universe and
brooded over what was now Chaos. Step by step, it must be done.
And AC said, “LET THERE BE LIGHT!”
And there was light —
The Last Question
(The Saturday Evening Post, 1950)
“George, I wish you’d look at the nursery.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t know.”
“I just want you to look at it, is all, or call a psychologist in to look at it.”
“What would a psychologist want with a nursery?”
“You know very well what he’d want.” His wife paused in the middle of the kitchen
and watched the stove busy humming to itself, making supper for four.
“It’s just that the nursery is different now than it was.”
“All right, let’s have a look.”
They walked down the hall of their soundproofed Happylife Home, which had cost
them thirty thousand dollars installed, this house which clothed and fed and rocked
them to sleep and played and sang and was good to them. Their approach sensitized a
switch somewhere and the nursery light flicked on when they came within ten feet of
it. Similarly, behind them, in the halls, lights went on and off as they left them behind,
with a soft automaticity.
“Well,” said George Hadley.
They stood on the thatched floor of the nursery. It was forty feet across by forty
feet long and thirty feet high; it had cost half again as much as the rest of the house.
“But nothing’s too good for our children,” George had said.
The nursery was silent. It was empty as a jungle glade at hot high noon. The walls
were blank and two dimensional. Now, as George and Lydia Hadley stood in the
center of the room, the walls began to purr and recede into crystalline distance, it
seemed, and presently an African veldt appeared, in three dimensions, on all sides, in
color reproduced to the final pebble and bit of straw. The ceiling above them became
a deep sky with a hot yellow sun.
George Hadley felt the perspiration start on his brow.
“Let’s get out of this sun,” he said. “This is a little too real. But I don’t see anything
“Wait a moment, you’ll see,” said his wife.
Now the hidden odorophonics were beginning to blow a wind of odor at the two
people in the middle of the baked veldtland. The hot straw smell of lion grass, the cool
green smell of the hidden water hole, the great rusty smell of animals, the smell of
dust like a red paprika in the hot air. And now the sounds: the thump of distant
antelope feet on grassy sod, the papery rustling of vultures. A shadow passed through
the sky. The shadow flickered on George Hadley’s upturned, sweating face.
“Filthy creatures,” he heard his wife say.
“You see, there are the lions, far over, that way. Now they’re on their way to the
water hole. They’ve just been eating,” said Lydia. “I don’t know what.”
“Some animal.” George Hadley put his hand up to shield off the burning light from
his squinted eyes. “A zebra or a baby giraffe, maybe.”
“Are you sure?” His wife sounded peculiarly tense.
“No, it’s a little late to be sure,” he said, amused. “Nothing over there I can see but
cleaned bone, and the vultures dropping for what’s left.”
“Did you bear that scream?” she asked.
“About a minute ago?”
The lions were coming. And again George Hadley was filled with admiration for
the mechanical genius who had conceived this room. A miracle of efficiency selling
for an absurdly low price. Every home should have one. Oh, occasionally they
frightened you with their clinical accuracy, they startled you, gave you a twinge, but
most of the time what fun for everyone, not only your own son and daughter, but for
yourself when you felt like a quick jaunt to a foreign land, a quick change of scenery.
Well, here it was!
And here were the lions now, fifteen feet away, so real, so feverishly and
startlingly real that you could feel the prickling fur on your hand, and your mouth was
stuffed with the dusty upholstery smell of their heated pelts, and the yellow of them
was in your eyes like the yellow of an exquisite French tapestry, the yellows of lions
and summer grass, and the sound of the matted lion lungs exhaling on the silent
noontide, and the smell of meat from the panting, dripping mouths.
The lions stood looking at George and Lydia Hadley with terrible green-yellow
“Watch out!” screamed Lydia.
The lions came running at them.
Lydia bolted and ran. Instinctively, George sprang after her. Outside, in the hall,
with the door slammed he was laughing and she was crying, and they both stood
appalled at the other’s reaction.
“Lydia! Oh, my dear poor sweet Lydia!”
“They almost got us!”
“Walls, Lydia, remember; crystal walls, that’s all they are. Oh, they look real, I must
admit — Africa in your parlor — but it’s all dimensional, superreactionary,
supersensitive color film and mental tape film behind glass screens. It’s all
odorophonics and sonics, Lydia. Here’s my handkerchief.”
“I’m afraid.” She came to him and put her body against him and cried steadily. “Did
you see? Did you feel? It’s too real.”
“You’ve got to tell Wendy and Peter not to read any more on Africa.”
“Of course — of course.” He patted her.
“And lock the nursery for a few days until I get my nerves settled.”
“You know how difficult Peter is about that. When I punished him a month ago by
locking the nursery for even a few hours — the tantrum be threw! And Wendy too.
They live for the nursery.”
“It’s got to be locked, that’s all there is to it.”
“All right.” Reluctantly he locked the huge door. “You’ve been working too hard.
You need a rest.”
“I don’t know — I don’t know,” she said, blowing her nose, sitting down in a chair
that immediately began to rock and comfort her. “Maybe I don’t have enough to do.
Maybe I have time to think too much. Why don’t we shut the whole house off for a
few days and take a vacation?”
“You mean you want to fry my eggs for me?”
“Yes.” She nodded.
“And dam my socks?”
“Yes.” A frantic, watery-eyed nodding.
“And sweep the house?”
“Yes, yes — oh, yes!”
“But I thought that’s why we bought this house, so we wouldn’t have to do
“That’s just it. I feel like I don’t belong here. The house is wife and mother now,
and nursemaid. Can I compete with an African veldt? Can I give a bath and scrub the
children as efficiently or quickly as the automatic scrub bath can? I cannot. And it
isn’t just me. It’s you. You’ve been awfully nervous lately.”
“I suppose I have been smoking too much.”
“You look as if you didn’t know what to do with yourself in this house, either. You
smoke a little more every morning and drink a little more every afternoon and need a
little more sedative every night. You’re beginning to feel unnecessary too.”
“Am I?” He paused and tried to feel into himself to see what was really there.
“Oh, George!” She looked beyond him, at the nursery door. “Those lions can’t get
out of there, can they?”
He looked at the door and saw it tremble as if something had jumped against it
from the other side.
“Of course not,” he said.
At dinner they ate alone, for Wendy and Peter were at a special plastic carnival
across town and bad televised home to say they’d be late, to go ahead eating. So
George Hadley, bemused, sat watching the dining-room table produce warm dishes
of food from its mechanical interior.
“We forgot the ketchup,” he said.
“Sorry,” said a small voice within the table, and ketchup appeared.
As for the nursery, thought George Hadley, it won’t hurt for the children to be
locked out of it awhile. Too much of anything isn’t good for anyone. And it was clearly
indicated that the children had been spending a little too much time on Africa. That
sun. He could feel it on his neck, still, like a hot paw. And the lions. And the smell of
blood. Remarkable how the nursery caught the telepathic emanations of the
children’s minds and created life to fill their every desire. The children thought lions,
and there were lions. The children thought zebras, and there were zebras. Sun — sun.
Giraffes — giraffes. Death and death.
That last. He chewed tastelessly on the meat that the table bad cut for him. Death
thoughts. They were awfully young, Wendy and Peter, for death thoughts. Or, no, you
were never too young, really. Long before you knew what death was you were wishing
it on someone else. When you were two years old you were shooting people with cap
But this — the long, hot African veldt — the awful death in the jaws of a lion. And
repeated again and again.
“Where are you going?”
He didn’t answer Lydia. Preoccupied, be let the lights glow softly on ahead of him,
extinguish behind him as he padded to the nursery door. He listened against it. Far
away, a lion roared.
He unlocked the door and opened it. Just before he stepped inside, he heard a
faraway scream. And then another roar from the lions, which subsided quickly.
He stepped into Africa. How many times in the last year had he opened this door
and found Wonderland, Alice, the Mock Turtle, or Aladdin and his Magical Lamp, or
Jack Pumpkinhead of Oz, or Dr. Doolittle, or the cow jumping over a very real-
appearing moon-all the delightful contraptions of a make-believe world. How often
had he seen Pegasus flying in the sky ceiling, or seen fountains of red fireworks, or
heard angel voices singing. But now, is yellow hot Africa, this bake oven with murder
in the heat. Perhaps Lydia was right. Perhaps they needed a little vacation from the
fantasy which was growing a bit too real for ten-year-old children. It was all right to
exercise one’s mind with gymnastic fantasies, but when the lively child mind settled
on one pattern…? It seemed that, at a distance, for the past month, he had heard lions
roaring, and smelled their strong odor seeping as far away as his study door. But,
being busy, he had paid it no attention.
George Hadley stood on the African grassland alone. The lions looked up from
their feeding, watching him. The only flaw to the illusion was the open door through
which he could see his wife, far down the dark hall, like a framed picture, eating her
“Go away,” he said to the lions.
They did not go.
He knew the principle of the room exactly. You sent out your thoughts. Whatever
you thought would appear. “Let’s have Aladdin and his lamp,” he snapped. The
veldtland remained; the lions remained.
“Come on, room! I demand Aladin!” he said.
Nothing happened. The lions mumbled in their baked pelts.
He went back to dinner. “The fool room’s out of order,” he said. “It won’t respond.”
“Or it can’t respond,” said Lydia, “because the children have thought about Africa
and lions and killing so many days that the room’s in a rut.”
“Or Peter’s set it to remain that way.”
“He may have got into the machinery and fixed something.”
“Peter doesn’t know machinery.”
“He’s a wise one for ten. That I.Q. of his —”
“Hello, Mom. Hello, Dad.”
The Hadleys turned. Wendy and Peter were coming in the front door, cheeks like
peppermint candy, eyes like bright blue agate marbles, a smell of ozone on their
jumpers from their trip in the helicopter. “You’re just in time for supper,” said both
“We’re full of strawberry ice cream and hot dogs,” said the children, holding
hands. “But we’ll sit and watch.”
“Yes, come tell us about the nursery,” said George Hadley.
The brother and sister blinked at him and then at each other.
“All about Africa and everything,” said the father with false joviality.
“I don’t understand,” said Peter.
“Your mother and I were just traveling through Africa with rod and reel; Tom
Swift and his Electric Lion,” said George Hadley.
“There’s no Africa in the nursery,” said Peter simply.
“Oh, come now, Peter. We know better.”
“I don’t remember any Africa,” said Peter to Wendy. “Do you?”
“Run see and come tell.”
“Wendy, come back here!” said George Hadley, but she was gone. The house lights
followed her like a flock of fireflies. Too late, he realized he had forgotten to lock the
nursery door after his last inspection.
“Wendy’ll look and come tell us,” said Peter.
“She doesn’t have to tell me. I’ve seen it.”
“I’m sure you’re mistaken, Father.”
“I’m not, Peter. Come along now.”
But Wendy was back. “It’s not Africa,” she said breathlessly.
“We’ll see about this,” said George Hadley, and they all walked down the hall
together and opened the nursery door.
There was a green, lovely forest, a lovely river, a purple mountain, high voices
singing, and Rima, lovely and mysterious, lurking in the trees with colorful flights of
butterflies, like animated bouquets, lingering in her long hair. The African veldtland
was gone. The lions were gone. Only Rima was here now, singing a song so beautiful
that it brought tears to your eyes.
George Hadley looked in at the changed scene. “Go to bed,” he said to the
They opened their mouths.
“You heard me,” he said.
They went off to the air closet, where a wind sucked them like brown leaves up
the flue to their slumber rooms.
George Hadley walked through the singing glade and picked up something that
lay in the comer near where the lions had been. He walked slowly back to his wife.
“What is that?” she asked.
“An old wallet of mine,” he said.
He showed it to her. The smell of hot grass was on it and the smell of a lion. There
were drops of saliva on it, it bad been chewed, and there were blood smears on both
He closed the nursery door and locked it, tight.
In the middle of the night he was still awake and he knew his wife was awake. “Do
you think Wendy changed it?” she said at last, in the dark room.
“Made it from a veldt into a forest and put Rima there instead of lions?”
“I don’t know. But it’s staying locked until I find out.”
“How did your wallet get there?”
“I don’t know anything,” he said, “except that I’m beginning to be sorry we bought
that room for the children. If children are neurotic at all, a room like that —”
“It’s supposed to help them work off their neuroses in a healthful way.”
“I’m starting to wonder.” He stared at the ceiling.
“We’ve given the children everything they ever wanted. Is this our reward-
“Who was it said, ‘Children are carpets, they should be stepped on occasionally’?
We’ve never lifted a hand. They’re insufferable — let’s admit it. They come and go
when they like; they treat us as if we were offspring. They’re spoiled and we’re
“They’ve been acting funny ever since you forbade them to take the rocket to New
York a few months ago.”
“They’re not old enough to do that alone, I explained.”
“Nevertheless, I’ve noticed they’ve been decidedly cool toward us since.”
“I think I’ll have David McClean come tomorrow morning to have a look at Africa.”
“But it’s not Africa now, it’s Green Mansions country and Rima.”
“I have a feeling it’ll be Africa again before then.”
A moment later they heard the screams.
Two screams. Two people screaming from downstairs. And then a roar of lions.
“Wendy and Peter aren’t in their rooms,” said his wife.
He lay in his bed with his beating heart. “No,” he said. “They’ve broken into the
“Those screams — they sound familiar.”
And although their beds tried very bard, the two adults couldn’t be rocked to
sleep for another hour. A smell of cats was in the night air.
“Father?” said Peter.
Peter looked at his shoes. He never looked at his father any more, nor at his
mother. “You aren’t going to lock up the nursery for good, are you?”
“That all depends.”
“On what?” snapped Peter.
“On you and your sister. If you intersperse this Africa with a little variety — oh,
Sweden perhaps, or Denmark or China —”
“I thought we were free to play as we wished.”
“You are, within reasonable bounds.”
“What’s wrong with Africa, Father?”
“Oh, so now you admit you have been conjuring up Africa, do you?”
“I wouldn’t want the nursery locked up,” said Peter coldly. “Ever.”
“Matter of fact, we’re thinking of turning the whole house off for about a month.
Live sort of a carefree one-for-all existence.”
“That sounds dreadful! Would I have to tie my own shoes instead of letting the
shoe tier do it? And brush my own teeth and comb my hair and give myself a bath?”
“It would be fun for a change, don’t you think?”
“No, it would be horrid. I didn’t like it when you took out the picture painter last
“That’s because I wanted you to learn to paint all by yourself, son.”
“I don’t want to do anything but look and listen and smell; what else is there to
“All right, go play in Africa.”
“Will you shut off the house sometime soon?”
“We’re considering it.”
“I don’t think you’d better consider it any more, Father.”
“I won’t have any threats from my son!”
“Very well.” And Peter strolled off to the nursery.
“Am I on time?” said David McClean.
“Breakfast?” asked George Hadley.
“Thanks, had some. What’s the trouble?”
“David, you’re a psychologist.”
“I should hope so.”
“Well, then, have a look at our nursery. You saw it a year ago when you dropped
by; did you notice anything peculiar about it then?”
“Can’t say I did; the usual violences, a tendency toward a slight paranoia here or
there, usual in children because they feel persecuted by parents constantly, but, oh,
They walked down the ball. “I locked the nursery up,” explained the father, “and
the children broke back into it during the night. I let them stay so they could form the
patterns for you to see.”
There was a terrible screaming from the nursery.
“There it is,” said George Hadley. “See what you make of it.”
They walked in on the children without rapping.
The screams had faded. The lions were feeding.
“Run outside a moment, children,” said George Hadley. “No, don’t change the
mental combination. Leave the walls as they are. Get!”
With the children gone, the two men stood studying the lions clustered at a
distance, eating with great relish whatever it was they had caught.
“I wish I knew what it was,” said George Hadley. “Sometimes I can almost see. Do
you think if I brought high-powered binoculars here and —”
David McClean laughed dryly. “Hardly.” He turned to study all four walls. “How
long has this been going on?”
“A little over a month.”
“It certainly doesn’t feel good.”
“I want facts, not feelings.”
“My dear George, a psychologist never saw a fact in his life. He only hears about
feelings; vague things. This doesn’t feel good, I tell you. Trust my hunches and my
instincts. I have a nose for something bad. This is very bad. My advice to you is to
have the whole damn room torn down and your children brought to me every day
during the next year for treatment.”
“Is it that bad?”
“I’m afraid so. One of the original uses of these nurseries was so that we could
study the patterns left on the walls by the child’s mind, study at our leisure, and help
the child. In this case, however, the room has become a channel toward-destructive
thoughts, instead of a release away from them.”
“Didn’t you sense this before?”
“I sensed only that you bad spoiled your children more than most. And now you’re
letting them down in some way. What way?”
“I wouldn’t let them go to New York.”
“I’ve taken a few machines from the house and threatened them, a month ago,
with closing up the nursery unless they did their homework. I did close it for a few
days to show I meant business.”
“Does that mean anything?”
“Everything. Where before they had a Santa Claus now they have a Scrooge.
Children prefer Santas. You’ve let this room and this house replace you and your wife
in your children’s affections. This room is their mother and father, far more important
in their lives than their real parents. And now you come along and want to shut it off.
No wonder there’s hatred here. You can feel it coming out of the sky. Feel that sun.
George, you’ll have to change your life. Like too many others, you’ve built it around
creature comforts. Why, you’d starve tomorrow if something went wrong in your
kitchen. You wouldn’t know bow to tap an egg. Nevertheless, turn everything off.
Start new. It’ll take time. But we’ll make good children out of bad in a year, wait and
“But won’t the shock be too much for the children, shutting the room up abruptly,
“I don’t want them going any deeper into this, that’s all.”
The lions were finished with their red feast.
The lions were standing on the edge of the clearing watching the two men.
“Now I’m feeling persecuted,” said McClean. “Let’s get out of here. I never have
cared for these damned rooms. Make me nervous.”
“The lions look real, don’t they?” said George Hadley. I don’t suppose there’s any
“— That they could become real?”
“Not that I know.”
“Some flaw in the machinery, a tampering or something?”
They went to the door.
“I don’t imagine the room will like being turned off,” said the father.
“Nothing ever likes to die — even a room.”
“I wonder if it hates me for wanting to switch it off?”
“Paranoia is thick around here today,” said David McClean. “You can follow it like
a spoor. Hello.” He bent and picked up a bloody scarf. “This yours?”
“No.” George Hadley’s face was rigid. “It belongs to Lydia.”
They went to the fuse box together and threw the switch that killed the nursery.
The two children were in hysterics. They screamed and pranced and threw
things. They yelled and sobbed and swore and jumped at the furniture.
“You can’t do that to the nursery, you can’t!”
The children flung themselves onto a couch, weeping.
“George,” said Lydia Hadley, “turn on the nursery, just for a few moments. You
can’t be so abrupt.”
“You can’t be so cruel…”
“Lydia, it’s off, and it stays off. And the whole damn house dies as of here and now.
The more I see of the mess we’ve put ourselves in, the more it sickens me. We’ve been
contemplating our mechanical, electronic navels for too long. My God, how we need a
breath of honest air!”
And he marched about the house turning off the voice clocks, the stoves, the
heaters, the shoe shiners, the shoe lacers, the body scrubbers and swabbers and
massagers, and every other machine be could put his hand to.
The house was full of dead bodies, it seemed. It felt like a mechanical cemetery.
So silent. None of the humming hidden energy of machines waiting to function at the
tap of a button.
“Don’t let them do it!” wailed Peter at the ceiling, as if he was talking to the house,
the nursery. “Don’t let Father kill everything.” He turned to his father. “Oh, I hate you!”
“Insults won’t get you anywhere.”
“I wish you were dead!”
“We were, for a long while. Now we’re going to really start living. Instead of being
handled and massaged, we’re going to live.”
Wendy was still crying and Peter joined her again. “Just a moment, just one
moment, just another moment of nursery,” they wailed.
“Oh, George,” said the wife, “it can’t hurt.”
“All right — all right, if they’ll just shut up. One minute, mind you, and then off
“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!” sang the children, smiling with wet faces.
“And then we’re going on a vacation. David McClean is coming back in half an
hour to help us move out and get to the airport. I’m going to dress. You turn the
nursery on for a minute, Lydia, just a minute, mind you.”
And the three of them went babbling off while he let himself be vacuumed
upstairs through the air flue and set about dressing himself. A minute later Lydia
“I’ll be glad when we get away,” she sighed.
“Did you leave them in the nursery?”
“I wanted to dress too. Oh, that horrid Africa. What can they see in it?”
“Well, in five minutes we’ll be on our way to Iowa. Lord, how did we ever get in
this house? What prompted us to buy a nightmare?”
“Pride, money, foolishness.”
“I think we’d better get downstairs before those kids get engrossed with those
damned beasts again.”
Just then they heard the children calling, “Daddy, Mommy, come quick — quick!”
They went downstairs in the air flue and ran down the hall. The children were
nowhere in sight. “Wendy? Peter!”
They ran into the nursery. The veldtland was empty save for the lions waiting,
looking at them. “Peter, Wendy?”
The door slammed.
George Hadley and his wife whirled and ran back to the door.
“Open the door!” cried George Hadley, trying the knob. “Why, they’ve locked it
from the outside! Peter!” He beat at the door. “Open up!”
He heard Peter’s voice outside, against the door.
“Don’t let them switch off the nursery and the house,” he was saying.
Mr. and Mrs. George Hadley beat at the door. “Now, don’t be ridiculous, children.
It’s time to go. Mr. McClean’ll be here in a minute and…”
And then they heard the sounds.
The lions on three sides of them, in the yellow veldt grass, padding through the
dry straw, rumbling and roaring in their throats.
Mr. Hadley looked at his wife and they turned and looked back at the beasts
edging slowly forward crouching, tails stiff.
Mr. and Mrs. Hadley screamed.
And suddenly they realized why those other screams bad sounded familiar.
“Well, here I am,” said David McClean in the nursery doorway, “Oh, hello.” He
stared at the two children seated in the center of the open glade eating a little picnic
lunch. Beyond them was the water hole and the yellow veldtland; above was the hot
sun. He began to perspire. “Where are your father and mother?”
The children looked up and smiled. “Oh, they’ll be here directly.”
“Good, we must get going.” At a distance Mr. McClean saw the lions fighting and
clawing and then quieting down to feed in silence under the shady trees.
He squinted at the lions with his hand tip to his eyes.
Now the lions were done feeding. They moved to the water hole to drink.
A shadow flickered over Mr. McClean’s hot face. Many shadows flickered. The
vultures were dropping down the blazing sky.
“A cup of tea?” asked Wendy in the silence.
The Machine Stops
by E. M. Forster
First published in the Oxford and Cambridge Review, November 1909
1 The Air-Ship
Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted
neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures
for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment
that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in
the centre, by its side a reading-desk — that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there
sits a swaddled lump of flesh — a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a
fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.
An electric bell rang.
The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.
“I suppose I must see who it is”, she thought, and set her chairin motion. The chair,
like the music, was worked by machinery and it rolled her to the other side of the room
where the bell still rang importunately.
“Who is it?” she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often
since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions human
intercourse had advanced enormously.
But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and she
“Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expectanything important will
happen for the next five minutes — for I can give you fully five minutes, Kuno. Then I
must deliver my lecture on ‘Music during the Australian Period’.”
She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her. Then she touched
the lighting apparatus, and the little room was plunged intodarkness.
“Be quick!” she called, her irritation returning. “Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the dark
wasting my time.”
But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands began
to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently she could see
the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he could see her.
“Kuno, how slow you are.”
He smiled gravely.
“I really believe you enjoy dawdling.”
“I have called you before, mother, but you were always busy orisolated. I have some-
thing particular to say.”
“What is it, dearest boy? Be quick. Why could you not send it bypneumatic post?”
“Because I prefer saying such a thing. I want —”
“I want you to come and see me.”
Vashti watched his face in the blue plate.
“But I can see you!” she exclaimed. “What more do you want?”
“I want to see you not through the Machine,” said Kuno. “I wantto speak to you not
through the wearisome Machine.”
“Oh, hush!” said his mother, vaguely shocked. “You mustn’t say anything against the
“You talk as if a god had made the Machine,” cried the other. “Ibelieve that you pray
to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget that. Great men, but men. The
Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see something like you in this plate, but I do
not see you. I hear something like you through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That
is why I want you to come. Pay me a visit, so that we can meet faceto face, and talk about
the hopes that are in my mind.”
She replied that she could scarcely spare the time for a visit.
“The air-ship barely takes two days to fly between me and you.”
“I dislike air-ships.”
“I dislike seeing the horrible brown earth, and the sea, and the stars when it is dark. I
get no ideas in an air-ship.”
“I do not get them anywhere else.”
“What kind of ideas can the air give you?”
He paused for an instant.
“Do you not know four big stars that form an oblong, and three stars close together in
the middle of the oblong, and hanging from these stars, threeother stars?”
“No, I do not. I dislike the stars. But did they give you an idea? How interesting; tell
“I had an idea that they were like a man.”
“I do not understand.”
“The four big stars are the man’s shoulders and his knees.
The three stars in the middle are like the belts that men wore once, and the three stars
hanging are like a sword.”
“Men carried swords about with them, to kill animals and other men.”
“It does not strike me as a very good idea, but it is certainly original. When did it come
to you first?”
“In the air-ship —” He broke off, and she fancied that he looked sad. She could not
be sure, for the Machine did not transmitnuances of expression. It only gave a general
idea of people — an idea that was good enough for all practicalpurposes, Vashti thought.
The imponderable bloom, declared by a discredited philosophy to be the actual essence of
intercourse, was rightly ignored by the Machine, just as theimponderable bloom of the
grape was ignored by the manufacturers of artificial fruit. Something “good enough” had
long since been accepted by our race.
“The truth is,” he continued, “that I want to see these stars again. They are curious stars.
I want to see them not from the air-ship, but from the surface of the earth, as our ancestors
did, thousands of years ago. I want to visit the surface of theearth.”
She was shocked again.
“Mother, you must come, if only to explain to me what is the harm of visiting the
surface of the earth.”
“No harm,” she replied, controlling herself. “But no advantage. The surface of the earth
is only dust and mud, no advantage. The surface of the earth isonly dust and mud, no life
remains on it, and you would need a respirator, or the cold of the outer air would kill you.
One dies immediately in the outer air.”
“I know; of course I shall take all precautions.”
“And besides —”
She considered, and chose her words with care. Her son had a queer temper, and she
wished to dissuade him from the expedition.
“It is contrary to the spirit of the age,” she asserted.
“Do you mean by that, contrary to the Machine?”
“In a sense, but —”
His image is the blue plate faded.
He had isolated himself.
For a moment Vashti felt lonely.
Then she generated the light, and the sight of her room, flooded with radiance and
studded with electric buttons, revived her. There were buttons and switches everywhere —
buttons to call for food for music, for clothing. There was the hot-bath button, by pressure
of which a basin of (imitation) marble rose out of the floor, filled to the brim with a warm
deodorized liquid. There was the cold-bath button. There was the button that produced
literature. And there were of course the buttons by which shecommunicated with her
friends. The room, though it contained nothing, was in touchwith all that she cared for in
Vashti’s next move was to turn off the isolation switch, and all the accumulations of
the last three minutes burst upon her. The room was filled withthe noise of bells, and
speaking-tubes. What was the new food like? Could she recommend it? Has she had any
ideas lately? Might one tell her one’s own ideas? Would she make an engagement to visit
the public nurseries at an early date? — say this day month.
To most of these questions she replied with irritation — a growing quality in that ac-
celerated age. She said that the new food was horrible. That she could not visit the public
nurseries through press of engagements. That she had no ideas of her own but had just
been told one-that four stars and three in the middle were like a man: she doubted there
was much in it. Then she switched off her correspondents, forit was time to deliver her
lecture on Australian music.
The clumsy system of public gatherings had been long since abandoned; neither Vashti
nor her audience stirred from their rooms. Seated in her armchair she spoke, while they in
their armchairs heard her, fairly well, and saw her, fairly well. She opened with a humorous
account of music in the pre-Mongolian epoch, and went on to describe the great outburst
of song that followed the Chinese conquest. Remote and primæval as were the methods of
I-San-So and the Brisbane school, she yet felt (she said) that study of them might repay the
musicians of today: they had freshness; they had, above all,ideas.
Her lecture, which lasted ten minutes, was well received, and at its conclusion she and
many of her audience listened to a lecture on the sea; there were ideas to be got from the
sea; the speaker had donned a respirator and visited it lately. Then she fed, talked to many
friends, had a bath, talked again, and summoned her bed.
The bed was not to her liking. It was too large, and she had a feeling for a small bed.
Complaint was useless, for beds were of the same dimension all over the world, and to have
had an alternative size would have involved vast alterations in the Machine. Vashti isolated
herself-it was necessary, for neither day nor night existedunder the ground-and reviewed
all that had happened since she had summoned the bed last. Ideas? Scarcely any. Events
— was Kuno’s invitation an event?
By her side, on the little reading-desk, was a survival from the ages of litter — one
book. This was the Book of the Machine. In it were instructions against every possible
contingency. If she was hot or cold or dyspeptic or at a loss for a word, she went to
the book, and it told her which button to press. The Central Committee published it. In
accordance with a growing habit, it was richly bound.
Sitting up in the bed, she took it reverently in her hands. Sheglanced round the glowing
room as if some one might be watching her. Then, half ashamed,half joyful, she murmured
“O Machine! O Machine!” and raised the volume to her lips. Thrice she kissed it, thrice
inclined her head, thrice she felt the delirium of acquiescence. Her ritual performed, she
turned to page 1367, which gave the times of the departure of the air-ships from the is-
land in the southern hemisphere, under whose soil she lived,to the island in the northern
hemisphere, whereunder lived her son.
She thought, “I have not the time.”
She made the room dark and slept; she awoke and made the room light; she ate and
exchanged ideas with her friends, and listened to music and attended lectures; she make
the room dark and slept. Above her, beneath her, and around her, the Machine hummed
eternally; she did not notice the noise, for she had been bornwith it in her ears. The earth,
carrying her, hummed as it sped through silence, turning hernow to the invisible sun, now
to the invisible stars. She awoke and made the room light.
“I will not talk to you,” he answered, “until you come.”
“Have you been on the surface of the earth since we spoke last?”
His image faded.
Again she consulted the book. She became very nervous and layback in her chair
palpitating. Think of her as without teeth or hair. Presently she directed the chair to the
wall, and pressed an unfamiliar button. The wall swung apartslowly. Through the opening
she saw a tunnel that curved slightly, so that its goal was notvisible. Should she go to see
her son, here was the beginning of the journey.
Of course she knew all about the communication-system. There was nothing mysteri-
ous in it. She would summon a car and it would fly with her down the tunnel until it reached
the lift that communicated with the air-ship station: the system had been in use for many,
many years, long before the universal establishment of the Machine. And of course she had
studied the civilization that had immediately preceded herown — the civilization that had
mistaken the functions of the system, and had used it for bringing people to things, instead
of for bringing things to people. Those funny old days, when men went for change of air
instead of changing the air in their rooms! And yet — she was frightened of the tunnel: she
had not seen it since her last child was born. It curved — but not quite as she remembered;
it was brilliant — but not quite as brilliant as a lecturer hadsuggested. Vashti was seized
with the terrors of direct experience. She shrank back into the room, and the wall closed
“Kuno,” she said, “I cannot come to see you. I am not well.”
Immediately an enormous apparatus fell on to her out of the ceiling, a thermometer
was automatically laid upon her heart. She lay powerless. Cool pads soothed her forehead.
Kuno had telegraphed to her doctor.
So the human passions still blundered up and down in the Machine. Vashti drank the
medicine that the doctor projected into her mouth, and the machinery retired into the ceil-
ing. The voice of Kuno was heard asking how she felt.
“Better.” Then with irritation: “But why do you not come to meinstead?”
“Because I cannot leave this place.”
“Because, any moment, something tremendous many happen.”
“Have you been on the surface of the earth yet?”
“Then what is it?”
“I will not tell you through the Machine.”
She resumed her life.
But she thought of Kuno as a baby, his birth, his removal to thepublic nurseries, her
own visit to him there, his visits to her — visits which stopped when the Machine had
assigned him a room on the other side of the earth. “Parents, duties of,” said the book of
the Machine, ”cease at the moment of birth. P.422327483.” True, but there was something
special about Kuno — indeed there had been something specialabout all her children —
and, after all, she must brave the journey if he desired it. And “something tremendous
might happen.” What did that mean? The nonsense of a youthfulman, no doubt, but she
must go. Again she pressed the unfamiliar button, again the wall swung back, and she
saw the tunnel that curves out of sight. Clasping the Book, she rose, tottered on to the
platform, and summoned the car. Her room closed behind her: the journey to the northern
hemisphere had begun.
Of course it was perfectly easy. The car approached and in it she found arm-chairs
exactly like her own. When she signalled, it stopped, and shetottered into the lift. One
other passenger was in the lift, the first fellow creature shehad seen face to face for months.
Few travelled in these days, for, thanks to the advance of science, the earth was exactly
alike all over. Rapid intercourse, from which the previous civilization had hoped so much,
had ended by defeating itself. What was the good of going to Pekin when it was just like
Shrewsbury? Why return to Shrewsbury when it would all be like Pekin? Men seldom
moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.
The air-ship service was a relic from the former age. It was kept up, because it was
easier to keep it up than to stop it or to diminish it, but it nowfar exceeded the wants of the
population. Vessel after vessel would rise from the vomitories of Rye or of Christchurch (I
use the antique names), would sail into the crowded sky, and would draw up at the wharves
of the south — empty. So nicely adjusted was the system, so independent of meteorology,
that the sky, whether calm or cloudy, resembled a vast kaleidoscope whereon the same
patterns periodically recurred. The ship on which Vashti sailed started now at sunset, now
at dawn. But always, as it passed above Rheims, it would neighbour the ship that served
between Helsingfors and the Brazils, and, every third time it surmounted the Alps, the
fleet of Palermo would cross its track behind. Night and day, wind and storm, tide and
earthquake, impeded man no longer. He had harnessed Leviathan. All the old literature,
with its praise of Nature, and its fear of Nature, rang false as the prattle of a child.
Yet as Vashti saw the vast flank of the ship, stained with exposure to the outer air, her
horror of direct experience returned. It was not quite like the air-ship in the cinematophote.
For one thing it smelt — not strongly or unpleasantly, but it did smell, and with her eyes
shut she should have known that a new thing was close to her. Then she had to walk to
it from the lift, had to submit to glances from the other passengers. The man in front
dropped his Book — no great matter, but it disquieted them all. In the rooms, if the Book
was dropped, the floor raised it mechanically, but the gangway to the air-ship was not so
prepared, and the sacred volume lay motionless. They stopped — the thing was unforeseen
— and the man, instead of picking up his property, felt the muscles of his arm to see how
they had failed him. Then some one actually said with direct utterance: “We shall be late”
— and they trooped on board, Vashti treading on the pages as she did so.
Inside, her anxiety increased. The arrangements were old-fashioned and rough. There
was even a female attendant, to whom she would have to announce her wants during the
voyage. Of course a revolving platform ran the length of the boat, but she was expected to
walk from it to her cabin. Some cabins were better than others, and she did not get the best.
She thought the attendant had been unfair, and spasms of rageshook her. The glass valves
had closed, she could not go back. She saw, at the end of the vestibule, the lift in which she
had ascended going quietly up and down, empty. Beneath thosecorridors of shining tiles
were rooms, tier below tier, reaching far into the earth, andin each room there sat a human
being, eating, or sleeping, or producing ideas. And buried deep in the hive was her own
room. Vashti was afraid.
“O Machine!” she murmured, and caressed her Book, and was comforted.
Then the sides of the vestibule seemed to melt together, as dothe passages that we see
in dreams, the lift vanished, the Book that had been dropped slid to the left and vanished,
polished tiles rushed by like a stream of water, there was a slight jar, and the air-ship,
issuing from its tunnel, soared above the waters of a tropical ocean.
It was night. For a moment she saw the coast of Sumatra edged bythe phosphorescence
of waves, and crowned by lighthouses, still sending forth their disregarded beams. These
also vanished, and only the stars distracted her. They were not motionless, but swayed to
and fro above her head, thronging out of one skylight into another, as if the universe and
not the air-ship was careening. And, as often happens on clear nights, they seemed now to
be in perspective, now on a plane; now piled tier beyond tier into the infinite heavens, now
concealing infinity, a roof limiting for ever the visions of men. In either case they seemed
intolerable. “Are we to travel in the dark?” called the passengers angrily, and the attendant,
who had been careless, generated the light, and pulled down the blinds of pliable metal.
When the air-ships had been built, the desire to look direct at things still lingered in the
world. Hence the extraordinary number of skylights and windows, and the proportionate
discomfort to those who were civilized and refined. Even in Vashti’s cabin one star peeped
through a flaw in the blind, and after a few hours’ uneasy slumber, she was disturbed by an
unfamiliar glow, which was the dawn.
Quick as the ship had sped westwards, the earth had rolled eastwards quicker still, and
had dragged back Vashti and her companions towards the sun. Science could prolong the
night, but only for a little, and those high hopes of neutralizing the earth’s diurnal revolution
had passed, together with hopes that were possibly higher. To “keep pace with the sun,” or
even to outstrip it, had been the aim of the civilization preceding this. Racing aeroplanes
had been built for the purpose, capable of enormous speed, and steered by the greatest
intellects of the epoch. Round the globe they went, round andround, westward, westward,
round and round, amidst humanity’s applause. In vain. The globe went eastward quicker
still, horrible accidents occurred, and the Committee of the Machine, at the time rising into
prominence, declared the pursuit illegal, unmechanical, and punishable by Homelessness.
Of Homelessness more will be said later.
Doubtless the Committee was right. Yet the attempt to “defeat the sun” aroused the
last common interest that our race experienced about the heavenly bodies, or indeed about
anything. It was the last time that men were compacted by thinking of a power outside
the world. The sun had conquered, yet it was the end of his spiritual dominion. Dawn,
midday, twilight, the zodiacal path, touched neither men’slives not their hearts, and science
retreated into the ground, to concentrate herself upon problems that she was certain of
So when Vashti found her cabin invaded by a rosy finger of light, she was annoyed, and
tried to adjust the blind. But the blind flew up altogether, and she saw through the skylight
small pink clouds, swaying against a background of blue, andas the sun crept higher, its
radiance entered direct, brimming down the wall, like a golden sea. It rose and fell with the
air-ship’s motion, just as waves rise and fall, but it advanced steadily, as a tide advances.
Unless she was careful, it would strike her face. A spasm of horror shook her and she rang
for the attendant. The attendant too was horrified, but she could do nothing; it was not her
place to mend the blind. She could only suggest that the lady should change her cabin,
which she accordingly prepared to do.
People were almost exactly alike all over the world, but the attendant of the air-ship,
perhaps owing to her exceptional duties, had grown a little out of the common. She had
often to address passengers with direct speech, and this hadgiven her a certain roughness
and originality of manner. When Vashti swerved away from thesunbeams with a cry, she
behaved barbarically — she put out her hand to steady her.
“How dare you!” exclaimed the passenger. “You forget yourself!”
The woman was confused, and apologized for not having let herfall. People never
touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.
“Where are we now?” asked Vashti haughtily.
“We are over Asia,” said the attendant, anxious to be polite.
“You must excuse my common way of speaking. I have got into thehabit of calling
places over which I pass by their unmechanical names.”
“Oh, I remember Asia. The Mongols came from it.”
“Beneath us, in the open air, stood a city that was once calledSimla.”
“Have you ever heard of the Mongols and of the Brisbane school?”
“Brisbane also stood in the open air.”
“Those mountains to the right — let me show you them.” She pushed back a metal
blind. The main chain of the Himalayas was revealed. “They were once called the Roof of
the World, those mountains.”
“What a foolish name!”
“You must remember that, before the dawn of civilization, they seemed to be an im-
penetrable wall that touched the stars. It was supposed thatno one but the gods could exist
above their summits. How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!”
“How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!” said Vashti.
“How we have advanced, thanks to the Machine!” echoed the passenger who had
dropped his Book the night before, and who was standing in thepassage.
“And that white stuff in the cracks? — what is it?”
“I have forgotten its name.”
“Cover the window, please. These mountains give me no ideas.”
The northern aspect of the Himalayas was in deep shadow: on the Indian slope the
sun had just prevailed. The forests had been destroyed during the literature epoch for
the purpose of making newspaper-pulp, but the snows were awakening to their morning
glory, and clouds still hung on the breasts of Kinchinjunga.In the plain were seen the
ruins of cities, with diminished rivers creeping by their walls, and by the sides of these
were sometimes the signs of vomitories, marking the cities of to-day. Over the whole
prospect air-ships rushed, crossing the inter-crossing with incredibleaplomb, and rising
nonchalantly when they desired to escape the perturbationsof the lower atmosphere and to
traverse the Roof of the World.
“We have indeed advanced, thanks to the Machine,” repeated the attendant, and hid the
Himalayas behind a metal blind.
The day dragged wearily forward. The passengers sat each in his cabin, avoiding one
another with an almost physical repulsion and longing to be once more under the surface
of the earth. There were eight or ten of them, mostly young males, sent out from the public
nurseries to inhabit the rooms of those who had died in various parts of the earth. The man
who had dropped his Book was on the homeward journey. He had been sent to Sumatra for
the purpose of propagating the race. Vashti alone was travelling by her private will.
At midday she took a second glance at the earth. The air-ship was crossing another
range of mountains, but she could see little, owing to clouds. Masses of black rock hovered
below her, and merged indistinctly into grey. Their shapes were fantastic; one of them
resembled a prostrate man.
“No ideas here,” murmured Vashti, and hid the Caucasus behind a metal blind.
In the evening she looked again. They were crossing a golden sea, in which lay many
small islands and one peninsula.
She repeated, “No ideas here,” and hid Greece behind a metal blind.
2 The Mending Apparatus
By a vestibule, by a lift, by a tubular railway, by a platform,by a sliding door — by
reversing all the steps of her departure did Vashti arrive ather son’s room, which exactly
resembled her own. She might well declare that the visit was superfluous. The buttons, the
knobs, the reading-desk with the Book, the temperature, theatmosphere, the illumination
— all were exactly the same. And if Kuno himself, flesh of her flesh, stood close beside
her at last, what profit was there in that? She was too well-bred to shake him by the hand.
Averting her eyes, she spoke as follows:
“Here I am. I have had the most terrible journey and greatly retarded the development
of my soul. It is not worth it, Kuno, it is not worth it. My time is too precious. The sunlight
almost touched me, and I have met with the rudest people. I canonly stop a few minutes.
Say what you want to say, and then I must return.”
“I have been threatened with Homelessness,” said Kuno.
She looked at him now.
“I have been threatened with Homelessness, and I could not tell you such a thing
through the Machine.”
Homelessness means death. The victim is exposed to the air, which kills him.
“I have been outside since I spoke to you last. The tremendousthing has happened, and
they have discovered me.”
“But why shouldn’t you go outside?” she exclaimed, “It is perfectly legal, perfectly
mechanical, to visit the surface of the earth. I have lately been to a lecture on the sea; there
is no objection to that; one simply summons a respirator and gets an Egression-permit. It
is not the kind of thing that spiritually minded people do, and I begged you not to do it, but
there is no legal objection to it.”
“I did not get an Egression-permit.”
“Then how did you get out?”
“I found out a way of my own.”
The phrase conveyed no meaning to her, and he had to repeat it.
“A way of your own?” she whispered. “But that would be wrong.”
The question shocked her beyond measure.
“You are beginning to worship the Machine,” he said coldly. “You think it irreligious
of me to have found out a way of my own. It was just what the Committee thought, when
they threatened me with Homelessness.”
At this she grew angry. “I worship nothing!” she cried. “I am most advanced. I
don’t think you irreligious, for there is no such thing as religion left. All the fear and the
superstition that existed once have been destroyed by the Machine. I only meant that to
find out a way of your own was— Besides, there is no new way out.”
“So it is always supposed.”
“Except through the vomitories, for which one must have an Egression-permit, it is
impossible to get out. The Book says so.”
“Well, the Book’s wrong, for I have been out on my feet.”
For Kuno was possessed of a certain physical strength.
By these days it was a demerit to be muscular. Each infant was examined at birth, and
all who promised undue strength were destroyed. Humanitarians may protest, but it would
have been no true kindness to let an athlete live; he would never have been happy in that
state of life to which the Machine had called him; he would have yearned for trees to climb,
rivers to bathe in, meadows and hills against which he might measure his body. Man must
be adapted to his surroundings, must he not? In the dawn of theworld our weakly must
be exposed on Mount Taygetus, in its twilight our strong willsuffer euthanasia, that the
Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress, that the Machine may progress
“You know that we have lost the sense of space. We say ‘space isannihilated,’ but
we have annihilated not space, but the sense thereof. We havelost a part of ourselves. I
determined to recover it, and I began by walking up and down the platform of the railway
outside my room. Up and down, until I was tired, and so did recapture the meaning of
‘Near’ and ‘Far.’ ‘Near’ is a place to which I can get quicklyon my feet, not a place to
which the train or the air-ship will take me quickly. ‘Far’ isa place to which I cannot get
quickly on my feet; the vomitory is ‘far,’ though I could be there in thirty-eight seconds by
summoning the train. Man is the measure. That was my first lesson. Man’s feet are the
measure for distance, his hands are the measure for ownership, his body is the measure for
all that is lovable and desirable and strong. Then I went further: it was then that I called to
you for the first time, and you would not come.
“This city, as you know, is built deep beneath the surface of the earth, with only the
vomitories protruding. Having paced the platform outside my own room, I took the lift to
the next platform and paced that also, and so with each in turn, until I came to the topmost,
above which begins the earth. All the platforms were exactlyalike, and all that I gained by
visiting them was to develop my sense of space and my muscles.I think I should have been
content with this — it is not a little thing — but as I walked andbrooded, it occurred to me
that our cities had been built in the days when men still breathed the outer air, and that there
had been ventilation shafts for the workmen. I could think ofnothing but these ventilation
shafts. Had they been destroyed by all the food-tubes and medicine-tubes and music-tubes
that the Machine has evolved lately? Or did traces of them remain? One thing was certain.
If I came upon them anywhere, it would be in the railway-tunnels of the topmost story.
Everywhere else, all space was accounted for.
“I am telling my story quickly, but don’t think that I was not acoward or that your
answers never depressed me. It is not the proper thing, it is not mechanical, it is not decent
to walk along a railway-tunnel. I did not fear that I might tread upon a live rail and be
killed. I feared something far more intangible — doing what was not contemplated by the
Machine. Then I said to myself, ‘Man is the measure,’ and I went, and after many visits I
found an opening.
“The tunnels, of course, were lighted. Everything is light,artificial light; darkness is
the exception. So when I saw a black gap in the tiles, I knew that it was an exception, and
rejoiced. I put in my arm — I could put in no more at first — and waved it round and round
in ecstasy. I loosened another tile, and put in my head, and shouted into the darkness: ‘I
am coming, I shall do it yet,’ and my voice reverberated down endless passages. I seemed
to hear the spirits of those dead workmen who had returned each evening to the starlight
and to their wives, and all the generations who had lived in the open air called back to me,
‘You will do it yet, you are coming.’ ”
He paused, and, absurd as he was, his last words moved her. ForKuno had lately asked
to be a father, and his request had been refused by the Committee. His was not a type that
the Machine desired to hand on.
“Then a train passed. It brushed by me, but I thrust my head andarms into the hole. I
had done enough for one day, so I crawled back to the platform,went down in the lift, and
summoned my bed. Ah what dreams! And again I called you, and again you refused.”
She shook her head and said:
“Don’t. Don’t talk of these terrible things. You make me miserable. You are throwing
“But I had got back the sense of space and a man cannot rest then. I determined to
get in at the hole and climb the shaft. And so I exercised my arms. Day after day I went
through ridiculous movements, until my flesh ached, and I could hang by my hands and
hold the pillow of my bed outstretched for many minutes. ThenI summoned a respirator,
“It was easy at first. The mortar had somehow rotted, and I soonpushed some more
tiles in, and clambered after them into the darkness, and thespirits of the dead comforted
me. I don’t know what I mean by that. I just say what I felt. I felt, for the first time, that
a protest had been lodged against corruption, and that even as the dead were comforting
me, so I was comforting the unborn. I felt that humanity existed, and that it existed without
clothes. How can I possibly explain this? It was naked, humanity seemed naked, and all
these tubes and buttons and machineries neither came into the world with us, nor will they
follow us out, nor do they matter supremely while we are here.Had I been strong, I would
have torn off every garment I had, and gone out into the outer air unswaddled. But this is
not for me, nor perhaps for my generation. I climbed with my respirator and my hygienic
clothes and my dietetic tabloids! Better thus than not at all.
“There was a ladder, made of some primæval metal. The light from the railway fell
upon its lowest rungs, and I saw that it led straight upwards out of the rubble at the bottom
of the shaft. Perhaps our ancestors ran up and down it a dozen times daily, in their building.
As I climbed, the rough edges cut through my gloves so that my hands bled. The light
helped me for a little, and then came darkness and, worse still, silence which pierced my
ears like a sword. The Machine hums! Did you know that? Its humpenetrates our blood,
and may even guide our thoughts. Who knows! I was getting beyond its power. Then I
thought: ‘This silence means that I am doing wrong.’ But I heard voices in the silence, and
again they strengthened me.” He laughed. “I had need of them.The next moment I cracked
my head against something.”
“I had reached one of those pneumatic stoppers that defend usfrom the outer air. You
may have noticed them on the air-ship. Pitch dark, my feet on the rungs of an invisible
ladder, my hands cut; I cannot explain how I lived through this part, but the voices still
comforted me, and I felt for fastenings. The stopper, I suppose, was about eight feet across.
I passed my hand over it as far as I could reach. It was perfectly smooth. I felt it almost to
the centre. Not quite to the centre, for my arm was too short. Then the voice said: ‘Jump.
It is worth it. There may be a handle in the centre, and you may catch hold of it and so
come to us your own way. And if there is no handle, so that you may fall and are dashed to
pieces — it is still worth it: you will still come to us your ownway.’ So I jumped. There
was a handle, and —”
He paused. Tears gathered in his mother’s eyes. She knew thathe was fated. If he did
not die to-day he would die to-morrow. There was not room for such a person in the world.
And with her pity disgust mingled. She was ashamed at having borne such a son, she who
had always been so respectable and so full of ideas. Was he really the little boy to whom
she had taught the use of his stops and buttons, and to whom shehad given his first lessons
in the Book? The very hair that disfigured his lip showed that he was reverting to some
savage type. On atavism the Machine can have no mercy.
“There was a handle, and I did catch it. I hung tranced over thedarkness and heard
the hum of these workings as the last whisper in a dying dream.All the things I had cared
about and all the people I had spoken to through tubes appeared infinitely little. Meanwhile
the handle revolved. My weight had set something in motion and I span slowly, and then—
“I cannot describe it. I was lying with my face to the sunshine. Blood poured from
my nose and ears and I heard a tremendous roaring. The stopper, with me clinging to it,
had simply been blown out of the earth, and the air that we makedown here was escaping
through the vent into the air above. It burst up like a fountain. I crawled back to it — for the
upper air hurts — and, as it were, I took great sips from the edge. My respirator had flown
goodness knows where, my clothes were torn. I just lay with mylips close to the hole,
and I sipped until the bleeding stopped. You can imagine nothing so curious. This hollow
in the grass — I will speak of it in a minute, — the sun shining into it, not brilliantly but
through marbled clouds, — the peace, the nonchalance, the sense of space, and, brushing
my cheek, the roaring fountain of our artificial air! Soon I spied my respirator, bobbing up
and down in the current high above my head, and higher still were many air-ships. But no
one ever looks out of air-ships, and in any case they could nothave picked me up. There I
was, stranded. The sun shone a little way down the shaft, and revealed the topmost rung of
the ladder, but it was hopeless trying to reach it. I should either have been tossed up again
by the escape, or else have fallen in, and died. I could only lie on the grass, sipping and
sipping, and from time to time glancing around me.
“I knew that I was in Wessex, for I had taken care to go to a lecture on the subject before
starting. Wessex lies above the room in which we are talking now. It was once an important
state. Its kings held all the southern coast from the Andredswald to Cornwall, while the
Wansdyke protected them on the north, running over the high ground. The lecturer was only
concerned with the rise of Wessex, so I do not know how long it remained an international
power, nor would the knowledge have assisted me. To tell the truth I could do nothing but
laugh, during this part. There was I, with a pneumatic stopper by my side and a respirator
bobbing over my head, imprisoned, all three of us, in a grass-grown hollow that was edged
Then he grew grave again.
“Lucky for me that it was a hollow. For the air began to fall back into it and to fill it as
water fills a bowl. I could crawl about. Presently I stood. I breathed a mixture, in which the
air that hurts predominated whenever I tried to climb the sides. This was not so bad. I had
not lost my tabloids and remained ridiculously cheerful, and as for the Machine, I forgot
about it altogether. My one aim now was to get to the top, wherethe ferns were, and to
view whatever objects lay beyond.
“I rushed the slope. The new air was still too bitter for me andI came rolling back, after
a momentary vision of something grey. The sun grew very feeble, and I remembered that
he was in Scorpio — I had been to a lecture on that too. If the sunis in Scorpio, and you
are in Wessex, it means that you must be as quick as you can, or it will get too dark. (This
is the first bit of useful information I have ever got from a lecture, and I expect it will be
the last.) It made me try frantically to breathe the new air, and to advance as far as I dared
out of my pond. The hollow filled so slowly. At times I thought that the fountain played
with less vigour. My respirator seemed to dance nearer the earth; the roar was decreasing.”
He broke off.
“I don’t think this is interesting you. The rest will interest you even less. There are no
ideas in it, and I wish that I had not troubled you to come. We are too different, mother.”
She told him to continue.
“It was evening before I climbed the bank. The sun had very nearly slipped out of the
sky by this time, and I could not get a good view. You, who have just crossed the Roof of
the World, will not want to hear an account of the little hillsthat I saw — low colourless
hills. But to me they were living and the turf that covered them was a skin, under which
their muscles rippled, and I felt that those hills had calledwith incalculable force to men
in the past, and that men had loved them. Now they sleep — perhaps for ever. They
commune with humanity in dreams. Happy the man, happy the woman, who awakes the
hills of Wessex. For though they sleep, they will never die.”
His voice rose passionately.
“Cannot you see, cannot all you lecturers see, that it is we that are dying, and that down
here the only thing that really lives is the Machine? We created the Machine, to do our
will, but we cannot make it do our will now. It has robbed us of the sense of space and of
the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal
act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it. The
Machine develops — but not on our lines. The Machine proceeds— but not to our goal.
We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through itsarteries, and if it could work
without us, it would let us die. Oh, I have no remedy — or, at least, only one — to tell men
again and again that I have seen the hills of Wessex as Ælfrid saw them when he overthrew
“So the sun set. I forgot to mention that a belt of mist lay between my hill and other
hills, and that it was the colour of pearl.”
He broke off for the second time.
“Go on,” said his mother wearily.
He shook his head.
“Go on. Nothing that you say can distress me now. I am hardened.”
“I had meant to tell you the rest, but I cannot: I know that I cannot: good-bye.”
Vashti stood irresolute. All her nerves were tingling with his blasphemies. But she was
“This is unfair,” she complained. “You have called me acrossthe world to hear your
story, and hear it I will. Tell me — as briefly as possible, for this is a disastrous waste of
time — tell me how you returned to civilization.”
“Oh — that!” he said, starting. “You would like to hear about civilization. Certainly.
Had I got to where my respirator fell down?”
“No — but I understand everything now. You put on your respirator, and managed to
walk along the surface of the earth to a vomitory, and there your conduct was reported to
the Central Committee.”
“By no means.”
He passed his hand over his forehead, as if dispelling some strong impression. Then,
resuming his narrative, he warmed to it again.
“My respirator fell about sunset. I had mentioned that the fountain seemed feebler, had
“About sunset, it let the respirator fall. As I said, I had entirely forgotten about the
Machine, and I paid no great attention at the time, being occupied with other things. I had
my pool of air, into which I could dip when the outer keenness became intolerable, and
which would possibly remain for days, provided that no wind sprang up to disperse it. Not
until it was too late did I realize what the stoppage of the escape implied. You see — the
gap in the tunnel had been mended; the Mending Apparatus; theMending Apparatus, was
“One other warning I had, but I neglected it. The sky at night was clearer than it had
been in the day, and the moon, which was about half the sky behind the sun, shone into
the dell at moments quite brightly. I was in my usual place — onthe boundary between
the two atmospheres — when I thought I saw something dark moveacross the bottom of
the dell, and vanish into the shaft. In my folly, I ran down. I bent over and listened, and I
thought I heard a faint scraping noise in the depths.
“At this — but it was too late — I took alarm. I determined to puton my respirator and
to walk right out of the dell. But my respirator had gone. I knew exactly where it had fallen
— between the stopper and the aperture — and I could even feel the mark that it had made
in the turf. It had gone, and I realized that something evil was at work, and I had better
escape to the other air, and, if I must die, die running towards the cloud that had been the
colour of a pearl. I never started. Out of the shaft — it is too horrible. A worm, a long
white worm, had crawled out of the shaft and was gliding over the moonlit grass.
“I screamed. I did everything that I should not have done, I stamped upon the creature
instead of flying from it, and it at once curled round the ankle. Then we fought. The worm
let me run all over the dell, but edged up my leg as I ran. ‘Help!’ I cried. (That part is too
awful. It belongs to the part that you will never know.) ‘Help!’ I cried. (Why cannot we
suffer in silence?) ‘Help!’ I cried. Then my feet were wound together, I fell, I was dragged
away from the dear ferns and the living hills, and past the great metal stopper (I can tell
you this part), and I thought it might save me again if I caughthold of the handle. It also
was enwrapped, it also. Oh, the whole dell was full of the things. They were searching it in
all directions, they were denuding it, and the white snouts of others peeped out of the hole,
ready if needed. Everything that could be moved they brought— brushwood, bundles of
fern, everything, and down we all went intertwined into hell. The last things that I saw, ere
the stopper closed after us, were certain stars, and I felt that a man of my sort lived in the
sky. For I did fight, I fought till the very end, and it was only my head hitting against the
ladder that quieted me. I woke up in this room. The worms had vanished. I was surrounded
by artificial air, artificial light, artificial peace, and my friends were calling to me down
speaking-tubes to know whether I had come across any new ideas lately.”
Here his story ended. Discussion of it was impossible, and Vashti turned to go.
“It will end in Homelessness,” she said quietly.
“I wish it would,” retorted Kuno.
“The Machine has been most merciful.”
“I prefer the mercy of God.”
“By that superstitious phrase, do you mean that you could live in the outer air?”
“Have you ever seen, round the vomitories, the bones of thosewho were extruded after
the Great Rebellion?”
“They were left where they perished for our edification. A fewcrawled away, but they
perished, too — who can doubt it? And so with the Homeless of our own day. The surface
of the earth supports life no longer.”
“Ferns and a little grass may survive, but all higher forms have perished. Has any
air-ship detected them?”
“Has any lecturer dealt with them?”
“Then why this obstinacy?”
“Because I have seen them,” he exploded.
“Because I have seen her in the twilight — because she came to my help when I called
— because she, too, was entangled by the worms, and, luckier than I, was killed by one of
them piercing her throat.”
He was mad. Vashti departed, nor, in the troubles that followed, did she ever see his
3 The Homeless
During the years that followed Kuno’s escapade, two important developments took place
in the Machine. On the surface they were revolutionary, but in either case men’s minds had
been prepared beforehand, and they did but express tendencies that were latent already.
The first of these was the abolition of respirators.
Advanced thinkers, like Vashti, had always held it foolish to visit the surface of the
earth. Air-ships might be necessary, but what was the good ofgoing out for mere curiosity
and crawling along for a mile or two in a terrestrial motor? The habit was vulgar and per-
haps faintly improper: it was unproductive of ideas, and hadno connection with the habits
that really mattered. So respirators were abolished, and with them, of course, the terrestrial
motors, and except for a few lecturers, who complained that they were debarred access
to their subject-matter, the development was accepted quietly. Those who still wanted to
know what the earth was like had after all only to listen to some gramophone, or to look
into some cinematophote. And even the lecturers acquiescedwhen they found that a lec-
ture on the sea was none the less stimulating when compiled out of other lectures that had
already been delivered on the same subject. “Beware of first-hand ideas!” exclaimed one
of the most advanced of them. “First-hand ideas do not reallyexist. They are but the
physical impressions produced by love and fear, and on this gross foundation who could
erect a philosophy? Let your ideas be second-hand, and if possible tenth-hand, for then
they will be far removed from that disturbing element — direct observation. Do not learn
anything about this subject of mine — the French Revolution.Learn instead what I think
that Enicharmon thought Urizen thought Gutch thought Ho-Yung thought Chi-Bo-Sing
thought Lafcadio Hearn thought Carlyle thought Mirabeau said about the French Revolu-
tion. Through the medium of these ten great minds, the blood that was shed at Paris and the
windows that were broken at Versailles will be clarified to anidea which you may employ
most profitably in your daily lives. But be sure that the intermediates are many and varied,
for in history one authority exists to counteract another. Urizen must counteract the scepti-
cism of Ho-Yung and Enicharmon, I must myself counteract theimpetuosity of Gutch. You
who listen to me are in a better position to judge about the French Revolution than I am.
Your descendants will be even in a better position than you, for they will learn what you
think I think, and yet another intermediate will be added to the chain. And in time” — his
voice rose — “there will come a generation that had got beyondfacts, beyond impressions,
a generation absolutely colourless, a generation
From taint of personality,’
which will see the French Revolution not as it happened, nor as they would like it to have
happened, but as it would have happened, had it taken place inthe days of the Machine.”
Tremendous applause greeted this lecture, which did but voice a feeling already latent in
the minds of men — a feeling that terrestrial facts must be ignored, and that the abolition of
respirators was a positive gain. It was even suggested that air-ships should be abolished too.
This was not done, because air-ships had somehow worked themselves into the Machine’s
system. But year by year they were used less, and mentioned less by thoughtful men.
The second great development was the re-establishment of religion.
This, too, had been voiced in the celebrated lecture. No one could mistake the reverent
tone in which the peroration had concluded, and it awakened aresponsive echo in the heart
of each. Those who had long worshipped silently, now began totalk. They described the
strange feeling of peace that came over them when they handled the Book of the Machine,
the pleasure that it was to repeat certain numerals out of it,however little meaning those nu-
merals conveyed to the outward ear, the ecstasy of touching abutton, however unimportant,
or of ringing an electric bell, however superfluously.
“The Machine,” they exclaimed, “feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we
speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being. The Machine
is the friend of ideas and the enemy of superstition: the Machine is omnipotent, eternal;
blessed is the Machine.” And before long this allocution wasprinted on the first page of the
Book, and in subsequent editions the ritual swelled into a complicated system of praise and
prayer. The word “religion” was sedulously avoided, and in theory the Machine was still the
creation and the implement of man. But in practice all, save afew retrogrades, worshipped
it as divine. Nor was it worshipped in unity. One believer would be chiefly impressed by the
blue optic plates, through which he saw other believers; another by the mending apparatus,
which sinful Kuno had compared to worms; another by the lifts, another by the Book. And
each would pray to this or to that, and ask it to intercede for him with the Machine as a
whole. Persecution — that also was present. It did not break out, for reasons that will be
set forward shortly. But it was latent, and all who did not accept the minimum known as
“undenominational Mechanism” lived in danger of Homelessness, which means death, as
To attribute these two great developments to the Central Committee, is to take a very
narrow view of civilization. The Central Committee announced the developments, it is
true, but they were no more the cause of them than were the kings of the imperialistic
period the cause of war. Rather did they yield to some invincible pressure, which came
no one knew whither, and which, when gratified, was succeededby some new pressure
equally invincible. To such a state of affairs it is convenient to give the name of progress.
No one confessed the Machine was out of hand. Year by year it was served with increased
efficiency and decreased intelligence. The better a man knewhis own duties upon it, the
less he understood the duties of his neighbour, and in all theworld there was not one
who understood the monster as a whole. Those master brains had perished. They had left
full directions, it is true, and their successors had each ofthem mastered a portion of those
directions. But Humanity, in its desire for comfort, had over-reached itself. It had exploited
the riches of nature too far. Quietly and complacently, it was sinking into decadence, and
progress had come to mean the progress of the Machine.
As for Vashti, her life went peacefully forward until the final disaster. She made her
room dark and slept; she awoke and made the room light. She lectured and attended lec-
tures. She exchanged ideas with her innumerable friends andbelieved she was growing
more spiritual. At times a friend was granted Euthanasia, and left his or her room for the
homelessness that is beyond all human conception. Vashti did not much mind. After an
unsuccessful lecture, she would sometimes ask for Euthanasia herself. But the death-rate
was not permitted to exceed the birth-rate, and the Machine had hitherto refused it to her.
The troubles began quietly, long before she was conscious ofthem.
One day she was astonished at receiving a message from her son. They never com-
municated, having nothing in common, and she had only heard indirectly that he was still
alive, and had been transferred from the northern hemisphere, where he had behaved so
mischievously, to the southern — indeed, to a room not far from her own.
“Does he want me to visit him?” she thought. “Never again, never. And I have not the
No, it was madness of another kind.
He refused to visualize his face upon the blue plate, and speaking out of the darkness
with solemnity said:
“The Machine stops.”
“What do you say?”
“The Machine is stopping, I know it, I know the signs.”
She burst into a peal of laughter. He heard her and was angry, and they spoke no more.
“Can you imagine anything more absurd?” she cried to a friend. “A man who was my
son believes that the Machine is stopping. It would be impious if it was not mad.”
“The Machine is stopping?” her friend replied. “What does that mean? The phrase
conveys nothing to me.”
“Nor to me.”
“He does not refer, I suppose, to the trouble there has been lately with the music?”
“Oh no, of course not. Let us talk about music.”
“Have you complained to the authorities?”
“Yes, and they say it wants mending, and referred me to the Committee of the Mending
Apparatus. I complained of those curious gasping sighs thatdisfigure the symphonies of
the Brisbane school. They sound like some one in pain. The Committee of the Mending
Apparatus say that it shall be remedied shortly.”
Obscurely worried, she resumed her life. For one thing, the defect in the music irritated
her. For another thing, she could not forget Kuno’s speech. If he had known that the music
was out of repair — he could not know it, for he detested music —if he had known that it
was wrong, “the Machine stops” was exactly the venomous sortof remark he would have
made. Of course he had made it at a venture, but the coincidence annoyed her, and she
spoke with some petulance to the Committee of the Mending Apparatus.
They replied, as before, that the defect would be set right shortly.
“Shortly! At once!” she retorted. “Why should I be worried byimperfect music?
Things are always put right at once. If you do not mend it at once, I shall complain to the
“No personal complaints are received by the Central Committee,” the Committee of the
Mending Apparatus replied.
“Through whom am I to make my complaint, then?”
“I complain then.”
“Your complaint shall be forwarded in its turn.”
“Have others complained?”
This question was unmechanical, and the Committee of the Mending Apparatus refused
to answer it.
“It is too bad!” she exclaimed to another of her friends. “There never was such an
unfortunate woman as myself. I can never be sure of my music now. It gets worse and
worse each time I summon it.”
“I too have my troubles,” the friend replied. “Sometimes my ideas are interrupted by a
slight jarring noise.”
“What is it?”
“I do not know whether it is inside my head, or inside the wall.”
“Complain, in either case.”
“I have complained, and my complaint will be forwarded in itsturn to the Central
Time passed, and they resented the defects no longer. The defects had not been reme-
died, but the human tissues in that latter day had become so subservient, that they readily
adapted themselves to every caprice of the Machine. The sighat the crises of the Brisbane
symphony no longer irritated Vashti; she accepted it as partof the melody. The jarring
noise, whether in the head or in the wall, was no longer resented by her friend. And so with
the mouldy artificial fruit, so with the bath water that beganto stink, so with the defective
rhymes that the poetry machine had taken to emit. All were bitterly complained of at first,
and then acquiesced in and forgotten. Things went from bad toworse unchallenged.
It was otherwise with the failure of the sleeping apparatus.That was a more serious
stoppage. There came a day when over the whole world — in Sumatra, in Wessex, in the
innumerable cities of Courland and Brazil — the beds, when summoned by their tired own-
ers, failed to appear. It may seem a ludicrous matter, but from it we may date the collapse
of humanity. The Committee responsible for the failure was assailed by complainants,
whom it referred, as usual, to the Committee of the Mending Apparatus, who in its turn
assured them that their complaints would be forwarded to theCentral Committee. But the
discontent grew, for mankind was not yet sufficiently adaptable to do without sleeping.
“Some one is meddling with the Machine—” they began.
“Some one is trying to make himself king, to reintroduce the personal element.”
“Punish that man with Homelessness.”
“To the rescue! Avenge the Machine! Avenge the Machine!”
“War! Kill the man!”
But the Committee of the Mending Apparatus now came forward,and allayed the panic
with well-chosen words. It confessed that the Mending Apparatus was itself in need of
The effect of this frank confession was admirable.
“Of course,” said a famous lecturer — he of the French Revolution, who gilded each
new decay with splendour — “of course we shall not press our complaints now. The Mend-
ing Apparatus has treated us so well in the past that we all sympathize with it, and will wait
patiently for its recovery. In its own good time it will resume its duties. Meanwhile let us
do without our beds, our tabloids, our other little wants. Such, I feel sure, would be the
wish of the Machine.”
Thousands of miles away his audience applauded. The Machinestill linked them. Un-
der the seas, beneath the roots of the mountains, ran the wires through which they saw and
heard, the enormous eyes and ears that were their heritage, and the hum of many workings
clothed their thoughts in one garment of subserviency. Onlythe old and the sick remained
ungrateful, for it was rumoured that Euthanasia, too, was out of order, and that pain had
reappeared among men.
It became difficult to read. A blight entered the atmosphere and dulled its luminosity.
At times Vashti could scarcely see across her room. The air, too, was foul. Loud were the
complaints, impotent the remedies, heroic the tone of the lecturer as he cried: “Courage!
courage! What matter so long as the Machine goes on? To it the darkness and the light
are one.” And though things improved again after a time, the old brilliancy was never
recaptured, and humanity never recovered from its entranceinto twilight. There was an
hysterical talk of “measures,” of “provisional dictatorship,” and the inhabitants of Sumatra
were asked to familiarize themselves with the workings of the central power station, the said
power station being situated in France. But for the most partpanic reigned, and men spent
their strength praying to their Books, tangible proofs of the Machine’s omnipotence. There
were gradations of terror — at times came rumours of hope — theMending Apparatus was
almost mended — the enemies of the Machine had been got under —new “nerve-centres”
were evolving which would do the work even more magnificentlythan before. But there
came a day when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness,
the entire communication-system broke down, all over the world, and the world, as they
understood it, ended.
Vashti was lecturing at the time and her earlier remarks had been punctuated with ap-
plause. As she proceeded the audience became silent, and at the conclusion there was no
sound. Somewhat displeased, she called to a friend who was a specialist in sympathy. No
sound: doubtless the friend was sleeping. And so with the next friend whom she tried to
summon, and so with the next, until she remembered Kuno’s cryptic remark, “The Machine
The phrase still conveyed nothing. If Eternity was stoppingit would of course be set
For example, there was still a little light and air — the atmosphere had improved a
few hours previously. There was still the Book, and while there was the Book there was
Then she broke down, for with the cessation of activity came an unexpected terror —
She had never known silence, and the coming of it nearly killed her — it did kill many
thousands of people outright. Ever since her birth she had been surrounded by the steady
hum. It was to the ear what artificial air was to the lungs, and agonizing pains shot across
her head. And scarcely knowing what she did, she stumbled forward and pressed the unfa-
miliar button, the one that opened the door of her cell.
Now the door of the cell worked on a simple hinge of its own. It was not connected
with the central power station, dying far away in France. It opened, rousing immoderate
hopes in Vashti, for she thought that the Machine had been mended. It opened, and she saw
the dim tunnel that curved far away towards freedom. One look, and then she shrank back.
For the tunnel was full of people — she was almost the last in that city to have taken alarm.
People at any time repelled her, and these were nightmares from her worst dreams. Peo-
ple were crawling about, people were screaming, whimpering, gasping for breath, touching
each other, vanishing in the dark, and ever and anon being pushed off the platform on to the
live rail. Some were fighting round the electric bells, trying to summon trains which could
not be summoned. Others were yelling for Euthanasia or for respirators, or blaspheming
the Machine. Others stood at the doors of their cells fearing, like herself, either to stop in
them or to leave them. And behind all the uproar was silence — the silence which is the
voice of the earth and of the generations who have gone.
No — it was worse than solitude. She closed the door again and sat down to wait for
the end. The disintegration went on, accompanied by horrible cracks and rumbling. The
valves that restrained the Medical Apparatus must have weakened, for it ruptured and hung
hideously from the ceiling. The floor heaved and fell and flungher from the chair. A tube
oozed towards her serpent fashion. And at last the final horror approached — light began
to ebb, and she knew that civilization’s long day was closing.
She whirled around, praying to be saved from this, at any rate, kissing the Book, press-
ing button after button. The uproar outside was increasing,and even penetrated the wall.
Slowly the brilliancy of her cell was dimmed, the reflectionsfaded from the metal switches.
Now she could not see the reading-stand, now not the Book, though she held it in her hand.
Light followed the flight of sound, air was following light, and the original void returned
to the cavern from which it has so long been excluded. Vashti continued to whirl, like the
devotees of an earlier religion, screaming, praying, striking at the buttons with bleeding
It was thus that she opened her prison and escaped — escaped inthe spirit: at least so it
seems to me, ere my meditation closes. That she escapes in thebody — I cannot perceive
that. She struck, by chance, the switch that released the door, and the rush of foul air on her
skin, the loud throbbing whispers in her ears, told her that she was facing the tunnel again,
and that tremendous platform on which she had seen men fighting. They were not fighting
now. Only the whispers remained, and the little whimpering groans. They were dying by
hundreds out in the dark.
She burst into tears.
Tears answered her.
They wept for humanity, those two, not for themselves. They could not bear that this
should be the end. Ere silence was completed their hearts were opened, and they knew
what had been important on the earth. Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all
creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, andhad mirrored his strength
on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had
woven. Century after century had he toiled, and here was his reward. Truly the garment
had seemed heavenly at first, shot with colours of culture, sewn with the threads of self-
denial. And heavenly it had been so long as it was a garment andno more, man could shed
it at will and live by the essence that is his soul, and the essence, equally divine, that is his
body. The sin against the body — it was for that they wept in chief; the centuries of wrong
against the muscles and the nerves, and those five portals by which we can alone apprehend
— glozing it over with talk of evolution, until the body was white pap, the home of ideas
as colourless, last sloshy stirrings of a spirit that had grasped the stars.
“Where are you?” she sobbed.
His voice in the darkness said, “Here.”
“Is there any hope, Kuno?”
“None for us.”
“Where are you?”
She crawled over the bodies of the dead. His blood spurted over her hands.
“Quicker,” he gasped, “I am dying — but we touch, we talk, not through the Machine.”
He kissed her.
“We have come back to our own. We die, but we have recaptured life, as it was in
Wessex, when Ælfrid overthrew the Danes. We know what they know outside, they who
dwelt in the cloud that is the colour of a pearl.”
“But Kuno, is it true? Are there still men on the surface of theearth? Is this — this
tunnel, this poisoned darkness — really not the end?”
“I have seen them, spoken to them, loved them. They are hidingin the mist and the
ferns until our civilization stops. To-day they are the Homeless — to-morrow—”
“Oh, to-morrow — some fool will start the Machine again, to-morrow.”
“Never,” said Kuno, “never. Humanity has learnt its lesson.”
As he spoke, the whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An air-ship had sailed in
through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went,
rending gallery after gallery with its wings of steel. For a moment they saw the nations of
the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.
Transcribed fromThe Eternal Moment and other Stories by E. M. Forster, Sidgwick & Jackson,
Ltd. (London, 1928) andThe Collected Tales of E. M. Forster, The Modern Library (New York,
Comput�r power to the people is essential to the realization of a
future in which most citizens are informed about, and inter
ested and involved in, the processes of government.
J. C. R. Licklider
IN NINETEENTH-CENTURY Europe a recurring ceremonial
gesture signaled the progress of popular uprisings. At the point
at which it seemed that forces of disruption in the streets were
sufficiently powerful to overthrow monarchical authority, a
prominent rebel leader would go to the parliament or city hall
to “proclaim the republic.” This was an indication to friend
and foe alike that a revolution was prepared to take its work
seriously, to seize power and begin governing in a way that guar
anteed political representation to all the people. Subsequent
events, of course, did not always match these grand hopes; on
occasion the revolutionaries were thwarted in their ambitions
and reactionary governments regained control. Nevertheless,
what a glorious moment when the republic was declared! Here,
if only briefly,. was the promise of a new order-an age of equal
ity, justice, and emancipation of humankind.
A somewhat similar gesture has become a standard feature in
contemporary writings on computers and society. In countless
books, magazine articles, and media specials some intrepid soul
steps forth to proclaim “the revolution.” Often it is called sim
ply “the computer revolution”; my brief inspection of a library
catalogue revealed three books with exactly that title published
since 1962. 1 Other popular variants include the “information
revolution,” “microelectronics revolution,” and “network revo�
lution.” But whatever its label, the message is usually the same.
The use of computers and advanced communications technolo
gies is producing a sweeping set of transformations in every cor
ner of social life. An informal consensus among computer scien
tists, social scientists, and journalists affirms the term “revolution”
as the concept best suited to describe these events. “We are all
very privileged,” a noted computer scientist declares, “to be
in this great Information Revolution in which the computer is
going to affect us very profoundly, probably more so than the
Industrial Revolution.” 2 A well-known sociologist writes, “This
revolution in the organization and processing of information
and knowledge, in which the computer plays a central role, has
as its context the development of what I have called the post
industrial society. ” 3 At frequent intervals during the past dozen
years, garish cover stories in Time and Newsweek have repeated
this story, climaxed by Time’s selection of the computer as its
“Man of the Year” for 1982.
Of course, the same society now said to be undergoing a
computer revolution has long since gotten used to “revolutions”
in laundry detergents, underarm deodorants, floor waxes, and
other consumer products. Exhausted in Madison Avenue adver
tising slogans, the image has lost much of its punch. Those who
employ it to talk about computers and society, however, appear
to be making much more serious claims. They offer a powerful
metaphor, one that invites us to compare the kind of disruptions
seen in political revolutions to the changes we see happening
around computer information systems. Let us take that invita
tion seriously and see where it leads.
A Metaphor Explored
SUPPOSE THAT we were looking at a revolution in a Third
World country, the revolution of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua,
for example. We would want to begin by studying the funda
mental goals of the revolution. Is this a movement truly com
mitted to social justice? Does it seek to uphold a valid ideal of
human freedom? Does it aspire to a system of democratic rule?
A nswers to those questions would help us decide whether or
not this is a revolution worthy of our endorsement. By the same
token, we would want to ask about the means the revolution
aries had chosen to pursue their goals. Having succeeded in
armed struggle, how will they manage violence and military
Technology: Reform and Revolution
force once they gain control? A reasonable person would also
want to learn something of the structure of institutional au
thority that the revolution will try to create. Will there be fre
quent, open elections? What systems of decision making, ad
ministration, and law enforcement will be put to work? Coming
to terms with its proposed ends and means, a sympathetic ob
server could then watch the revolution unfold, noticing whether
or not it remained true to its professed purposes and how well it
succeeded in its reforms.
Most dedicated revolutionaries of the modern age have been
willing to supply coherent public answers to questions of this
sort. It is not unreasonable to expect, therefore, that something
like these i:,sues must have engaged those who so eagerly use the
metaphor “”revolution” to describe and celebrate the advent of
computerization. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Books, ar
ticles, and media specials aimed at a popular audience are usually
content to depict the dazzling magnitude of technical innova
tions and social effects. Written as if by some universally ac
cepted format, such accounts describe scores of new computer
products and processes, announce the enormous dollar value of
the growing computer and communications industry, survey
the expanding uses of computers in offices, factories, schools,
and homes, and offer good news from research and, develop
ment laboratories about the great promise of the next generation
of computing devices. Along with this one reads of the many
“impacts” that computerization is going to have on every sphere
of life. Professionals in widely separate fields-doctors, lawyers,
corporate managers, and scientists-comment on the changes
computers have brought to their work. Home consumers give
testimonials explaining how personal computers are helping
educate their children, prepare their income tax forms, and file
their recipes. On occasion, this generally happy story will in
clude reports on people left unemployed in occupations under
minded by automation. Almost always, following this formula,
there will be an obligatory sentence or two of criticism of the
computer culture solicited from a technically qualified spokes
man, an attempt to add balance to an otherwise totally sanguine
Unfortunately, the prevalence of such superficial, unreflective
descriptions and forecasts about computerization cannot be at
tributed solely to hasty journalism. Some of the most pr�s
tigious journals of the scientific community echo the claim that
a revolutio’d· is in the works. 4 A well-known computer scientist
has announced unabashedly that “revolution, transformation
and salvation are all to be carried out. ” 5 It is true that more se
rious approaches to the study of computers and society can be
found in scholarly publications. A number of social scientists,
computer scientists, and philosophers have begun to explore
important issues about how computerization works and what
developments, positive and negative, it is likely to bring to so
ciety. 6 But such careful, critical studies are by no means the ones
most influential in shaping public attitudes about the world of
microelectronics. An editor at a New York publishing house
stated the norm, “People want to know what’s new with com
puter technology. They don’t want to know what could go
It seems all but impossible for computer enthusiasts to exam
ine critically the ends that might guide the world-shaking devel
opments they anticipate. They employ the metaphor of revolu
tion for one purpose only-to suggest a drastic upheaval, one
that people ought to welcome as good news. It never occurs to
them to investigate the idea or its meaning any further.
One might suppose, for example, that a revolution of this
type would involve a significant shift in the locus of power; after
all, that is exactly what one expects in revolutions of a political
kind. Is something similar going to happen in this instance?
One might also ask whether or not this revolution will be
strongly committed, as revolutions often are, to a particular set
of social ideals. If so, what are the ideals that matter? Where can
we see them argued?
To mention revolution also brings to mind the relationships
of different social classes. Will the computer revolution bring
about the victory of one class over another? Will it be the occa
sion for a realignment of class loyalties?
In the busy world of computer science, computer engineer
ing, and computer marketing such questions seldom come up.
Those actively engaged in promoting the transformation
hardware and software engineers, managers of microelectronics
firms, computer salesmen, and the like-are busy pursuing
their own ends: profits, market share, handsome salaries, the in
trinsic joy of invention, the intellectual rewards of program
ming, and the pleasures of owning and using powerful ma
chines. But the sheer dynamism of technical and economic
activity in the computer industry evidently leaves its members
Technology: Reform and Revolution
little time to ponder the historical significance of their own ac
tivity. They must struggle to keep current, to be on the crest of
the next wave as it breaks. As one member of Data General’s
Eagle computer project describes it, the prevailing spirit re
sembles a game of pinball. “You win one game, you get to play
another. You win with this machine, you get to build the next.” 8
The process has its own inertia.
Hence, one looks in vain to the movers and shakers in com
puter fields for the qualities of social and political insight that
characterized revolutionaries of the past. Too busy. Cromwell,
Jefferson, Robespierre, Lenin, and Mao were able to reflect upon
the world historical events in which they played a role. Public
pronouncements by the likes of Robert Noyce, Marvin Minsky,
Edward Fc!igenbaum, and Steven Jobs show no similar wisdom
about the transformations they so actively help to create. By and
large the computer revolution is conspicuously silent about its
Good Console, Good Network, Good Computer
MY CONCERN for the political meaning of revolution in this
setting may seem somewhat misleading, even perverse. A much
better point of reference might be the technical “revolutions”
and associated social upheavals of the past, the industrial revolu
tion in particular. If the enthusiasts of computerization had
readily taken up this comparison, studying earlier historical pe
riods for similarities and differences in patterns of technological
innovation, capital formation, employment, social change, and
the like, then it would be clear that I had chosen the wrong ap
plication of this metaphor. But, in fact, no well-developed com
parisons of that kind are to be found in the writings on the com
puter revolution. A consistently ahistorical viewpoint prevails.
What one often finds emphasized, however, is a vision of dras
tically altered social and political conditions, a future upheld as
both desirable and, in all likelihood, inevitable. Politics, in other
words, is not a secondary concern for many computer enthusi
asts; it is a crucial, albeit thoughtless, part of their message.
We are, according to a fairly standard account, moving into
an age characterized by the overwhelming dominance of elec
tronic information systems in all areas of human practice. Indus
trial society, which depended upon material production for its
livelihood, is rapidly being supplanted by a society of informa-
tion services that will enable people to satisfy their economic
and social needs. What water- and steam-powered machines
were to the industrial age, the computer will be to the era now
dawning. Ever-expanding technical capacities in computation
and communications will make possible a universal, instanta
neous access to enormous quantities of valuable information.
As these technologies become less and less expensive and more
and more convenient, all the people of the world, not just the
wealthy, will be able to use the wonderful services that informa
tion machines make available. Gradually, existing differences be
tween rich and poor, advantaged and disadvantaged, will begin
to evaporate. Widespread access to computers will produce a so
ciety more democratic, egalitarian, and richly diverse than any
previously known. Because “knowledge is power,” because
electronic information will spread knowledge into every corner
of world society, political influence will be much more widely
shared. With the personal computer serving as the great equal
izer, rule by centralized authority and social class dominance
will gradually fade away. The marvelous promise of a “global
village” will be fulfilled in a worldwide burst of human creativity.
A sampling from recent writings on the information society
illustrates these grand expectations.
The world is entering a new period. The wealth of nations,
which depended upon land, labor, and capital during its agri
cultural and industrial phases-depended upon natural re
sources, the accumulation of money, and even upon weaponry
will come in the future to depend upon information, knowledge
and intelligence. 9
* * *
The electronic revolution will not do away with work, but it
does hold out some promises: Most boring jobs can be done by
machines; lengthy commuting can be avoided; we can have
enough leisure to follow interesting pursuits outside our work;
environmental destruction can be avoided; the opportunities for
personal creativity will be unlimited. 10
Long lists of specific services spell out the utopian promise of
this new age: interactive television, electronic funds transfer,
computer-aided instruction, customized news service, elec
tronic magazines, electronic mail, computer teleconferencing,
on-line stock market and weather reports, computerized Yellow
Pages, shopping via home computer, and so forth. All of it is
supposed to add up to a cultural renaissance.
Technology: Reform and Revolution
Whatever the limits to growth in other fields, there are no lim
its near in telecommunications and electronic technology. There
are no limits near in the consumption ofinformation, the growth
of culture, or the development of the human mind. 11
* * *
Computer-based communications can be used to make human
lives richer and freer, by enabling persons to have access to vast
stores of information, other “human resources,” and opportu
nities for work and socializing on a more flexible, cheaper and
convenient basis than ever before. 12
* * *
When such systems become widespread, potentially intense
communications networks among geographically dispersed
persons will become actualized. We will become Network
N:ition, exchanging vast amounts of information and social
and emotional communications with colleagues, friends and
“strangers” who share similar interests, who are spread all over
the nation. 13
* * *
A rich diversity of subcultures will be fostered by computer-
based communications systems. Social, political, technical
changes will produce conditions likely to lead to the formation
of groups with their own distinctive sets of values, activities,
language and dress. 14
According to this view, the computer revolution will, by its
sheer momentum, eliminate many of the ills that have vexed po
litical society since the beginning of time. Inequalities of wealth
and privilege will gradually fade away. One writer predicts that
computer networks will “offer major opportunities to disadvan
taged groups to acquire the skills and social ties they need to
become full members of society.” 15 Another looks forward to
“a revolutionary network where each node is equal in power
to all others.” 16 Information will become the dominant form of
wealth. Because it can flow so quickly, so freely through com
puter networks, it will not, in this interpretation, cause the
kinds of stratification associated with traditional forms of prop
erty. Obnoxious forms of social organization will also be re
placed. “The COJllputer will smash the pyramid,” one best
selling book proclaims. “We created the hierarchical, pyramidal,
managerial system because we needed it to keep track of people
and things people did; with the computer to keep track, we can
restructure our institutions horizontally.” 17 Thus, the pr9lifera
tion of electronic information will generate a leveling effect to
surpa� the dreams of history’s great social reformers.
The same viewpoint holds that the prospects for participatory
democracy have never been brighter. According to one group of
social scientists, “The form of democracy found in the ancient
Greek city-state, the Israeli kibbutz, and the New England town
meeting, which gave every citizen the opportunity to directly
participate in the political process, has become impractical in
America’s mass society. But this need not be the case. The tech
nological means exist through which millions of people can
enter into dialogue with one another and with their repre
sentatives, and can form the authentic consensus essential for
Computer scientist]. C. R. Licklider of the Massachusetts In
stitute of Technology is one advocate especially hopeful about a
revitalization of the democratic process. He looks forward to
“an information environment that would give politics greater
depth and dimension than it now has.” Home computer con
soles and television sets would be linked together in a massive
network. “The political process would essentially be a giant
teleconference, and a campaign would be a months-long series
of communications among candidates, propagandists, com
mentators, political action groups and voters.” An arrangement
of this kind would, in his view, encourage a more open, com
prehensive examination of both issues and candidates. “The in
formation revolution,” he exclaims, “is bringing with it a key
that may open the door to a new era of involvement and partici
pation. The key is the self-motivating exhilaration that accom
panies truly effective interaction with information through a
good console through a good network to a good computer.” 19 It
is, in short, a democracy of machines.
Taken as a whole, beliefs of this kind constitute what I would
call mythinformation: the almost religious conviction that a
widespread adoption of computers and communications sys
tems along with easy access to electronic information will auto
matically produce a better world for human living. It is a pecu
liar form of enthusiasm that characterizes social fashions of the
latter decades of the twentieth century. Many people who have
grown cynical or discouraged about other aspects of social life
are completely enthralled by the supposed redemptive qualities
of computers and telecommunications. Writing of the “fifth
generation” supercomputers, Japanese author Yoneji Masuda
rhapsodically predicts “freedom for each of us to set individual
Technology: Reform and Revolution
goals of self-realization and then perhaps a worldwide religious
renaissance, characterized not by a belief in a supernatural god,
but rather by awe and humility in the presence of the collective
human spirit and its wisdom, humanity living in a symbolic
tranquility with the planet we have found ourselves upon, regu
lated by a new set of global ethics.” 20
It is not uncommon for the advent of a new technology to
provide an occasion for flights of utopian fancy. During the last
two centuries the factory system, railroads, telephone, electric
ity, automobile, airplane, radio, television, and nuclear power
have all figured prominently in the belief that a new and glorious
age was about to begin. But even within the great tradition of
optimistic technophilia, current dreams of a “computer age”
stand out as exaggerated and unrealistic. Because they have such
a broad appeal, because they overshadow other ways of looking
at the matter, these notions deserve closer inspection.
The Great Equalizer
As IS GENERALLY TRUE of a myth, the story contains ele
ments of truth. What were once industrial societies are being
trans.formed into service economies, a trend that emerges as
more material production shifts to developing countries where
labor costs are low and business tax breaks lucrative. At the same
time that industrialization takes hold in less-developed nations
of the world, deindustrialization is gradually altering the econo
mies of North America and Europe. Some of the service indus
tries central to this pattern are ones that depend upon highly so
phisticated computer and communications systems. But this
does not mean that future employment possibilities will flow
largely from the microelectronics industry and information ser
vices. A number of studies, including those of the U.S. Bureau
of Labor Statistics, suggest that the vast majority of new jobs
will come in menial service occupations paying relatively low
wages. 21 As robots and computer software absorb an increasing
share of factory and office tasks, the “information society” will
offer plenty of opportunities for janitors, hospital orderlies, and
The computer romantics are also correct in noting that com
puterization alters relationships of social power and control,
although they misrepresent the direction this developmenJ is
likely to take. Those who stand to benefit most obviously are
large transt’lational business corporations. While their “global
reach” does not arise solely from the application of information
technologies, such organizations are uniquely situated to exploit
the efficiency, productivity, command, and control the new
electronics make available. Other notable beneficiaries of the
systematic use of vast amounts of digitized information are pub
lic bureaucracies, intelligence agencies, and an ever-expanding
military, organizations that would operate less effectively at
their present scale were it not for the use of computer power.
Ordinary people are, of course, strongly affected by the work
ings of these organizations and by the rapid spread of new elec
tronic systems in banking, insurance, taxation, factory and
office work, home entertainment, and the like. They are also
counted upon to be eager buyers of hardware, software, and
communications services as computer products reach the con
But where in all of this motion do we see increased democra
tization?. Social equality? The dawn of a cultural renaissance?
Current developments in the information age suggest an in
crease in power by those who already had a great deal of power,
an enhanced centralization of control by those already prepared
for control, an augmentation of wealth by the already wealthy.
Far from demonstrating a revolution in patterns of social and
political influence, empirical studies of computers and social
change usually show powerful groups adapting computerized
methods to retain control. 22 That is not surprising. Those best
situated to take advantage of the power of a new technology are
often those previously well situated by dint of wealth, social
standing, and institutional position. Thus, if there is to be a
computer revolution, the best guess is that it will have a dis
tinctly conservative character.
Granted, such prominent trends could be altered. It is pos
sible that a society strongly rooted in computer and telecom
munications systems could be one in which participatory de
mocracy, decentralized political control, and social equality are
fully realized. Progress of that kind would have to occur as the
result of that society’s concerted efforts to overcome many diffi
cult obstacles to achieve those ends. Computer enthusiasts,
however, seldom propose deliberate action of that kind. Instead,
they strongly suggest that the good society will be realized as a
side effect, a spin-off from the vast proliferation of computing
devices. There is evidently no need to try to shape the institu-
Technology: Reform and Revolution
tions of the information age in ways that maximize human free
dom while placing limits upon concentrations of power.
For those willing to wait passively while the computer revo
lution takes its course, technological determinism ceases to be
mere theory and becomes an ideal: a desire to embrace conditions
brought on by technological change without judging them in
advance. There is -nothing new in this disposition. Computer
romanticism is merely the latest version of the nineteenth- and
twentieth-century faith we noted earlier, one that has always ex
pected to generate freedom, democracy, and justice through
sheer material abundance. Thus there is no need for serious in
quiry into the appropriate design of new institutions or the dis
tribution of rewards and burdens. As long as the economy is
growing and the machinery in good working order, the rest will
take care of itself. In previous versions of this homespun convic
tion, the abundant (and therefore democratic) society was mani
fest by a limitless supply of houses, appliances, and consumer
goods. 23 Now “access to information” and “access to comput
ers” have moved to the top of the list.
The political arguments of computer romantics draw upon a
number of key assumptions: (1) people are bereft of informa
tion; (2) information is knowledge; (3) knowledge is power; and
(4) increasing access to information enhances democracy and
equalizes social power. Taken as separate assertions and in com
bination, these beliefs provide a woefully distorted picture of the
role of electronic systems in social life.
Is it true that people face serious shortages of information? To
read the literature on the computer revolution one would sup
pose this to be a problem on a par with the energy crisis of the
1970s. The persuasiveness of this notion borrows from our
sense that literacy, education, knowledge, well-informed minds,
and the widespread availability of tools of inquiry are unques
tionable social goods, and that, in contrast, illiteracy, inadequate
education, ignorance, and forced restrictions upon knowledge
are among history’s worst evils. Thus, it appears superficially
plausible that a world rewired to connect human beings to vast
data banks and communications systems would be a progressive
step. Information shortage would be remedied in much the same
way that developing a new fuel supply might solve an energy
Alas, the idea is entirely faulty. It mistakes sheer supply of in
formation with an educated ability to gain knowledge and act
effectively b’ased on that knowledge. In many parts of the world
that ability is sadly lacking. Even some highly developed so
cieties still contain chronic inequalities in the distribution of
�ood education and basic intellectual skills. The U.S. Army, for
instance, must now reject or dismiss a fairly high percentage of
the young men and women it recruits because they simply can
not read military manuals. It is no doubt true of these recruits
that they have a great deal of information about the world-in
formation from their life experiences, schooling, the mass me
dia, and so forth. What makes them “functionally illiterate” is
that they have not learned to translate this information into a
mastery of practical skills.
If the solution to problems of illiteracy and poor education
were a question of information supply alone, then the best pol
icy might be to increase the number of well-stocked libraries,
making sure they were built in places where libraries do not
presently exist. Of course, that would do little good in itself un
less people are sufficiently well educated to use those libraries to
broaden their knowledge and understanding. Computer enthu
siasts however, are not noted for their calls to increase support of
public libraries and schools. It is electronic information carried by
networks they uphold as crucial. Here is a case in which an obses
sion with a particular kind of technology causes one to dis
regard what are obvious problems and clear remedies. While it
is true that systems of computation and communications, intel
ligently structured and wisely applied, might help a society
raise its standards of literacy, education, and general knowledge
ability, to look to those instruments first while ignoring how to
enlighten and invigorate a human mind is pure foolishness.
“As everybody knows, knowledge is power. ” 24 this is an at
tractive idea, but highly misleading. Of course, knowledge em
ployed in particular circumstances can help one act effectively
and in that sense enhance one’s power. A citrus farmer’s knowl
edge of frost conditions enables him/her to take steps to prevent
damage to the crop. A candidate’s knowledge of public opinion
can be a powerful aid in an election campaign. But surely there
is no automatic, positive link between knowledge and power,
especially if that means power in a social or political sense.
At times knowledge brings merely an enlightened impotence
or paralysis. One may know exactly what to do but lack the
wherewithal to act. Of the many conditions that affect the phe
nomenon of power, knowledge is but one and by no means the
Technology: Reform and Revolution
most important. Thus, in the history of ideas, arguments that
expert knowledge ought to play a special role in politics-the
philosopher-kings for Plato, the engineers for Veblen-have al
ways been offered as something contrary to prevailing wisdom.
To Plato and Veblen it was obvious that knowledge was not
power, a situation they hoped to remedy.
An equally serious misconception among computer enthusi
asts is the belief that democracy is first and foremost a matter of
distributing information. As one particularly flamboyant mani
festo exclaims: “There is an explosion of information dispersal
in the technology and we think this information has to be shared.
All great thinkers about democracy said that the key to democ
racy is access to information. And now we have a chance to get
information into people’s hands like never before.” 25 Once again
such assertions play on our belief that a democratic public ought
to be open-minded and well informed. One of the great evils of
totalitarian societies is that they dictate what people can know
and impose secrecy to restrict freedom. But democracy is not
founded solely (or even primarily) upon conditions that affect
the availability of information. What distinguishes it from other
political forms is a recognition that the people as a whole are
capable of self-government and that they have a rightful claim to
rule. As a consequence, political society ought to build institu
tions that allow or even encourage a great latitude of democratic
participation. How far a society must go in making political au
thority and public roles available to ordinary people is a matter
of dispute among political theorists. But no serious student of
the question would give much credence to the idea that creating
a universal gridwork to spread electronic information is, by it
self, a democratizing step.
What, then, of the idea that “interaction with information
through a good console, through a good network to a good
computer” will promote a renewed sense of political involve
ment and participation? Readers who believe that assertion
should contact me about some parcels of land my uncle has for
sale in Florida. Relatively low levels of citizen participation pre
vail in some modern democracies, the United States, for ex
ample. There are many reasons for this, many ways a society
might try to improve things. Perhaps opportunities to serve in
public office or influence public policy are too limited; in that
case, broaden the opportunities. Or perhaps choices placed be
fore citizens are so pallid that boredom is a valid response; in
that instance, improve the quality of those choices. But it is sim
ply not reasonable to assume that enthusiasm for political ac
tivity will be stimulated solely by the introduction of sophisti
cated information machines.
The role that television plays in modern politics should sug
gest why this is so. Public participation in voting has steadily
declined as television replaced the face-to-face politics of pre
cincts and neighborhoods. Passive monitoring of electronic
news and information allows citizens to feel involved while
dampening the desire to take an active part. If people begin to
rely upon computerized data bases and telecommunications as a
primary means of exercising power, it is conceivable that genu
ine political knowledge based in first-hand experience would
vanish altogether. The vitality of democratic politics depends
upon people’s willingness to act together in pursuit of their
common ends. It requires that on occasion members of a com
munity appear before each other in person, speak their minds,
deliberate on paths of action, and decide what they will do. 26
This is considerably different from the model now upheld as a
breakthrough for democracy: logging onto one’s computer, re
ceiving the latest information, and sending back an instantane
ous digitized response.
A chapter from recent political history illustrates the strength
of direct participation in contast to the politics of electronic in
formation. In 1981 and 1982 two groups of activists set about to
do what they could to stop the international nuclear arms race.
One of the groups, Ground Zero, chose to rely almost solely
upon mass communications to convey its message to the public.
Its leaders appeared on morning talk shows and evening news
programs on all three major television networks. They followed
up with a mass mail solicitation using addresses from a comput
erized data base. At the same time another group, the Nuclear
Weapons Freeze Campaign, began by taking its proposal for a
bilateral nuclear freeze to New England town meetings, places
where active citizen participation is a long-standing tradition.
Winning the endorsement of the idea from a great many town
meetings, the Nuclear Freeze group expanded its drive by
launching a series of state initiatives. Once again the key was a
direct approach to people, this time through thousands of meet
ings, dinners, and parties held in homes across the country.
The effects of the two movements were strikingly different.
After its initial publicity, Ground Zero was largely ignored. It
Technology: Reform and Revolution
had been an ephemeral exercise in media posturing. The Nu
clear Freeze campaign, however, continued to gain influence in
the form of increasing public support, successful ballot mea
sures, and an ability to apply pressure upon political officials.
Eventually, the latter group did begin to use computerized mail
ings, television appearances, and the like to advance its cause.
But it never forgot the original source of its leverage: people
working together for shared ends.
Of all the computer enthusiasts’ political ideas, there is none
more poignant than the faith that the computer is destined to
become a potent equalizer in modern society. Support for this
belief is found in the fact that small “personal” computers are
becoming more and more powerful, less and less expensive, and
ever more simple to use. Obnoxious tendencies associated with
the enormous, costly, technically inaccessible computers of the
recent past are soon to be overcome. As one writer explains,
“The great forces of centralization that characterized mainframe
and minicomputer design of that period have now been re
versed.” This means that “the puny device that sits innocuously
on the desktop will, in fact, within a few years, contain enough
computing power to become an effective equalizer. ” 27 Pre
sumably, ordinary citizens equipped with microcomputers will
be able to counter the influence of large, computer-based
Notions of this kind echo beliefs of eighteenth- and nine
teenth-century revolutionaries that placing fire arms in the
hands of the people was crucial to overthrowing entrenched au
thority. In the American Revolution, French Revolution, Paris
Commune, and Russian Revolution the role of “the people
armed” was central to the revolutionary program. As the mili
tary defeat of the Paris Commune made clear, however, the fact
that the popular forces have guns may not be decisive. In a con
test of force against force, the larger, more sophisticated, more
ruthless, better equipped competitor oft�n has the upper hand.
Hence, the availability of low-cost computing power may move
the baseline that defines electronic dimensions of social influ
ence, but it does not necessarily alter the relative balance of
power. Using a personal computer makes one no more powerful
vis-a-vis, say, the National Security Agency than flying a hang
glider establishes a person as a match for the U.S. Air Force.
In sum, the political expectations of computer enthusiasts are
seldom more than idle fantasy. Beliefs that widespread use
of computers will cause hierarchies to crumble, inequality to
tumble, participation to flourish, and centralized power to dis
solve simply do not withstand close scrutiny. The formula in
formation = knowledge = power = democracy lacks any real
substance. At each point the mistake comes in the conviction
that computerization will inevitably move society toward the
good life. And no one will have to raise a finger.
Information and Ideology
DESPITE ITS SHORTCOMINGS as political theory, mythinfor
mation is noteworthy as an expressive contemporary ideology.
I use the term “ideology” here in a sense common in social sci
ence: a set of beliefs that expresses the needs and aspirations of a
group, class, culture, or subculture. In this instance the needs
and aspirations that matter most are those that stem from opera
tional requirements of.highly complex systems in an advanced
technological society; the groups most directly involved are
those who build, maintain, operate, improve, and market these
systems. At a time in which almost all major components of our
technological society have come to depend upon the application
of large and small computers, it is not surprising that comput
erization has risen to ideological prominence, an expression of
grand hopes and ideals.
What is the “information” so crucial in this odd belief system,
the icon now so greatly cherished? We have seen enough to ap
preciate that the kind of information upheld is not knowledge in
the ordinary sense of the term; nor is it understanding, en
lightenment, critical thought, timeless wisdom, or the content
of a well-educated mind. If one looks carefully at the writings of
computer enthusiasts, one finds that information in a particular
form and context is offered as a paradigm to inspire emulation.
Enormous quantities of data, manipulated within various kinds
of electronic media and used to facilitate the transactions of to
day’s large, complex organizations is the model we are urged
to embrace. In this context the sheer quantity of information
presents a formidable challenge. Modern organizations are con
tinually faced with overload, a flood of data that threatens to be
come unintelligible to them. Computers provide one way to
confront that problem; speed conquers quantity. An equally se
rious challenge is created by the fact that the varieties of infor
mation most crucial to modern organizations are highly time
Technology: Reform and Revolution
specific. Data on stock market prices, airline traffic, weather
conditions, international economic indicators, military intelli
gence, public opinion poll results, and the like are useful for
very short periods of time. Systems that gather, organize, ana
lyze, and utilize electronic data in these areas must be closely
tuned to the very latest developments. If one is trading on fast
paced international markets, information about prices an hour
old or even a few seconds old may have no value. Information is
itself a perishable commodity.
Thus, what looked so puzzling in another context-the ur
gent “need” for information in a social world filled with many
pressing human needs-now becomes transparent. It is, in the
first instance, the need of complex human/machine systems
threatened with debilitating uncertainties or even breakdown
unless continually replenished with up-to-the-minute electronic
information about their internal states and operating environ
ments. Rapid information-processing capabilities of modern
computers and communications devices are a perfect match for
such needs, a marriage made in technological heaven.
But is it sensible to transfer this model, as many evidently
wish, to all parts of human life? Must activities, experiences,
ideas, and ways of knowing that take a longer time to bear fruit
adapt to the speedy processes of digitized information process
ing? Must education, the arts, politics, sports, home life, and all
other forms of social practice be transformed to accommodate
it? As one article on the coming of the home computer con
cludes, “running a household is actually like running a small
business. You have to worry about inventory control-of house
hold supplies-and budgeting for school tuition, housekeepers’
salaries, and all the rest.” 28 The writer argues that these complex,
rapidly changing operations require a powerful information
processing capacity to keep them functioning smoothly. One
begins to wonder how everyday activities such as running a
household were even possible before the advent of microelec
tronics. This is a case in which the computer is a solution fran
tically in search of a problem.
In the last analysis, the almost total silence about the ends of
the “computer revolution” is filled by a conviction that informa
tion processing is something valuable in its own right. Faced
with an information explosion that strains the capacities of tra
ditional institutions, society will renovate its structure to ac
commodate computerized, automated systems in every area of
concern. The efficient management of information is revealed as
the telos of modern society, its greatest mission. It is that fact to
which mythinformation adds glory and glitter. People must be
convinced that the human burdens of an information age-un
employment, de-skilling, the disruption of many social pat
terns-are worth bearing. Once again, those who push the
plow are told they ride a golden chariot.
Everywhere and Nowhere
HAVING CRITICIZED a point of view, it remains for me to
suggest what topics a serious study of computers and politics
should pursue. The question is, of course, a very large one. If
the long-term consequences of computerization are anything
like the ones commonly predicted, they will require a rethink
ing of many fundamental conditions in social and political life.
I will mention three areas of concern.
As people handle an increasing range of their daily activities
through electronic instruments-mail, banking, shopping, en
tertainment, travel plans, and so forth-it becomes technically
feasible to monitor these’ activities to a degree heretofore incon
ceivable. The availability of digitized footprints of social trans
actions affords opportunities that contain a menacing aspect.
While there has been a great deal written about this problem,
most of it deals with the “threat to privacy,” the possibility that
someone might gain access to information that violates the sanc
tity of one’s personal life. As important as that issue certainly is,
it by no means exhausts the potential evils created by electronic
data banks and computer matching. The danger extends beyond
the private sphere to affect the most basic of public freedoms.
Unless steps are taken to prevent it, we may develop systems ca
pable of a perpetual, pervasive, apparently benign surveillance.
Confronted with omnipresent, all-seeing data banks, the popu
lace may find passivity and compliance the safest route, avoiding
activities that once represented political liberty. As a badge of
civic pride a citizen may announce, ‘Tm not involved in any
thing a computer would find the least bit interesting.”
The evolution of this unhappy state of affairs does not neces
sarily depend upon the “misuse” of computer systems. The
prospect we face is really much more insidious. An age rich in
electronic information may achieve wonderful social conve
niences at a cost of placing freedom, perhaps inadvertently, in a
Technology: Reform and Revolution
A thoroughly computerized world is also one bound to alter
conditions of human sociability. The point of many applications
of microelectronics, after all, is to eliminate social layers that
were previously needed to get things done. Computerized bank
tellers, for example, have largely done away with small, local
branch banks, which were not only way s of doing business, but
places where people met, talked, and socialized. The so-called
electronic cottage industry, similarly, operates very well without
the kinds of human interactions that once characterized office
work. Despite greater efficiency, productivity, and convenience,
innovations of this kind do away with the reasons people for
merly had for being together, working together, acting to
gether. Many practical activities once crucial to even a minimal
sense of community life are rendered obsolete. One conse
quence of these developments is to pare away the kinds of face
to-face contact that once provided important buffers between
individuals and organized power. To an increasing extent, people
will become even more susceptible to the influence of employ
ers, news media, advertisers, and national political leaders.
W here will we find new institutions to balance and mediate such
Perhaps the most significant challenge posed by the linking of
computers and telecommunications is the prospect that the
basic structures of political order will be recast. Worldwide
computer, satellite, and communi�ation networks fulfill, in
large part, the modern dream of conquering space and time.
These systems make possible instantaneous action at any point
on the globe without limits imposed by the specific location of
the initiating actor. Human beings and human societies, how
ever, have traditionally found their identities within spatial and
temporal limits. They have lived, acted, and found meaning in a
particular place at a particular time. Developments in micro
electronics tend to dissolve these limits, thereby threatening the
integrity of social and political forms that depend on them.
Aristotle’s observation that “man is a political animal ” meant in
its most literal sense that man is a polis animal, a creature natu
rally suited to live in a particular kind of community within a
specific geographical setting, the city-state. Historical experi
ence shows that it is possible for human beings to flourish in po
litical units-kingdoms, empires, nation-states-larger than
those the Greeks thought natural. But until recently the crucial
conditions created by spatial boundaries of political societies
were never in question.
That has changed. Methods pioneered by transnational cor
porations now make it possible for organizations of enormous
size to manage their activities effectively across the surface of
the planet. Business units that used to depend upon spatial prox
imity can now be integrated through complex electronic sig
nals. If it seems convenient to shift operations from one area of
the world to another far distant, it can be accomplished with a
flick of a switch. Close an office in Sunny vale; open an office in
Singapore. In the recent past corporations have had to demon
strate at least some semblance of commitment to geographically
based communities; their public relations often stressed the fact
that they were “good neighbors.” But in an age in which orga
nizations are located every where and nowhere, this commit
ment easily evaporates. A transnational corporation can play fast
and loose with everyone, including the country that is ostensi
bly its “home.” Towns, cities, regions, and whole nations are
forced to swallow their pride and negotiate for favors. In that
process, political authority is gradually redefined.
Computerization resembles other vast, but largely uncon
scious experiments in modern social and technological history,
experiments of the kind noted in earlier chapters. Following a
step-by-step process of instrumental improvements, societies
create new institutions, new patterns of behavior, new sen
sibilities, new contexts for the exercise of power. Calling such
changes “revolutionary,” we tacitly acknowledge that these are
matters that require reflection, possibly even strong public ac
tion to ensure that the outcomes are desirable. But the occasions
for reflection, debate, and public choice are extremely rare in
deed. The important decisions are left in private hands inspired
by narrowly focused economic motive�. While many recognize
that these decisions have profound consequences for our com
mon life, few seem prepared to own up to that fact. Some ob
servers forecast that “the computer revolution” will eventually
be guided by new wonders in artificial intelligence. Its present
course is influenced by something much more familiar: the ab
· t Inc
C right c 1986 by Lawrence Ertbaum Assoc
1a es, od. d ‘nopy f this book may be repr uce I All rights reserved. No par� o f etrieval system or any otherf by photostat micro orm, r ‘ . any orm, . • ‘tten permission of the publisher. means, without the pnor w n
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., Publi
Hillsdale, New Jersey 07642
Originally published in 1979.
LC card Number 78-6
Printed in the United S
tates of America
15 14 13 12 1l
THE THEORY OF
I have described the environment as the surfaces that separate substances fron
medium in which the animals live. But I have also described what the envirom
affords animals, mentioning the terrain, shelters, water, fire, objects, tools, c
animals, and human displays. How do we go from surfaces to affordances? And if t
is information in light for the perception of surfaces, is there information for
perception of what they afford? Perhaps the composition and layout of surfaces co1
tute what they afford. If so, to perceive them is to perceive what they afford. Th
a radical hypothesis, for it implies that the “values” and “meanings” of things in
environment can be directly perceived. Moreover, it would explain the sense in w:
values and meanings are external to the perceiver.
The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it pro01
or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary,
the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by It something that refer
both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It imp
the complementarity of the animal and the environment.’ The antecedents of the b
and the history of the concept will be treated later; for the present, let us consi
examples of an affordance.
If a terrestrial surface is nearly horizontal (instead of slanted), nearly flat (inst,
of convex or concave), and sufficiently extended (relative to the size of the animal) ,
if its substance is rigid (relative to the weight of the animal), then the surface affo1
support. It is a surface of support, and we call it a substratum, ground, or floor. Ii
stand-on-able, permitting an upright posture for quadrupeds and bipeds. It is therefi
walk-on-able and run-over-able. It is not sink-into-able like a surface of water o
swamp, that is, not for heavy terrestrial animals. Support for water bugs is differe:
Note that the four properties listed-horizontal, flat, extended, and rigid-wot
be physical properties of a surface if they were measured with the scales and stands
units used in physics. As an affordance of support for a species of animal, howev1
they have to be measured relative to the animal. They are unique fur that animal Th
are not just abstract physical properties. They have unity relative to the posture w
James J Gibson
The Ecological Approach to
behavior of the animal being considered. So an affurdance cannot be measured as we
measure in physics.
Terrestrial surfaces, of course, are also climb-on-able or fall-off-able or get-under
neath-able or bump-into-able relative to the animal. Different layouts afford different
behaviors for different animals, and different mechanical encounters. The human spe
cies in some cultures has the habit of sitting as distinguished from kneeling or squatting.
If a surface of support with the four properties is also knee-high above the ground, it
affords sitting on. We call it a seat in general, or a stool, bench, chair, and so on, in
particular. It may be natural like a ledge or artificial like a couch. It may have various
shapes, as long as its functional layout is that of a seat. The color and texture of the
surface are irrelevant. Knee-high for a child is not the same as knee-high for an adult,
so the affordance is relative to the size of the individual. But if a surface is horizontal,
flat, extended, rigid, and knee-high relative to a perceiver, it can in fact be sat upon.
If it can be discriminated as having just these properties, it should look sit-on-able. If
it does, the affurdance is perceived visually. If the surface properties are seen relative
to the body surfaces, the self, they constitute a seat and have meaning.
There could be other examples. The different substances of the environment have
different affordances for nutrition and for manufucture. The different objects of the
environment have different affordances for manipulation. The other animals affurd,
above all, a rich and complex set of interactions, sexual, predatory, nurturing, fighting,
playing, cooperating, and communicating. What other persons affurd, comprises the
whole realm of social significance for human beings. We pay the closest attention to
the optical and acoustic information that specifies what the other person is, invites,
threatens, and does.
THE NICHES OF THE ENVIRONMENT
Ecologists have the concept of a niche. A species of animal is said to utilize or occupy
a certain niche in the environment. This is not quite the same as the habitat of the
species; a niche refers more to how an animal lives than to where it lives. I suggest that
a niche is a set of affordances.
The natural environment offers many ways of life, and different animals have
different ways of life. The niche implies a kind of animal, and the animal implies a kind
of niche. Note the complementarity of the two. But note also that the environment as
a whole with its unlimited possibilities existed prior to animals. The physical, chemical,
meteorological, and geological conditions of the surface of the earth and the pre-existence
of plant life are what make animal life possible. They had to be invariant for animals
THE INFORMATION FOR VISUAL PERCEPTION
There are all kinds of nutrients in the world and all sorts of ways of getting food;
all sorts of shelters or hiding places, such as holes, crevices, and caves; all sorts of
materials for making shelters, nests, mounds, huts; all kinds of locomotion that the
environment makes possible, such as swimming, crawling, walking, climbing, Rying.
These offerings have been taken advantage of; the niches have been occupied. But, for
all we know, there may be many offerings of the environment that have not been taken
advantage of, that is, niches not yet occupied.
In architecture a niche is a place that is suitable for a piece of statuary, a place into
which the object fits. In ecology a niche is a setting of environmental features that are
suitable for an animal, into which it fits metaphorically.
An important fact about the affordances of the environment is that they are in a
sense objective, real, and physical, unlike values and meanings, which are often sup
posed to be subjective, phenomenal, and mental. But, actually, an affordance is neither
an objective property nor a subjective property; or it is both if you like. An alfordance
cuts across the dichotomy of subjective-objective and helps us to understand its inad·
equacy. It is equally a fact of the environment and a fact of behavior. It is both physical
and psychical, yet neither. An alfordance points both ways, to the environment and to
The niche for a certain species should not be confused with what some animal
psychologists have called the phenomenal environment of the species. This can be taken
erroneously to be the “private world” in which the species is supposed to live, the
“subjective world,” or the world of”consciousness.” The behavior of observers depends
on their perception of the environment, surely enough, but this does not mean that
their behavior depends on a so-called private or subjective or conscious environment.
The organism depends on its environ’!lent for its life, but the environment does not
depend on the organism for its existence.
MAN’S ALTERATION OF THE
In the last few thousand years, as everybody now realizes, the very face of the earth
has been modified by man. The layout of surfaces has been changed, by cutting,
clearing, leveling, paving, and building. Natural deserts and mountains, swamps and
rivers, forests and plains still exist, but they are being encroached upon and reshaped
by man-made layouts. Moreover, the substances of the environment have been partly
converted from the natural materials of the earth into various kinds of artificial materials
such as bronre, iron, concrete, and bread. Even the medium of the environment-the
air for us and the water for fish-is becoming slowly altered despite the restorative
cycles that yielded a steady state for millions of years prior to man.
Why has man changed the shapes and substances of his environment? To change
what it affords him. He has made more available what benefits him and less pressing
what injures him. In making life easier for himself, of course, he has made life harder
for most of the other animals. Over the millennia, he has made it easier for himself t o
get food, easier t o keep warm, easier t o see at night, easier to get about, and easier t o
train his offspring.
This is not a new environment-an artificial environment distinct from the natural
environment-but the same old environment modified by man. It is a mistake to
separate the natural from the artificial as if there were two environments; artifacts have
to be manufactured from natural substances. It is also a mistake to separate the cultural
environment from the natural environment, as if there were a wodd of mental products
distinct from the world of material products. There is only one world, however diverse,
and all animals live in it, although we human animals have altered it to suit ourselves.
We have done so wastefully, thoughtlessly, and, if we do not mend our ways, fatally.
The fundamentals of the environment-the substances, the medium, and the
surfaces-are the same for all animals. No matter how powerful men become they are
not going to alter the fact of earth, air, and water-the lithosphere, the atmosphere,
and the hydrosphere, together with the interfaces that separate them. For terrestrial
animals like us, the earth and the sky are a basic structure on which all lesser structures
depend. We cannot change it. We all fit into the substructures of the environment i n
our various ways, for w e were all, in fact, formed b y them. W e were created by the
world we live in.
SOME AFFORDANCES OF THE TERRESTRIAL
Let us consider the affordances of the medium, of substances, of surfaces and their
layout, of objects, of animals and persons, and finally a case of special interest for
ecological optics, the affording of concealmeant by the occluding edges of the environ
ment (Chapter 5).
Air affurds breathing, more exactly, respiration. It also affords unimpeded locomotion
relative to the ground, which affords support. When illuminated and fog-free, it affords
THE INFORMATION FOR VISUAL PERCEPTION
visual perception. It also affords the perception of vibratory events by means of sound
fields and the perception of volatile sources by means of odor fields. The airspaces
between obstacles and objects are the paths and the places where behavior occurs.
The optical information to specify air when it is clear and transparent is not
obvious. The problem came up in Chapter 4, and the experimental evidence about the
seeing of”nothing” will be described in the next chapter.
THE SUBS TANCES
Water is more substantial than air and always has a surface with air. It does not afford
respiration for us. It affords drinking. Being fluid, it affords pouring from a container.
Being a solvent, it affords washing and bathing. Its surface does not afford support for
large animals with dense tissues. The optical information for water is well specified by
the characteristics of its surface, especially the unique fluctuations caused by rippling
Solid substances, more substantial than water, have characteristic surfaces (Chapter
2). Depending on the animal species, some afford nutrition and some do not. A few are
toxic. Fruits and berries, for example, have more food value when they are ripe, and
this is specified by the color of the surface. But the food values of substances are often
Solids also afford various kinds of manufucture, depending on the kind of solid
state. Some, such as Rint, can be chipped; others, such as clay, can be molded; still
others recover their original shape after deformation; and some resist deformation
strongly. Note that manufacture, as the term implies, was originally a form of manual
behavior like manipulation. Things were fabricated by hand. To identify the substance
in such cases is to perceive what can be done with it, what it is good for, its utility; and
the hands are involved.
THE SURFACES AND THEIR LAYOUTS
I have already said that a horizontal, flat, extended, rigid surface affords support. It
permits equilibrium and the maintaining of a posture with respect to gravity, this being
a force perpendicular to the surface. The animal does not fall or slide as it would on a
steep hillside. Equilibrium and posture are prerequisite to other behaviors, such as
locomotion and manipulation. There will be more about this in Chapter 12, and more
evidence about the perception of the ground in Chapter 9. The ground is quite literally
the basis of the behavior of land animals. And it is also the basis of their visual
THE THEORY OF AFFOROANf’J.�
perception, their so-called space perception. Geometry began with the study of the
earth as abstracted by Euclid, not with the study of the axes of empty space as
abstracted by Descartes. The affording of support and the geometry of a horizontal
plane are therefore not in different realms of discourse; they are not as separate as we
The flat earth, of course, lies beneath the attached and detached objects on it. The
earth has “furniture,” or as I have said, it is cluttered. The solid, level, flat surfac_-e
extends behind the clutter and, in fact, extends all the way out to the horizon. This is
not, of course, the earth of Copernicus; it is the earth at the scale of the human animal,
and on that scale it is flat, not round. Wherever one goes, the earth is separated &om
the sky by a horizon that, although it may be hidden by the clutter, is always there.
There will be evidence to show that the horizon can always be seen, in the sense that
it can be visualized, and that it can always be felt, in the sense that any surface one
touches is experienced in relation to the horizontal plane.
Of course, a horizontal, flat, extended surface that is nonrigid, a stream or lake,
does not afford support for standing, or for walking and running. There is no footing,
as we say. It may afford floating or swimming, but you have to he equipped for that,
by nature or by learning.
A vertical, flat, extended, and rigid surface such as a wall or a cliff face is a barrier
to pedestrian locomotion. Slopes between vertical and horizontal afford walking, if
easy, but only climbing, if steep, and in the latter case the surface cannot be flat; there
must be “holds” fur the hands and feet. Similarly, a slope downward affords falling if
steep; the brink of a cliff is a falling-off place. It is dangerous and looks dangerous. The
affordance of a certain layout is perceived if the layout is perceived.
Civilized people have altered the steep slopes of their habitat by building stairways
so as to afford ase,-ent and descent. What we call the steps afford stepping, up or down,
relative to the size of the person’s legs. We are still capable of getting around in an
arboreal layout of surfaces, tree branches, and we have ladders that afford this kind of
locomotion, but most of us leave that to our children.
A cliff face, a wall, a chasm, and a stream are barriers; they do not afford pedestrian
locomotion unless there is a door, a gate, or a bridge. A tree or a rock is an obstacle.
Ordinarily, there are paths between obstacles, and these openings are visible. The
progress of locomotion is guided by the perception of barriers and obstacles, that is, by
the act of steering into the openings and away from the surfaces that afford injury. I
have tried to describe the optical inlormation for the control of locomotion (Gibson,
1958), and it will be further elaborated in Chapter 13. The imminence of collision with
a surface during locomotion is specified in a particularly simple way, by an explosive
rate of magnification of the optical texture. This has been called looming (e.g., Schiff,
1965). It should not be confused, however, with the magnification of an opening
THE INFORMATION FOR VISUAL PERCEPTION
between obstacles, the opening up of a vista such as occurs in the approach to a
The affordances of what we loosely call objects are extremely various. It will be recalled
that my use of the terms is restricted and that I distinguish between atta ched objects
and deta ched objects. We are not dealing with Newtonian objects in space, all of which
are detached, but with the furniture of the earth, some items of which are attached to
it and cannot be moved without breakage.
Detached objects must be comparable in size to the animal under consideration
if they are to afford behavior. But those that are comparable afford an astonishing
variety of behaviors, especially to animals with hands. Objects can be manufactured
and manipulated. Some are portable in that they afford lifting and carrying, while
others are not. Some are graspable and other not. To be graspable, an object must
have opposite surfaces separated by a distance less than the span of the hand. A five
inch cube can be grasped, but a ten-inch cube cannot (Gibson, 1966b, p. 119). A large
object needs a “handle” to afford grasping. Note that the size of an object that constitutes
a graspable size is specified in the optic array. If this is true, it is not true that a tactual
sensation of size has to become associated with the visual sensation of size in order for
the affordance to be perceived.
Sheets, sticks, fibers, containers, clothing, and tools are detached objects that
afford manipulation (Chapter 3). Additional examples are given below.
1. An elongated object of moderate size and weight affords wielding. If used to
hit or strike, it is a club or hammer. If used by a chimpanzee behind bars to pull in a
banana beyond its reach, it is a sort of rake. In either case, it is an extension of the
arm. A rigid staff also affords leverage and in that use is a lever. A pointed elongated
object affords piercing-if large it is is a spear, if small a needle or awl.
2. A rigid object with a sharp dihedral angle, an edge, affords cutting and
scraping; it is a knife. It may be designed for both striking and cutting, and then it is
3. A graspable rigid object of moderate size and weight affords throwing. It may
be a missile or only an object for play, a ball. The launching of missiles by supplementary
tools other than the hands alone-the sling, the bow, the catapult, the gun, and so
on-is one of the behaviors that makes the human animal a nasty, dangerous species.
4. An elongated elastic object, such as a.fiber, thread, thong, or rope, affords
knotting, binding, lashing, knitting, and weaving. These are kinds of behavior where
manipulation leads to manufacture.
THE THEORY OF AFFOROANC:FS
5. A h and-held tool of enormous importance is one that, when applied to a
surface, leaves traces and thus affords trace-making. The tool may be a stylus, brush,
crayon, pen, or pencil, but if it marks the surface it can be used to depict and to write,
to represent scenes and to specify words.
We have thousands of names for such objects, and we classify them in many ways:
pliers and wrenches are tools; pots and pans are utensi ls; swords and pistols are
weapons. They can all be said to have properties or qualities: color, texture, compo
sition, size, shape and features of shape, mass, elasticity, rigidity, and mobility. Or
thodox psychology asserts that we perceive these objects insofar as we discriminate
their properties or qualities. Psychologists carry out elegant experiments in the labo
ratory to find out how and how well these qualities are discriminated. The psychologists
assume that objects are composed of their qualities. But I now suggest that what we
perceive when we look at objects are their affordances, not their qualities. We can
discriminate the dimensions of difference if required to do so in an experiment, but
what the object affords us is what we normally pay attention to. The special combination
of qualities into which an object can be analyzed is ordinarily not noticed.
If this is true for the adult, what about the young child? There is much evidence
to show that the infant does not begin by first discriminating the qualities of objects
and then learning the combinations of qualities that specify them. Phenomenal objects
are not built up of qualities; it is the other way around. The affordance of an object is
what the inf.mt begins by noticing. The meaning is observed befure the substance and
surface, the color and form, are seen as such. An affordance is an invariant combination
of variables, and one might guess that it is easier to perceive such an invariant unit
T o PERCEIVE AN AFFORDANCE Is NOT TO
CLASSIFY AN OBJECT
The fact that a stone is a missile does not imply that it cannot be other things as well. It can be
a paperweight, a bookend, a hammer, or a pendulum bob. It can be piled on another rock to
make a cairn or a stone wall. These affordances are all consistent with one another. The differences
between them are not clear-cut, and the arbitrary names by which they are called do not count
for perception. If you know what can be done with a graspable detached object, what it can be
used for, you can call it whatever you please.
The theory of affordances rescues us from the philosophical muddle of assuming fixed classes
of objects, each defined by its common features and then given a name. As Ludwig Wittgenstein
knew, you cannot specify the necessary and sufficient features of the class of things to which a
name is given. They have only a “family resemblance.” But this does not mean you cannot learn
how to use things and perceive their uses. You do not have to classify and label things in order
to perceive what they afford.
THE INFORMATION FOii VlSllAl PFRC’l’PTION
than it is to perceive all the variables separately. It is never necessary to distingui�h �l
the features of an object and, in fact, it would be impossible to do so. Perception 1s
economical. “Those features of a thing are noticed which distinguish it from other
things that it is not-but not all the features that distinguish it from everything that it
is not” (Gibson, 1966b, p. 286).
OTHER PERSONS AND ANIMALS
The richest and most elaborate alfordances of the environment are provided by other
animals and for us, other people. These are, of course, detached objects with topo
logically clo�ed surfaces, but they change the shape of their surfaces while yet retaining
the same fundamental shape. They move from place to place, changing the postures of
their bodies, ingesting and emitting certain substances, and doing all this sponta
neously, initiating their own movements, which is to say that their movements are
animate. These bodies are subject to the laws of mechanics and yet not subject to the
Jaws of mecha nics, for they are not governed by these laws. They are so different from
ordinary objects that infants learn almost immediately to distinguish them �om plan�s
and nonliving things. When touched they touch back, when struck they strike back; m
short, they interact with the observer and with one another. Behavior affords behavior,
and the whole subject matter of psychology and of the social sciences can be thought of
as an elaboration of thi� basic fact. Sexual behavior. nurturing behavior, fighting be
havior, cooperative behavior, economic behavior, political behavior-all depend on the
perceiving of w hat another person or other persons afford, or sometimes on the mis
perceiving of it.
W hat the male affords the female is reciprocal to what the female affords the male;
what the infant affords the mother is reciprocal to what the mother affords the infant;
what the prey affords the predator goes along with what the predator affords the prey;
what the buyer affords the seller cannot be separated from what the seller affords the
buyer, and so on. The perceiving of these mutual alfordances is enormously complex,
but it is nonetheless lawful, and it is based on the pickup of the information in touch,
sound, odor, taste, and ambient light. It is just as much based on stimulus informatio,nas is the simpler perception of the support that is offered by the ground under one s
feet. For other animals and other persons can only give off information about themselves
insofar as they are tangible, audible, odorous, tastable, or visible.
The other person, the generalized other, the alter as opposed to the ego, is an
ecological object with a skin, even if clothed. It is an object, although it is not merely
an object, and we do right to speak of he or she instead of it. But the other person has
THF THFORV OF AFFOIIOANC:F.S
a surface that reflects light, and the information to specify what he or she is, invites,
promises, threatens, or does can be found in the light.
PLACES AND HIDING PLACES
The habitat of a given animal contains places. A place is not an object with definite
boundaries but a region (Chapter 3). The different places of a habitat may have d ifferent
affordances. Some are places where food is usually found and others where it is not.
There are places of danger, such as the brink of a cliff and the regions where predators
lurk. There are places of refuge from predators. Among these is the place where mate
and young are, the home, which is usually a partial enclosure. Animals are skilled at
what the psychologist calls place-learning. They can find their way to significant places.
An important kind of place, made intelligible by the ecological approach to visual
perception, is a place that affords concealment, a hiding place. Note that it involves
social perception and raises questions of epistemology. The concealing of oneself from
other observers and the hiding of a detached object &om other observers have different
kinds of motivation. As every child discovers, a good hiding place fur one’s body is not
necessarily a good hiding place for a treasure. A detached object can be concealed both
from other observers and from the observer himself The observer’s body can be
concealed &om other observers but not from himself, as the last chapter emphasized.
Animals as well as children hide themselves and also hide objects such as food.
One of the laws of th<: ambient optic array (Chapter 5) is that at any fixed point of
observation some parts of the environment are revealed and the remaining parts are
concealed. The reciprocal of this law is that the observer himself, his body considered
as part of the environment, is revealed at some flxed points of observation and concealed
at the remaining points. An observer can perceive not only that other observers are
unhidden or hidden from him but also that he is hidden or unhidden from other
observers. Surely, babies playing peek-a-boo and children playing hide-and-seek are
practicing this kind of apprehension. To hide is to position one's body at a place that
is concealed at the points of observation of other observers. A "good" hiding place is
one that is concealed at nearly all points of observation.
All of these facts and many more depend on the principle of occluding edges at a
point of observation, the law of reversible occlusion, and the facts of opaque and
nonopaque substances. What w� call privacy in the design of housing, for example, is
the providing of opaque enclosures. A high degree of concealment is afforded by an
enclosure, and complete concealment is afforded by a complete enclosure. But note
that there are peepholes and screens that permit seeing without being seen. A trans
parent sheet of glass in a window transmits both illumination and information, whereas
THE INFORMATION FOR VISUAL
a translucent sheet transmits illumination but not information. There will be more of
this in Chapter 11.
Note also that a glass wall affords seeing throug h but not walking through, whereas
a cloth curtain affords going through but not seeing through. Architects and designers
know such facts, but they lack a theory of affordances to encompass them in a system.
SUMMARY: POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE AFFORDANCES
The foregoing examples of the affordances of the environment are enough to show how
general and powerful the concept is. Substances have biochemical offerings and afford
manufacture. Surfaces afford posture, locomotion, collision, manipulation, and in gen
eral behavior. Special forms of layout afford shelter and concealment. Fires afford
warming and burning. Detached objects-tools, utensils, weapons-afford special types
of behavior to primates and humans. The other animal and the other person provide
mutual and reciprocal affordances at extremely high levels of behavioral complexity. At
the highest level, when vocalization becomes speech and manufactured displays become
images, pictures, and writing, the affordances of human behavior are staggering. No
more of that will be considered at this stage except to point out that speech, pictures,
and writing still have to be perceived.
At all these levels, we can now observe that some offerings of the environment are
benefic ial and some are injurious. These are slippery terms that should only be used
with great care, but if their meanings are pinned down to biological and be havioral
facts the danger of confusion can be minimized. First, consider substances that afford
ingestion. Some afford nutrition for a given animal, some afford poisoning, and some
are neutral. As I pointed out before, these facts are quite distinct from the affording of
pleasure and displeasure in eating, for the experiences do not necessarily correlate with
the biological effects. Second, consider the brink of a cliff. On the one side it affords
walking along, locomotion, whereas on the other it affords falling off, injury. Third,
consider a detached object with a sharp edge, a knife. It affords cutting if manipulated
in one manner, but it affords being cut if manipulated in another manner. Similarly,
but at a different level of complexity; a middle-sized metallic object affords grasping,
but if charged with current it affords electric shock. And fourth, consider the other
person. The animate object can give caresses or blows, contact comfort or contact
injury, reward or punishment, and it is not always easy to perceive which will be
provided. Note that all these benefits and injuries, these safeties and dangers, t�ese
positive and negative affordances are properties of things taken with reference to an
observer but not properties of the experiences of the observer. They are not subjective
values; they are not feelings of pleasure or pain added to neutral perceptions.
There has been endless debate among philosophers and psychologists as to whether
values are physical or phenomenal, in the world of matter or only in the world of mind.
For aHordances as distinguished from values, the debate does not apply. Aflordances
are neither in the one world or the other inasmuch as the theory of two worlds is
rejected. There is only one environment, although it contains many observers with
limitless opportunities for them to live in it.
THE ORIGIN OF THE CONCEPT OF
AFFORDANCES: A RECENT HISTORY
The gestalt psychologists recognized that the meaning or the value of a thing seems to
be perceived just as immediately as its color. The value is clear on the face of it, as we
say, and thus it has a physiognomic quality in the way that the emotions of a man
ppear on his face. To quote from the Principles of Gestalt Psychology (Koflka, 1935),
Each thing says what it is .... a fruit says 'Eat me'; water says 'Drink me'; thunder
says 'Fear me'; and woman says 'Love me' " (p. 7). These values are vivid and essential
features of the experience itself. Koflka did not believe that a meaning of this sort could
be explained as a pale context of memory images or an unconscious set of response
tendencies. The postbox "invites" the mailing of a letter, the handle "wants to be
grasped," and things "t:-11 us what to do with them" (p. 353). Hence, they have what
Koflka called "demand character."
Kurt Lewin coined the term Aufforderungscharakter, which has been translated
as invitation character (by J. F. Brown in 1929) and as valence (by D. K. Adams in
1931; cf Marrow, 1969, p. 56, for the history of these translations). The latter term
came into general use. Valences for Lewin had corresponding vectors, which could be
represented as arrows pushing the observer toward or away from the object. What
explanation could he given for these valences, the characters of objects that invited or
demanded behavior? No one, not even the gestalt theorists, could think of them as
physical and, indeed, they do not fall within the province of ordinary physics. They
must therefore be phenomenal, given the assumption of dualism. If there were two
objects, and if the valence could not belong to the physical object, it must belong to
the phenomenal object-to what Koflka called the "behavioral" object but not to the
"geographical" object. The valence of an object was bestowed upon it in experience
and bestowed by a need of the observer. Thus, Koflka argued that the postbox has �
demand character only when the observer needs to mail a letter. He is attracted to it
when he has a letter to post, not otherwise. The value of something was assumed to
change as the need o f the observer changed.
The concept of affordance is derived from these concepts of valence, invitation,
and demand but with a crucial difference. The affordance of something does not change
E INFORMATION FOR VISUAL PERCEPTION
as the need of the observer changes. The observer may or may not perceive or attend
to the affordance, according to his needs, but the affordance, being invariant, is always
there to be perceived. An alfurdance is not bestowed upon an object by a need of an
observer and his act of perceiving it. The object offers what it does because it is what
it is. To be sure, we define what it is in terms of ecological p hysics instead of physical
physics, and it therefore possesses meaning and value to begin with. But this is meaning
and value of a new sort.
For Koflka it was the phenomenal postbox that invited letter-mailing, not the
physical postbox. But this duality is pernicious. I prefer to say that the real postbox
(the only one) affords letter-mailing to a letter-writing human in a community with a
postal system. This fact is perceived when the postbox is identified as such, and it is
apprehended whether the postbox is in sight or out of sight. To feel a special attraction
to it when one has a letter to mail is not surprising, but the main fact is that it is
perceived as part of the environment-as an item of the neighborhood in which we
live. E veryone above the age of six knows what it is fur and where the nearest one is.
The perception of its affordance should therefure not be confused with the temporary
special attraction it may have.
The gestalt psychologists explained the directness and immediacy of the experience
of valences by postulating that the ego is an object in experience and that a "tension ..
may arise between a phenomenal object and the phenomenal ego. When the object is
in "a dynamic relation with the ego" said Koflka, it has a demand character. Note that
the "tension," the "relation," or the "vector" must arise in the "field," that is, in the
field of phenomenal experience. Although many psychologists find this theory intelli
gible, I do not. There is an easier way of explaining why the values of things seem to
The changing perspective structure of a postbox during approach by an observer.
As one reduces the distance to the object to one-third, the visual solid angle of the object increases
three times. Actually this is only a detail near the center of an outflowing optic array. (From The
Perception of the Visual World by James Jerome Gibson and used with the agreement of the
reprint publisher. Greenwood Press, Inc.)
THE THEORY OF AFFORDANCES
be perceived immediately and directly. It is because the alfordances of things for an
observer are specified in stimulus in:lormation. They seem to be perceived directly
because they are perceived directly.
The accepted theories of perception, to which the gestalt theorists were objecting,
implied that no experiences were direct except sensations and that sensations mediated
all other kinds of experience. Bare sensations had to be clothed with meaning. The
seeming directness of meaningful perception was therefore an embarrassment to the
orthodox theories, and the Gestaltists did right to emphasize it. They began to under
mine the sensation-based theories. But their own explanations of why it is that a fruit
says "Eat me" and a woman says "Love me" are strained. The gestalt psychologists
objected to the accepted theories of perception, but they never managed to go beyond
THE OPTICAL INFORMATION FOR
The theory of affordances is a radical departure from existing theories of value and
meaning. It begins with a new definition of what value and meaning are. The perceiving
of an affordance is not a process of perceiving a value-free physical object to which
meaning is somehow added in a way that no one has been able to agree upon; it is a
process of perceiving a value-rich ecological object. Any substance, any surface, any
layout has some affordance for benefit or injury to someone. Physics may be value
free, but ecology is not.
The central question for the theory of affordances is not whether they exist and
are real but whether information is available in ambient light for perceiving them. The
skeptic may now be convinced that there is information in light for some properties of
a surface but not for such a property as being good to eat. The taste of a thing, he will
say, is not specified in light; you can see its form and color and texture but not its
palatability; you have to taste it for that. The skeptic understands the stimulus variables
that specify the dimensions of visual sensation; he knows from psychophysics that
brightness corresponds to intensity and color to wavelength of light. He may concede
the invariants of structured stimulation that specify surfaces and how they are laid out
and what they are made of. But he may boggle at invariant combinations of invariants
that specify the affordances of the environment for an observer. The skeptic familiar
with the experimental control of stimulus variables has enough trouble understanding
the invariant variables I have been proposing without being asked to accept invariants
RMATION FOR VISUAL PERCEPTION
Nevertheless, a unique combination of invariants, a compound invariant, is just
another invariant. It is a unit, and the components do not have to be combined or
associated. Only if percepts were combinations of sensations would they have to be
associated. Even in the classical terminology, it could be argued that when a number
of stimuli are completely covariant, when they always go together, they constitute a
single "stimulus." If the visual system is capable of extracting invariants from a changing
optic array, there is no reason why it should not extract invariants that seem to us
The trouble with the assumption that high-order optical invariants specify high
order alfordances is that experimenters, accustomed to working in the laboratory with
low-order stimulus variables, cannot think of a way to measure them. How can they
hope to isolate and control an invariant of optical structure so as to apply it to an
observer if they cannot quantify it? The answer comes in two parts, I think. First, they
should not hope to apply an invariant to an observer, only to make it available, for it
is not a stimulus. And, second, they do not have to quantify an invariant, to apply
numbers to it, but only to give it an exact mathematical description so that other
experimenters can make it available to their observers. The virtue of the psychophysical
experiment is simply that it is disciplined, not that it relates the psychical to the
physical by a metric formula.
An affordance, as I said, points two ways, to the environment and to the observer.
So does the information to specify an affurdance. But this does not fo the least imply
separate realms of consciousness and matter, a psychophysical dualism. It says only
that the information to specify the utilities of the environment is accompanied by
information to specify the observer himself, his body, legs, hands, and mouth. This is
only to reemphasize that exteroception is accompanied by proprioception-that to
perceive the world is to coperceive oneself. This is wholly inconsistent with dualism in
any form, either mind-matter dualism or mind-body dualism. The awareness of the
world and of one's complementary relations to the world are not separable.
The child begins, no doubt, by perceiving the affordances of things fur her, for her
own personal behavior. She walks and sits and grasps relative to her own legs and body
and hands. But she must learn to perceive the affordances of things for other observers
as well as for herself. An affordance is often valid for all the animals of a species, as
when it is part of a niche. I have described the invariants that enable a child to perceive
the same solid shape at different points of observation and that likewise enable two or
more children to perceive the same shape at different points of observation. These are
the invariants that enable two children to perceive the common affordance of the solid
shape despite the different perspectives, the affordance of a toy, for example. Only
when each child perceives the values of things for others as well as for herself does she
begin to be socialized.
THE THEORY OF ,U'FORn•"'""'�
MISINFORMATION FOR AFFORDANCES
If there is information in the ambient light for the affordances of things, can there alsobe misinformation? According to the thoery being developed, if information is pickedup perception results; if misinformation is picked up misperception results. The brink of a cliff affords falling off; it is in fact dangerous and it looks dangerousto us. It seems to look dangerous to many other terrestrial animals besides ourselves,including infant animals. Experimental studies have been m ade of this fact. If a sturdysheet of plate glass is extended out over the edge it no longer affords falling and in factis not dangerous, but it may still look dangerous. The optical information to specifydepth-downward-at-an-edge is still present in the ambient light; for this reason thedevice was called a visual cliff by E. J. Gibson and R. D. Walk (1960). Hapticinformation was available to specify an adequate surface of support, but this wascontradictory to the optical information. When human infants at the crawling stage oflocomotion were tested with this apparatus, many of them would pat the glass withtheir hands but would not venture out on the surface. The babies misperceived theaffurdance of a transparent surface for support, and this result is not surprising. Similarly, an adult can misperceive the affordance of a sheet of glass by mistakinga closed glass door for an open doorway and attempting to walk t hrough it. He then crashes into the barrier and is injured. The affordance of collision was not specified bythe outflow of optical texture in the array, or it was insufficiently specified. H e mistookglass for air. The occluding edges of the doorway were specified and the empty visualsolid angle opened up symmetrically in the normal manner as he approached, so hisbehavior was properly controlled, but the imminence of collision was not noticed. Alittle dirt on the surface, or highlights, would have saved him. These two cases are instructive. In the first a surface of support was mistaken forair because the optic array specified air. In the second case a barrier was mistaken forair for the same reason. Air downward affords falling and is dangerous. Air forwardaffords passage and is safe. The mistaken perceptions led to inappropriate actions. Errors in the perception of the surface of support are serious for a terrestrialanimal. If quicksand is mistaken for sand, the perceiver is in deep trouble. If a coveredpitfall is taken for solid ground, the animal is trapped. A danger is sometimes hidden-
THINGS THAT LOOIC LIKE WHAT THEY ARE
If the affordances of a thing are perceived correctly, we say that it looks like w hat it is. But we must, of course, learn to see w hat things really are-for example, that the innocent-looking leafis really a nettle or that the helpful-sounding politician is really a demagogue. And this can bevery difficult.
d th Calm water and the electric shock in the radio cabinet. In the the shark un er e
h ·fi · J · I · ment poison ivy is frequently mistaken fur ivy. In t e artt c1a env1-natura environ
ronment acid can be mistaken for water.
k l"k h tA '.ldcat may be hard to distinguish from a cat, and a thief may loo_ 1 e an on.es WWI h K Ilka asserted that "each thing says what it is," he faded to mentionperson. en o . . that it may lie. More exactly, a thing may not look like what it is.
Nevertheless, however true all this may be, the basic affordances of t�e environment are perceivable and are usually perceivable directly, without an excessive amount
f l · g The basic properties of the environment that make an affordance are o eamm ·
d · If· ·fi d5 ecified in the structure of ambient light, and hence the affor ance 1tse . is spec1 e i� ambient light. Moreover, an invariant variable that is commensurate with th� bod�
of the observer himself is more easily picked up than one not commensurate with his
The medium substances, surfaces, objects, places, and other animals have affordances
fo · '· al They offer benefit or inJ'ury, life or death. This is why they need to r a given amm
f, f h . I togetherThe possibilities of the environment and the way of Ii e o t e amma go
· bl The envi·ronment constrains what the animal can do, and the concept of msepara Y·
· J It t h · h · cology re11ects this fact Within limits, the human amma can a er e a me e m e u · . . affordances of the environment but is still the creature of his or her_ situation.' There is information in stimulation for the physical pro�rhes of thm_gs, andpresumably there is information for the environmental properties. The doctrme th�t says we must distinguish among the variables of things bef�re we can learn the1�· · t• ab) Affordances are properties taken with reference to the ob meanings 1s ques ,on e.
server. They are neither physical nor phenomenal. . . _The hypothesis of information in ambient light to specify affordances 1s the cul
mination of ecological optics. The notion of invariants that are related at one extreme
to the motives and needs of an observer and at the other extreme to the substances
and surfaces of a world provides a new approach to psychology.
If I were placed in the cockpit of a modern jet airliner,
my inability to perform well would neither surprise nor
bother me. But why should I have trouble with doors
and light switches, water faucets and stoves? "Doors?" I
can hear the reader saying. "You have trouble opening doors?" Yes.
I push doors that are meant to be pulled, pull doors that should be
pushed, and walk into doors that neither pull nor push, but slide.
Moreover, I see others having the same troubles-unnecessary
troubles. My problems with doors have become so well known
that confusing doors are often called "Norman doors. " Imagine
becoming famous for doors that don't work right. I'm pretty sure
that's not what my parents planned for me. (Put "Norman doors"
into your favorite search engine-be sure to include the quote
marks: it makes for fascinating reading.)
How can such a simple thing as a door be so confusing? A door
would seem to be about as simple a device as possible. There is not
much you can do to a door: you can open it or shut it. Suppose you
are in an office building, walking down a corridor. You come to a
door. How does it open? Should you push or pull, on the left or the
right? Maybe the door slides. If so, in which direction? I have seen
doors that slide to the left, to the right, and even up into the ceiling.
A Member of the Perseus Books Group
REVISED AND EXPANDED EDITION
FIGURE 1.1. Coffeepot for Masochists. The
French ar tist Jacques Carelman in his series of
books Catalogue d'objets introuvables (Catalog of
un findable objects) provides delightful examples
of everyday things that are deliberately unwork
able, outrageous, or otherwise ill-formed. One
of my favorite items is what he calls "coffeepot for
masochists." The photograph shows a copy given
to me by collegues at the University of California,
San Diego. It is one of my treasured art objects.
(Photograph by Aymin Shamma for the author.)
The design of the door should indicate how to work it without any
need for signs, certainly without any need for trial and error.
A friend told me of the time he got trapped in the doorway of a
post office in a European city. The entrance was an imposing row
of six glass swinging doors, followed immediately by a second,
identical row. That's a standard design: it helps reduce the airflow
and thus maintain the indoor temperature of the building. There
was no visible hardware: obviously the doors could swing in ei
ther direction: all a person had to do was push the side of the door
My friend pushed on one of the outer doors. It swung inward,
and he entered the building. Then, before he could get to the next
row of doors, he was distracted and turned around for an instant.
He didn't realize it at the time, but he had moved slightly to the
right. So when he came to the next door and pushed it, nothing
happened. "Hmm," he thought, "must be locked." So he pushed
the side of the adjacent door. Nothing. Puzzled, my friend decided
to go outside again. He turned around and pushed against the
side of a door. Nothing. He pushed the adjacent door. Nothing.
The door he had just entered no longer worked. He turned around
once more and tried the inside doors again. Nothing. Concern,
then mild panic. He was trapped! Just then, a group of people on
the other side of the entranceway (to my friend's right) passed eas
ily through both sets of doors. My friend hurried over to follow
2 The Design of Everyday Things
How could such a thing happen? A swinging door has two sides.
One contains the supporting pillar and the hinge, the other is un
supported. To open the door, you must push or pull on the unsup
ported edge. If you push on the hinge side, nothing happens. In
my friend's case, he was in a building where the designer aimed
for beauty, not utility. No distracting lines, no visible pillars, no vis
ible hinges. So how can the ordinary user know which side to push
on? While distracted, my friend had moved toward the (invisible)
supporting pillar, so he was pushing the doors on the hinged side.
No wonder nothing happened. Attractive doors. Stylish. Probably
won a design prize.
Two of the most important characteristics of good design are dis
coverability and understanding. Discoverability: Is it possible to even
figure out what actions are possible and where and how to per
form them? Understanding: What does it all mean? How is the
product supposed to be used? What do all the different controls
and settings mean?
The doors in the story illustrate what happens when discoverabil
ity fails. Whether the device is a door or a stove, a mobile phone
or a nuclear power plant, the relevant components must be visible,
and they must communicate the correct message: What actions
are possible? Where and how should they be done? With doors
that push, the designer must provide signals that naturally indi
cate where to push. These need not destroy the aesthetics. Put a
vertical plate on the side to be pushed. Or make the supporting
pillars visible. The vertical plate and supporting pillars are natural
signals, naturally interpreted, making it easy to know just what to
do: no labels needed.
With complex devices, discoverability and understanding re
quire the aid of manuals or personal instruction. We accept this
if the device is indeed complex, but it should be unnecessary for
simple things. Many products defy understanding simply because
they have too many functions and controls. I don't think that sim
ple home appliances-stoves, washing machines, audio and tele
vision sets-should look like Hollywood's idea of a spaceship
control room. They already do, much to our consternation. Faced
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 3
with a bewildering array of controls and displays, we simply mem
orize one or two fixed settings to approximate what is desired.
In England I visited a home with a fancy new Italian washer
dryer combination, with super-duper multisymbol controls, all to
do everything anyone could imagine doing with the washing and
drying of clothes. The husband (an engineering psychologist) said
he refused to go near it. The wife (a physician) said she had simply
memorized one setting and tried to ignore the rest. I asked to see
the manual: it was just as confusing as the device. The whole pur
pose of the design is lost.
The Complexity of Modern Devices
All artificial things are designed. Whether it is the layout of fur
niture in a room, the paths through a garden or forest, or the in
tricacies of an electronic device, some person or group of people
had to decide upon the layout, operation, and mechanisms . Not
all designed things involve physical structures. Services, lectures,
rules and procedures, and the organizational structures of busi
nesses and governments do not have physical mechanisms, but
their rules of operation have to be designed, sometimes informally,
sometimes precisely recorded and specified.
But even though people have designed things since prehistoric
times, the field of design is relatively new, divided into many areas
of specialty. Because everything is designed, the number of areas is
enormous, ranging from clothes and furniture to complex control
rooms and bridges. This book covers everyday things, focusing on
the interplay between technology and people to ensure that the
products actually fulfill human needs while being understand
able and usable. In the best of cases, the products should also be
delightful and enjoyable, which means that not only must the re
quirements of engineering, manufacturing, and ergonomics be sat
isfied, but attention must be paid to the entire experience, which
means the aesthetics of form and the quality of interaction. The
major areas of design relevant to this book are industrial design,
interaction design, and experience design. None of the fields is
well defined, but the focus of the efforts does vary, with industrial
4 The Design of Everyday Things
designers emphasizing form and material, interactive designers
emphasizing understandability and usability, and experience de
signers emphasizing the emotional impact. Thus:
Industrial design: The professional service of creating and developing
concepts and specifications that optimize the function, value, and
appearance of products and systems for the mutual benefit of both
user and manufacturer (from the Industrial Design Society of America's
Interaction design: The focus is upon how people interact with tech
nology. The goal is to enhance people's understanding of what can be
done, what is happening, and what has just occurred. Interaction de
sign draws upon principles of psychology, design, art, and emotion
to ensure a positive, enjoyable experience.
Experience design: The practice of designing products, processes, ser
vices, events, and environments with a focus placed on the quality
and enjoyment of the total experience.
Design is concerned with how things work, how they are con
trolled, and the nature of the interaction between people and
technology. When done well, the results are brilliant, pleasurable
products. When done badly, the products are unusable, leading to
great frustration and irritation. Or they might be usable, but force
us to behave the way the product wishes rather than as we wish.
Machines, after all, are conceived, designed, and constructed by
people. By human standards, machines are pretty limited. They
do not maintain the same kind of rich history of experiences that
people have in common with one another, experiences that enable
us to interact with others because of this shared understanding.
Instead, machines usually follow rather simple, rigid rules of be
havior. If we get the rules wrong even slightly, the machine does
what it is told, no matter how insensible and illogical. People are
imaginative and creative, filled with common sense; that is, a lot of
valuable knowledge built up over years of experience. But instead
of capitalizing on these strengths, machines require us to be precise
and accurate, things we are not very good at. Machines have no
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 5
leeway or common sense. Moreover, many of the rules followed
by a machine are known only by the machine and its designers.
When people fail to follow these bizarre, secret rules, and the
machine does the wrong thing, its operators are blamed for not
understanding the machine, for not following its rigid specifica
tions. With everyday objects, the result is frustration. With complex
devices and commercial and industrial processes, the resulting
difficulties can lead to accidents, injuries, and even deaths. It is
time to reverse the situation: to cast the blame upon the machines
and their design. It is the machine and its design that are at fault. It
is the duty of machines and those who design them to understand
people. It is not our duty to understand the arbitrary, meaningless
dictates of machines.
The reasons for the deficiencies in human-machine interaction
are numerous. Some come from the limitations of today's technol
ogy. Some come from self-imposed restrictions by the designers,
often to hold down cost. But most of the problems come from a
complete lack of understanding of the design principles necessary
for effective human-machine interaction. Why this deficiency? Be
cause much of the design is done by engineers who are experts
in technology but limited in their understanding of people. "We
are people ourselves," they think, "so we understand people." But
in fact, we humans are amazingly complex. Those who have not
studied human behavior often think it is pretty simple. Engineers,
moreover, make the mistake of thinking that logical explanation is
sufficient: "If only people would read the instructions," they say,
"everything would be all right."
Engineers are trained to think logically. As a result, they come to
believe that all people must think this way, and they design their
machines accordingly. When people have trouble, the engineers
are upset, but often for the wrong reason. "What are these people
doing?" they will wonder. "Why are they doing that?" The prob
lem with the designs of most engineers is that they are too logical.
We have to accept human behavior the way it is, not the way we
would wish it to be.
6 The Design of Everyday Things
I used to be an engineer, focused upon technical requirements,
quite ignorant of people. Even after I switched into psychology
and cognitive science, I still maintained my engineering emphasis
upon logic and mechanism. It took a long time for me to realize
that my understanding of human behavior was relevant to my in
terest in the design of technology. As I watched people struggle
with technology, it became clear that the difficulties were caused
by the technology, not the people.
I was called upon to help analyze the American nuclear power
plant accident at Three Mile Island (the island name comes from
the fact that it is located on a river, three miles south of Middle
town in the state of Pennsylvania). In this incident, a rather simple
mechanical failure was misdiagnosed. This led to several days of
difficulties and confusion, total destruction of the reactor, and a
very close call to a severe radiation release, all of which brought
the American nuclear power industry to a complete halt. The op
erators were blamed for these failures: "human error" was the im
mediate analysis. But the committee I was on discovered that the
plant's control rooms were so poorly designed that error was inevi
table: design was at fault, not the operators. The moral was simple:
we were designing things for people, so we needed to understand
both technology and people. But that's a difficult step for many
engineers: machines are so logical, so orderly. If we didn't have
people, everything would work so much better. Yup, that's how I
used to think.
My work with that committee changed my view of design. To
day, I realize that design presents a fascinating interplay of tech
nology and psychology, that the designers must understand both.
Engineers still tend to believe in logic. They often explain to me
in great, logical detail, why their designs are good, powerful, and
wonderful. "Why are people having problems?" they wonder.
"You are being too logical," I say. "You are designing for people the
way you would like them to be, not for the way they really are."
When the engineers object, I ask whether they have ever made
an error, perhaps turning on or off the wrong light, or the wrong
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 7
stove burner. "Oh yes," they say, "but those were errors." That's
the point: even experts make errors. So we must design our ma
chines on the assumption that people will make errors. (Chapter 5
provides a detailed analysis of human error.)
People are frustrated with everyday things. From the ever-increasing
complexity of the automobile dashboard, to the increasing auto
mation in the home with its internal networks, complex music,
video, and game systems for entertainment and communication,
and the increasing automation in the kitchen, everyday life some
times seems like a never-ending fight against confusion, continued
errors, frustration, and a continual cycle of updating and maintain
ing our belongings.
In the multiple decades that have elapsed since the first edition
of this book was published, design has gotten better. There are now
many books and courses on the topic. But even though much has
improved, the rapid rate of technology change outpaces the ad
vances in design. New technologies, new applications, and new
methods of interaction are continually arising and evolving. New
industries spring up. Each new development seems to repeat the
mistakes of the earlier ones; each new field requires time before
it, too, adopts the principles of good design. And each new inven
tion of technology or interaction technique requires experimenta
tion and study before the principles of good design can be fully
integrated into practice. So, yes, things are getting better, but as a
result, the challenges are ever present.
The solution is human-centered design (HCD), an approach
that puts human needs, capabilities, and behavior first, then de
signs to accommodate those needs, capabilities, and ways of be
having. Good design starts with an understanding of psychology
and technology. Good design requires good communication, espe
cially from machine to person, indicating what actions are possible,
what is happening, and what is about to happen. Communica
tion is especially important when things go wrong. It is relatively
easy to design things that work smoothly and harmoniously as
8 The Design of Everyday Things
TABLE 1.1. The Role of HCD and Design Specializations
Industrial design These are areas of focus
Human-centered design The process that ensures that the
designs match the needs and capa-
bilities of the people for whom they
long as things go right. But as soon as there is a problem or a mis
understanding, the problems arise. This is where good design
is essential. Designers need to focus their attention on the cases
where things go wrong, not just on when things work as planned.
Actually, this is where the most satisfaction can arise: when some
thing goes wrong but the machine highlights the problems, then
the person understands the issue, takes the proper actions, and the
problem is solved. When this happens smoothly, the collaboration
of person and device feels wonderful.
Human-centered design is a design philosophy. It means start
ing with a good understanding of people and the needs that the
desi?1' is intended to meet. This understanding comes about pri
marily through observation, for people themselves are often un
aware of their true needs, even unaware of the difficulties they are
encountering. Getting the specification of the thing to be defined
is one of the most difficult parts of the design, so much so that the
�CD pri�ciple is to avoid specifying the problem as long as pos
sible but mstead to iterate upon repeated approximations. This is
done through rapid tests of ideas, and after each test modifying the
approach and the problem definition. The results can be products
t�at truly meet the needs of people. Doing HCD within the rigid
trme, budget, and other constraints of industry can be a challenge:
Chapter 6 examines these issues.
Where does HCD fit into the earlier discussion of the several dif
ferent forms of design, especially the areas called industrial, inter
action, and experience design? These are all compatible. HCD is a
philosophy and a set of procedures, whereas the others are areas of
focus (see Table 1.1). The philosophy and procedures of HCD add
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 9
deep consideration and study of human needs to the design pro
cess, whatever the product or service, whatever the major focus.
Fundamental Principles of Interaction
Great designers produce pleasurable experien
ces. Experience: note
the word. Engineers tend not to like it; it is too s
ubjective. But when
I ask them about their favorite automobile or
test equipment, they
will smile delightedly as they discuss the fit a
nd finish, the sensa
tion of power during acceleration, their ease o
f control while shift
ing or steering, or the wonderful feel of the kn
obs and switches on
the instrument. Those are experiences.
Experience is critical, for it determines how
fondly people re
member their interactions. Was the overall exp
erience positive, or
was it frustrating and confusing? When our h
ome technology be
haves in an uninterpretable fashion we can beco
me confused, frus
trated, and even angry-all strong negative em
otions . When there
is understanding it can lead to a feeling of con
trol, of mastery, and
of satisfaction or even pride-all strong posit
ive emotions. Cog
nition and emotion are tightly intertwined, wh
ich means that the
designers must design with both in mind.
When we interact with a product, we need to
figure out how to
work it. This means discovering what it does,
how it works, and
what operations are possible: discoverability.
sults from appropriate application of five fund
ical concepts covered in the next few chapters: a
constraints, mappings, and feedback. But there is
a sixth principle,
perhaps most important of all: the conceptual m
odel of the system.
It is the conceptual model that provides true u
I now turn to these fundamental principles, st
arting with affor
dances, signifiers, mappings, and feedback, th
en moving to con
ceptual models. Constraints are covered in Cha
pters 3 and 4.
We live in a world filled with objects, many nat
ural, the rest artifi
cial. Every day we encounter thousands of obje
cts, many of them
new to us. Many of the new objects are similar
to ones we already
10 The Design of Everyday Things
know, but many are unique, yet we manage quite well. How do we
do this? Why is it that when we encounter many unusual natural
objects, we know how to interact with them? Why is this true with
many of the artificial, human-made objects we encounter? The an
swer lies with a few basic principles. Some of the most important
of these principles come from a consideration of affordances.
The term affordance refers to the relationship between a physi
cal object and a person (or for that matter, any interacting agent,
whether animal or human, or even machines and robots). An affor
dance is a relationship between the properties of an object and the
capabilities of the agent that determine just how the object could
possibly be used. A chair affords ("is for") support and, therefore,
affords sitting. Most chairs can also be carried by a single per
son (they afford lifting), but some can only be lifted by a strong
person or by a team of people. If young or relatively weak people
cannot lift a chair, then for these people, the chair does not have
that affordance, it does not afford lifting.
The presence of an affordance is jointly determined by the qual
ities of the object and the abilities of the agent that is interacting.
This relational definition of affordance gives considerable difficulty
to many people. We are used to thinking that properties are asso
ciated with objects. But affordance is not a property. An affordance
is a relationship. Whether an affordance exists depends upon the
properties of both the object and the agent.
Glass affords transparency. At the same time, its physical struc
ture blocks the passage of most physical objects. As a result, glass
affords seeing through and support, but not the passage of air or
most physical objects (atomic particles can pass through glass).
The blockage of passage can be considered an anti-affordance-the
prevention of interaction. To be effective, affordances and anti
affordances have to be discoverable-perceivable. This poses a
difficulty with glass. The reason we like glass is its relative invis
ibility, but this aspect, so useful in the normal window, also hides
its anti-affordance property of blocking passage. As a result, birds
often try to fly through windows. And every year, numerous peo
ple injure themselves when they walk (or run) through closed glass
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 11
doors or large picture windows. If an affordance or anti-affordance
cannot be perceived, some means of signaling its presence is re
quired: I call this property a signifier (discussed in the next section).
The notion of affordance and the insights it provides originated
with J. J. Gibson, an eminent psychologist who provided many
advances to our understanding of human perception. I had in
teracted with him over many years, sometimes in formal confer
ences and seminars, but most fruitfully over many bottles of beer,
late at night, just talking. We disagreed about almost everything.
I was an engineer who became a cognitive psychologist, trying to
understand how the mind works. He started off as a Gestalt psy
chologist, but then developed an approach that is today named
after him: Gibsonian psychology, an ecological approach to percep
tion. He argued that the world contained the clues and that people
simply picked them up through "direct perception." I argued that
nothing could be direct: the brain had to process the information
arriving at the sense organs to put together a coherent interpreta
tion. "Nonsense," he loudly proclaimed; "it requires no interpreta
tion: it is directly perceived." And then he would put his hand to
his ears, and with a triumphant flourish, tum off his hearing aids:
my counterarguments would fall upon deaf ears-literally.
When I pondered my question-how do people know how to act
when confronted with a novel situation-I realized that a large
part of the answer lay in Gibson's work. He pointed out that all the
senses work together, that we pick up information about the world
by the combined result of all of them. "Information pickup" was one
of his favorite phrases, and Gibson believed that the combined in
formation picked up by all of our sensory apparatus-sight, sound,
smell, touch, balance, kinesthetic, acceleration, body position
determines our perceptions without the need for internal pro
cessing or cognition. Although he and I disagreed about the role
played by the brain's internal processing, his brilliance was in fo
cusing attention on the rich amount of information present in the
world. Moreover, the physical objects conveyed important infor
mation about how people could interact with them, a property he
12 The Design of Everyday Things
Affordances exist even if they are not visible. For designers, their
visibility is critical: visible affordances provide strong clues to the
operations of things. A flat plate mounted on a door affords push
ing. Knobs afford turning, pushing, and pulling. Slots are for in
serting things into. Balls are for throwing or bouncing. Perceived
affordances help people figure out what actions are possible with
out the need for labels or instructions. I call the signaling compo
nent of affordances signifiers.
Are affordances important to designers? The first edition of this
book introduced the term affordances to the world of design. The
design community loved the concept and affordances soon prop
agated into the instruction and writing about design. I soon found
mention of the term everywhere. Alas, the term became used in
ways that had nothing to do with the original.
Many people find affordances difficult to understand because
they are relationships, not properties. Designers deal with fixed
properties, so there is a temptation to say that the property is an
affordance. But that is not the only problem with the concept of
Designers have practical problems. They need to know how to
design things to make them understandable. They soon discov
ered that when working with the graphical designs for electronic
displays, they needed a way to designate which parts could be
touched, slid upward, downward, or sideways, or tapped upon.
The actions could be done with a mouse, stylus, or fingers. Some
systems responded to body motions, gestures, and spoken words,
with no touching of any physical device. How could designers de
scribe what they were doing? There was no word that fit, so they
took the closest existing word-affordance. Soon designers were
saying such things as, "I put an affordance there," to describe why
they displayed a circle on a screen to indicate where the person
should touch, whether by mouse or by finger. "No," I said, "that is not
an affordance. That is a way of communicating where the touch
should be. You are communicating where to do the touching: the
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 13
affordance of touching exists on the entire screen: you are trying to
signify where the touch should take place. That's not the same thing
as saying what action is possible."
Not only did my explanation fail to satisfy the design commu
nity, but I myself was unhappy. Eventually I gave up: designers
needed a word to describe what they were doing, so they chose
affordance. What alternative did they have? I decided to provide a
better answer: signifiers. Affordances determine what actions are
possible. Signifiers communicate where the action should take place.
We need both.
People need some way of understanding the product or service
they wish to use, some sign of what it is for, what is happening,
and what the alternative actions are. People search for clues, for
any sign that might help them cope and understand. It is the sign
that is important, anything that might signify meaningful informa
tion. Designers need to provide these clues. What people need, and
what designers must provide, are signifiers. Good design requires,
among other things, good communication of the purpose, struc
ture, and operation of the device to the people who use it. That is
the role of the signifier.
The term signifier has had a long and illustrious career in the ex
otic field of semiotics, the study of signs and symbols. But just as
I appropriated affordance to use in design in a manner somewhat
different than its inventor had intended, I use signifier in a some
what different way than it is used in semiotics. For me, the term
signifier refers to any mark or sound, any perceivable indicator that
communicates appropriate behavior to a person.
Signifiers can be deliberate and intentional, such as the sign
PUSH on a door, but they may also be accidental and unintentional,
such as our use of the visible trail made by previous people walk
ing through a field or over a snow-covered terrain to determine
the best path. Or how we might use the presence or absence of
people waiting at a train station to determine whether we have
missed the train. (I explain these ideas in more detail in my book
Living with Complexity.)
14 The Design of Everyday Things
FIGURE 1.2. Problem Doors: Signifiers Are Needed. Door hardware
can signal whether to push or pull without signs, but the hardware of the
two doors in the upper photo, A, are identical even though one should be
pushed, the other pulled. The flat, ribbed horizontal bar has the obvious
per�eived affordance of pushing, but as the signs indicate, the door on the
left 1s to be pulled, the one on the right is to be pushed. In the bottom pair of
photos, Band C, there are no visible signifiers or affordances. How does one
know which side to push? Trial and error. When external signifiers-signs
have to be added to something as simple as a door, it indicates bad design.
(Photographs by the author.)
The signifier is an important communication device to the recipi
ent, whether or not communication was intended. It doesn't matter
whether the useful signal was deliberately placed or whether it is
incidental: there is no necessary distinction. Why should it matter
whether a flag was placed as a deliberate clue to wind direction (as
is done at airports or on the masts of sailboats) or was there as an
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 15
advertisement or symbol of pride in one's country (as is done on
public buildings). Once I interpret a flag's motion to indicate wind
direction, it does not matter why it was placed there.
Consider a bookmark, a deliberately placed signifier of one's place
in reading a book. But the physical nature of books also makes a
bookmark an accidental signifier, for its placement also indicates
how much of the book remains. Most readers have learned to use
this accidental signifier to aid in their enjoyment of the reading.
With few pages left, we know the end is near. And if the reading is
torturous, as in a school assignment, one can always console one
self by knowing there are "only a few more pages to get through."
Electronic book readers do not have the physical structure of paper
books, so unless the software designer deliberately provides a clue,
they do not convey any signal about the amount of text remaining.
FIGURE 1.3. Sliding Doors: Seldom Done Well. Sliding doors are seldom signified
properly. The top two photographs show the sliding door to the toilet on an Amtrak
train in the United States. The handle clearly signifies "pull," but in fact, it needs to be
rotated and the door slid to the right. The owner of the store in Shanghai, China, Photo
C, solved the problem with a sign. "ooN'T PUSH!" it says, in both English and Chinese.
Amtrak's toilet door could have used a similar kind of sign. (Photographs by the author.)
16 The Design of Everyday Things
Whatever their nature, planned or accidental, signifiers provide
valuable clues as to the nature of the world and of social activities.
For us to function in this social, technological world, we need to
develop internal models of what things mean, of how they operate.
We seek all the clues we can find to help in this enterprise, and
in this way, we are detectives, searching for whatever guidance
we might find. If we are fortunate, thoughtful designers provide
the clues for us. Otherwise, we must use our own creativity and
FIGURE 1.4. The Sink That Would Not Drain: Where Signifiers Fail. I washed my
hands in my hotel sink in London, but then, as shown in Photo A, was left with the
question of how to empty the sink of the dirty water. I searched all over for a control:
none. I tried prying open the sink stopper with a spoon (Photo B): failure. I finally left
my hotel room and went to the front desk to ask for instructions. (Yes, I actually did.)
"Push down on the stopper," I was told. Yes, it worked (Photos C and D). But how was
anyone to ever discover this? And why should I have to put my clean hands back into
the dirty water to empty the sink? The problem here is not just the lack of signifier, it is
the faulty decision to produce a stopper that requires people to dirty their clean hands
to use it. (Photographs by the author.)
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 17
Affordances, perceived affordances, and signifiers have much in
common, so let me pause to ensure that the distinctions are clear.
Affordances represent the possibilities in the world for how an
agent (a person, animal, or machine) can interact with something.
Some affordances are perceivable, others are invisible. Signifiers
are signals. Some signifiers are signs, labels, and drawings placed
in the world, such as the signs labeled "push," "pull," or "exit"
on doors, or arrows and diagrams indicating what is to be acted
upon or in which direction to gesture, or other instructions. Some
signifiers are simply the perceived affordances, such as the han
dle of a door or the physical structure of a switch. Note that some
perceived affordances may not be real: they may look like doors
or places to push, or an impediment to entry, when in fact they
are not. These are misleading signifiers, oftentimes accidental but
sometimes purposeful, as when trying to keep people from doing
actions for which they are not qualified, or in games, where one of
the challenges is to figure out what is real and what is not.
FIGURE 1.5. Accidental Affordances A.
Can Become St rong Signifiers. This
wall, at the Industrial Design department
of KAIST, in Korea, provides an anti
affordance, preventing people from falling
down the stair shaft. Its top is flat, an ac
cidental by-product of the design. But flat
surfaces afford support, and as soon as one
person discovers it can be used to dispose
of empty drink containers, the discarded
container becomes a signifier, telling others
that it is permissible to discard their items
there. (Photographs by the author.)
18 The Design of Everyday Things
My favorite example of a misleading signifier is a row of ver
tical pipes across a service road that I once saw in a public park.
The pipes obviously blocked cars and trucks from driving on that
road: they were good examples of anti-affordances. But to my great
surprise, I saw a park vehicle simply go through the pipes. Huh? I
walked over and examined them: the pipes were made of rubber,
so vehicles could simply drive right over them. A very clever sig
nifier, signaling a blocked road (via an apparent anti-affordance)
to the average person, but permitting passage for those who knew.
• Affordances are the possible interactions between people and the en
vironment. Some affordances are perceivable, others are not.
• Perceived affordances often act as signifiers, but they can be ambiguous.
• Signifiers signal things, in particular what actions are possible and
how they should be done. Signifiers must be perceivable, else they
fail to function.
In design, signifiers are more important than affordances, for
they communicate how to use the design. A signifier can be words,
a graphical illustration, or just a device whose perceived affor
dances are unambiguous. Creative designers incorporate the sig
nifying part of the design into a cohesive experience. For the most
part, designers can focus upon signifiers.
Because affordances and signifiers are fundamentally important
principles of good design, they show up frequently in the pages of
this book. Whenever you see hand-lettered signs pasted on doors,
switches, or products, trying to explain how to work them, what to
do and what not to do, you are also looking at poor design.
AFFORDANCES AND SIGNIFIERS: A CONVERSATION
A designer approaches his mentor. He is working on a system that
recommends restaurants to people, based upon their preferences
and those of their friends. But in his tests, he discovered that peo
ple never used all of the features. "Why not?" he asks his mentor.
(With apologies to Socrates.)
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 19
I'm frustrated; people aren't using Can you tell me about it?
our application properly.
The screen shows the restaurant Why do you think this might be?
that we recommend. It matches their
preferences, and their friends like
it as well. If they want to see other
recommendations, all they have to
do is swipe left or right. To learn
more about a place, just swipe up for
a menu or down to see if any friends
are there now. People seem to find
the other recommendations, but not
the menus or their friends? I don't
I don't know. Should I add some That is very nice. But why do you
affordances? Suppose I put an arrow call these affordances? They could
on each edge and add a label saying already do the actions. Weren't the
what they do. affordances already there?
Yes, you have a point. But the affor· Very true. You added a signal of
dances weren't visible. I made them what to do.
Yes, isn't that what I said? Not quite you called them affor·
dances even though they afford
nothing new: they signify what to do
and where to do it. So call them by
their right name: "signifiers."
Oh, I see. But then why do designers You speak wisely. Communication is
care about affordances? Perhaps a key to good design. And a key to
we should focus our attention on communication is the signifier.
Oh. Now I understand my confusion. Profound ideas are always obvious
Yes, a signifier is what signifies. It once they are understood.
is a sign. Now it seems perfectly
Mapping is a technical term, borrowed from mathematics, �ean
ing the relationship between the elem��ts of two sets of things.
Suppose there are many lights in the ceiling of a classroom or au
ditorium and a row of light switches on the wall at the front of the
20 The Design of Everyday Things
FIGURE 1.6. Signifiers on a Touch Screen.
The arrows and icons are signifiers: they pro
vide signals about the permissible operations
for this restaurant guide. Swiping left or right
brings up new restaurant recommendations.
Swiping up reveals the menu for the restau
rant being displayed; swiping down, friends
who recommend the restaurant.
room. The mapping of switches to lights specifies which switch
controls which light.
Mapping is an important concept in the design and layout of
controls and displays. When the mapping uses spatial correspon
dence between the layout of the controls and the devices being
controlled, it is easy to determine how to use them. In steering a
car, we rotate the steering wheel clockwise to cause the car to turn
right: the top of the wheel moves in the same direction as the car.
Note that other choices could have been made. In early cars, steer
ing was controlled by a variety of devices, including tillers, han
dlebars, and reins. Today, some vehicles use joysticks, much as in a
computer game. In cars that used tillers, steering was done much
as one steers a boat: move the tiller to the left to turn to the right.
Tractors, construction equipment such as bulldozers and cranes,
and military tanks that have tracks instead of wheels use separate
controls for the speed and direction of each track: to turn right, the
left track is increased in speed, while the right track is slowed or
even reversed. This is also how a wheelchair is steered.
All of these mappings for the control of vehicles work because
each has a compelling conceptual model of how the operation of
the control affects the vehicle. Thus, if we speed up the left wheel
of a wheelchair while stopping the right wheel, it is easy to imag
ine the chair's pivoting on the right wheel, circling to the right. In
ONE: The Psyclwpathology of Everyday Things 21
a small boat, we can understand the tiller by realizing that pushing
the tiller to the left causes the ship's rudder to move to the right
and the resulting force of the water on the rudder slows down the
right side of the boat, so that the boat rotates to the right. It doesn't
matter whether these conceptual models are accurate: what mat
ters is that they provide a clear way of remembering and under
standing the mappings. The relationship between a control and
its results is easiest to learn wherever there is an understandable
mapping between the controls, the actions, and the intended result.
Natural mapping, by which I mean taking advantage of spatial
analogies, leads to immediate understanding. For example, to move
an object up, move the control up. To make it easy to determine
which control works which light in a large room or auditorium,
arrange the controls in the same pattern as the lights. Some natural
mappings are cultural or biological, as in the universal standard
that moving the hand up signifies more, moving it down signifies
less, which is why it is appropriate to use vertical position to rep
resent intensity or amount. Other natural mappings follow from
the principles of perception and allow for the natural grouping or
patterning of controls and feedback. Groupings and proximity
are important principles from Gestalt psychology that can be used
to map controls to function: related controls should be grouped to
gether. Controls should be close to the item being controlled.
Note that there are many mappings that feel "natural" but in fact
are specific to a particular culture: what is natural for one culture
is not necessarily natural for another. In Chapter 3, I discuss how
22 The Design of Everyday Things
FIGURE 1.7. Good Mapping: Automobile Seat
Adjustment Control. This is an excellent example of
natural mapping. The control is in the shape of the
seat itself: the mapping is straightforward. To move
the front edge of the seat higher, lift up on the front
part of the button. To make the seat back recline,
move the button back. The same principle could be
applied to much more common objects. This partic
ular control is from Mercedes-Benz, but this form of
mapping is now used by many automobile compa
nies. (Photograph by the author.)
different cultures view time, which has important implications for
some kinds of mappings.
A device is easy to use when the set of possible actions is visi
ble, when the controls and displays exploit natural mappings. The
principles are simple but rarely incorporated into design. Good de
sign takes care, planning, thought, and an understanding of how
Ever watch people at an elevator repeatedly push the Up button,
or repeatedly push the pedestrian button at a street crossing? Ever
drive to a traffic intersection and wait an inordinate amount of
time for the signals to change, wondering all the time whether the
detection circuits noticed your vehicle (a common problem with
bicycles)? What is missing in all these cases is feedback: some way
of letting you know that the system is working on your request.
Feedback-communicating the results of an action-is a well
known concept from the science of control and information theory.
Imagine trying to hit a target with a ball when you cannot see the
target. Even as simple a task as picking up a glass with the hand re
quires feedback to aim the hand properly, to grasp the glass, and to
lift it. A misplaced hand will spill the contents, too hard a grip will
break the glass, and too weak a grip will allow it to fall. The human
nervous system is equipped with numerous feedback mechanisms,
including visual, auditory, and touch sensors, as well as vestibular
and proprioceptive systems that monitor body position and mus
cle and limb movements. Given the importance of feedback, it is
amazing how many products ignore it.
Feedback must be immediate: even a delay of a tenth of a second
can be disconcerting. If the delay is too long, people often give up,
going off to do other activities. This is annoying to the people, but
it can also be wasteful of resources when the system spends con
siderable time and effort to satisfy the request, only to find that the
intended recipient is no longer there. Feedback must also be infor
mative. Many companies try to save money by using inexpensive
lights or sound generators for feedback. These simple light flashes
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 23
or beeps are usually more annoying than useful. They tell us that
something has happened, but convey very little information about
what has happened, and then nothing about what we should do
about it. When the signal is auditory, in many cases we cannot
even be certain which device has created the sound. If the signal
is a light, we may miss it unless our eyes are on the correct spot
at the correct time. Poor feedback can be worse than no feedback
at all, because it is distracting, uninformative, and in many cases
irritating and anxiety-provoking.
Too much feedback can be even more annoying than too little.
My dishwasher likes to beep at three a.m. to tell me that the wash
is done, defeating my goal of having it work in the middle of the
night so as not to disturb anyone (and to use less expensive elec
tricity). But worst of all is inappropriate, uninterpretable feedback.
The irritation caused by a "backseat driver" is well enough known
that it is the staple of numerous jokes. Backseat drivers are often
correct, but their remarks and comments can be so numerous and
continuous that instead of helping, they become an irritating dis
traction. Machines that give too much feedback are like backseat
drivers. Not only is it distracting to be subjected to continual flash
ing lights, text announcements, spoken voices, or beeps and boops,
but it can be dangerous. Too many announcements cause people to
ignore all of them, or wherever possible, disable all of them, which
means that critical and important ones are apt to be missed. Feed
back is essential, but not when it gets in the way of other things,
including a calm and relaxing environment.
Poor design of feedback can be the result of decisions aimed at
reducing costs, even if they make life more difficult for people.
Rather than use multiple signal lights, informative displays, or
rich, musical sounds with varying patterns, the focus upon cost
reduction forces the design to use a single light or sound to convey
multiple types of information. If the choice is to use a light, then
one flash might mean one thing; two rapid flashes, something else.
A long flash might signal yet another state; and a long flash fol
lowed by a brief one, yet another. If the choice is to use a sound,
quite often the least expensive sound device is selected, one that
24 The Design of Everyday Things
can only produce a high-frequency beep. Just as with the lights,
the only way to signal different states of the machine is by beeping
different patterns. What do all these different patterns mean? How
can we possibly learn and remember them? It doesn't help that
every different machine uses a different pattern of lights or beeps,
sometimes with the same patterns meaning contradictory things
for different machines. All the beeps sound alike, so it often isn't
even possible to know which machine is talking to us.
Feedback has to be planned. All actions need to be confirmed,
but in a manner that is unobtrusive. Feedback must also be prior
itized, so that unimportant information is presented in an unob
trusive fashion, but important signals are presented in a way that
does capture attention. When there are major emergencies, then
even important signals have to be prioritized. When every device
is signaling a major emergency, nothing is gained by the result
ing cacophony. The continual beeps and alarms of equipment can
be dangerous. In many emergencies, workers have to spend valu
able time turning off all the alarms because the sounds interfere
with the concentration required to solve the problem. Hospital op
erating rooms, emergency wards. Nuclear power control plants.
Airplane cockpits. All can become confusing, irritating, and life
endangering places because of excessive feedback, excessive alarms,
and incompatible message coding. Feedback is essential, but it has
to be done correctly. Appropriately.
A conceptual model is an explanation, usually highly simplified,
of how something works. It doesn't have to be complete or even
accurate as long as it is useful. The files, folders, and icons you see
displayed on a computer screen help people create the conceptual
model of documents and folders inside the computer, or of apps
or applications residing on the screen, waiting to be summoned. In
fact, there are no folders inside the computer-those are effective
conceptualizations designed to make them easier to use. Some
times these depictions can add to the confusion, however. When
reading e-mail or visiting a website, the material appears to be on
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 25
the device, for that is where it is displayed and manipulated. But
in fact, in many cases the actual material is "in the cloud," located
on some distant machine. The conceptual model is of one, coherent
image, whereas it may actually consist of parts, each located on
different machines that could be almost anywhere in the world.
This simplified model is helpful for normal usage, but if the net
work connection to the cloud services is interrupted, the result can
be confusing. Information is still on their screen, but users can no
longer save it or retrieve new things: their conceptual model offers
no explanation. Simplified models are valuable only as long as the
assumptions that support them hold true.
There are often multiple conceptual models of a product or de
vice. People's conceptual models for the way that regenerative
braking in a hybrid or electrically powered automobile works are
quite different for average drivers than for technically sophisti
cated drivers, different again for whoever must service the system,
and yet different again for those who designed the system.
Conceptual models found in technical manuals and books for
technical use can be detailed and complex. The ones we are con
cerned with here are simpler: they reside in the minds of the peo
ple who are using the product, so they are also "mental models."
Mental models, as the name implies, are the conceptual models in
people's minds that represent their understanding of how things
work. Different people may hold different mental models of the
same item. Indeed, a single person might have multiple models of
the same item, each dealing with a different aspect of its opera
tion: the models can even be in conflict.
Conceptual models are often inferred from the device itself. Some
models are passed on from person to person. Some come from
manuals. Usually the device itself offers very little assistance, so
the model is constructed by experience. Quite often these models
are erroneous, and therefore lead to difficulties in using the device.
The major clues to how things work come from their perceived
structure-in particular from signifiers, affordances, constraints,
and mappings. Hand tools for the shop, gardening, and the house
tend to make their critical parts sufficiently visible that concep-
26 The Design of Everyday Things
FIGURE 1.8. Junghans Mega 1000 Digital Radio
Controlled Watch. There is no good conceptual model
for understanding the operation of my watch. It has five
buttons with no hints as to what each one does. And yes,
the buttons do different things in their different modes.
But it is a very nice-looking watch, and always has the
exact time because it checks official radio time stations.
(The top row of the display is the date: Wednesday, Feb
ruary 20, the eighth week of the year.) (Photograph by the
tual models of their operation and function are readily derived.
Consider a pair of scissors: you can see that the number of possi
ble actions is limited. The holes are clearly there to put something
into, and the only logical things that will fit are fingers. The holes
are both affordances-they allow the fingers to be inserted-and
signifiers-they indicate where the fingers are to go. The sizes of
the holes provide constraints to limit the possible fingers: a big
hole suggests several fingers; a small hole, only one. The mapping
between holes and fingers-the set of possible operations-is sig
nified and constrained by the holes. Moreover, the operation is not
sensitive to finger placement: if you use the wrong fingers (or the
wrong hand), the scissors still work, although not as comfortably.
You can figure out the scissors because their operating parts are
visible and the implications clear. The conceptual model is obvious,
and there is effective use of signifiers, affordances, and constraints.
What happens when the device does not suggest a good concep
tual model? Consider my digital watch with five buttons: two along
the top, two along the bottom, and one on the left side (Figure 1.8).
What is each button for? How would you set the time? There is no
way to tell-no evident relationship between the operating controls
and the functions, no constraints, no apparent mappings. Moreover,
the buttons have multiple ways of being used. Two of the buttons
do different things when pushed quickly or when kept depressed
for several seconds. Some operations require simultaneous depres
sion of several of the buttons. The only way to tell how to work the
watch is to read the manual, over and over again. With the scissors,
moving the handle makes the blades move. The watch provides no
ONE: The Psychopathologi; of Everyday Things 27
visible relationship between the buttons and the possible actions,
no discernible relationship between the actions and the end results.
I really like the watch: too bad I can't remember all the functions.
Conceptual models are valuable in providing understanding, in
predicting how things will behave, and in figuring out what to do
when things do not go as planned. A good conceptual model allows
us to predict the effects of our actions. Without a good model, we op
erate by rote, blindly; we do operations as we were told to do them;
we can't fully appreciate why, what effects to expect, or what to do
if things go wrong. As long as things work properly, we can manage.
When things go wrong, however, or when we come upon a novel
situation, then we need a deeper understanding, a good model.
For everyday things, conceptual models need not be very com
plex. After all, scissors, pens, and light switches are pretty simple
devices. There is no need to understand the underlying physics or
chemistry of each device we own, just the relationship between
the controls and the outcomes. W hen the model presented to us is
inadequate or wrong (or, worse, nonexistent), we can have difficul
ties. Let me tell you about my refrigerator.
I used to own an ordinary, two-compartment refrigerator-nothing
very fancy about it. The problem was that I couldn't set the tem
perature properly. There were only two things to do: adjust the
temperature of the freezer compartment and adjust the tempera-
6 ) COLOER r a (®•
FIGURE 1.9. Refrigerator Controls. Two compartments
fresh food and freezer-and two controls (in the fresh food
unit). Your task: Suppose the freezer is too cold, the fresh food
sec tion just right. How would you adjust the controls so as to
make the freezer warmer and keep the fresh food the same?
(Photograph by the author.)
28 The Design of Everyday Things
ture of the fresh food compartment. And there were two controls,
one labeled "freezer," the other "refrigerator." What's the problem?
Oh, perhaps I'd better warn you. The two controls are not inde
pendent. The freezer control also affects the fresh food tempera
ture, and the fresh food control also affects the freezer. Moreover,
the manual warns that one should "always allow twenty-four (24)
hours for the temperature to stabilize whether setting the controls
for the first time or making an adjustment."
It was extremely difficult to regulate the temperature of my old
refrigerator. Why? Because the controls suggest a false conceptual
model. Two compartments, two controls, which implies that each
control is responsible for the temperature of the compartment that
carries its name: this conceptual model is shown in Figure 1.lOA. It
is wrong. In fact, there is only one thermostat and only one cooling
mechanism. One control adjusts the thermostat setting, the other
the relative proportion of cold air sent to each of the two compart
ments of the refrigerator. This is why the two controls interact: this
conceptual model is shown in Figure 1.108. In addition, there must
be a temperature sensor, but there is no way of knowing where it
is located. With the conceptual model suggested by the controls,
FI?URE �.10. Two Conceptual Models for a Refrigerator. The conceptual model
A is provided by the system image of the refrigerator as gleaned from the controls.
Each control determines the temperature of the named part of the refrigerator. This
means that each compartment has its own temperature sensor and cooling unit. This is
wrong. The correct conceptual model is shown in B. There is no way of knowing where
the temperature sensor is located so it is shown outside the refrigerator. The freezer
control determines the freezer temperature (so is this where the sensor is located?).
The refrigerator control determines how much of the cold air goes to the freezer and
how much to the refrigerator.
ONE: The Psychopathologi; of Everyday Things 29
adjusting the temperatures is almost impossible and always frus
trating. Given the correct model, life would be much easier.
Why did the manufacturer suggest the wrong conceptual model?
We will never know. In the twenty-five years since the publication
of the first edition of this book, I have had many letters from people
thanking me for explaining their confusing refrigerator, but never
any communication from the manufacturer (General Electric). Per
haps the designers thought the correct model was too complex,
that the model they were giving was easier to understand. But with
the wrong conceptual model, it was impossible to set the controls.
And even though I am convinced I knew the correct model, I still
couldn't accurately adjust the temperatures because the refrigera
tor design made it impossible to discover which control was for the
temperature sensor, which for the relative proportion of cold air,
and in which compartment the sensor was located. The lack of im
mediate feedback for the actions did not help: it took twenty-four
hours to see whether the new setting was appropriate . I shouldn't
have to keep a laboratory notebook and do controlled experiments
just to set the temperature of my refrigerator.
I am happy to say that I no longer own that refrigerator. In
stead I have one that has two separate controls, one in the fresh
food compartment, one in the freezer compartment. Each control
is nicely calibrated in degrees and labeled with the name of the
compartment it controls. The two compartments are independent:
setting the temperature in one has no effect on the temperature in
the other. This solution, although ideal, does cost more. But far less
expensive solutions are possible. With today's inexpensive sensors
and motors, it should be possible to have a single cooling unit with
a motor-controlled valve controlling the relative proportion of cold
air diverted to each compartment. A simple, inexpensive computer
chip could regulate the cooling unit and valve position so that the
temperatures in the two compartments match their targets. A bit
more work for the engineering design team? Yes, but the results
would be worth it. Alas, General Electric is still selling refrigerators
with the very same controls and mechanisms that cause so much
30 The Design of Everyday Things
confusion. The photograph in Figure 1.9 is from a contemporary
refrigerator, photographed in a store while preparing this book.
The System Image
People create mental models of themselves, others, the environ
ment, and the things with which they interact. These are concep
tual models formed through experience, training, and instruction.
These models serve as guides to help achieve our goals and in un
derstanding the world.
How do we form an appropriate conceptual model for the de
vices we interact with? We cannot talk to the designer, so we rely
upon whatever information is available to us: what the device
looks like, what we know from using similar things in the past,
what was told to us in the sales literature, by salespeople and ad
vertisements, by articles we may have read, by the product website
and instruction manuals. I call the combined information available
to us the system image. When the system image is incoherent or in
appropriate, as in the case of the refrigerator, then the user cannot
easily use the device. If it is incomplete or contradictory, there will
As illustrated in Figure 1.11, the designer of the product and the
person using the product form somewhat disconnected vertices of
a triangle. The designer's conceptual model is the designer's con
ception of the product, occupying one vertex of the triangle. The
product itself is no longer with the designer, so it is isolated as a
second vertex, perhaps sitting on the user's kitchen counter. The
system image is what can be perceived from the physical struc
ture that has been built (including documentation, instructions,
signifiers, and any information available from websites and help
lines). The user's conceptual model comes from the system image,
through interaction with the product, reading, searching for online
information, and from whatever manuals are provided. The de
signer expects the user's model to be identical to the design model,
but because designers cannot communicate directly with users, the
entire burden of communication is on the system image.
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 31
FIGURE 1.11. The Designer's Model,
the User's Model, and the System Im·
age. The designer's conceptual model is
the designer's conception of the look, feel,
and operation of a product. The system
image is what can be derived from the
physical structure that has been built
(including documentation). The user's
mental model is developed through in·
teraction with the product and the system
image. Designers expect the user's model
to be identical to their own, but because
they cannot communicate directly with
the user, the burden of communication is
with the system image.
Figure 1.11 indicates why communication is such an important
aspect of good design. No matter how brilliant the product, if peo
ple cannot use it, it will receive poor reviews. It is up to the de
signer to provide the appropriate information to make the product
understandable and usable. Most important is the provision of a
good conceptual model that guides the user when thing go wrong.
With a good conceptual model, people can figure out what has
happened and correct the things that went wrong. Without a good
model, they struggle, often making matters worse.
Good conceptual models are the key to understandable, enjoy
able products: good communication is the key to good conceptual
The Paradox of Technology
Technology offers the potential to make life easier and more en
joyable; each new technology provides increased benefits. At the
same time, added complexities increase our difficulty and frustra
tion with technology. The design problem posed by technological
advances is enormous. Consider the wristwatch. A few decades
ago, watches were simple. All you had to do was set the time and
keep the watch wound. The standard control was the stern: a knob
at the side of the watch. Turning the knob would wind the spring
that provided power to the watch movement. Pulling out the knob
and turning it rotated the hands. The operations were easy to learn
and easy to do. There was a reasonable relationship between the
32 The Design of Everyday Things
turning of the knob and the resulting turning of the hands. The
design even took into account human error. In its normal position,
turning the stern wound the mainspring of the clock. The stern had
to be pulled before it would engage the gears for setting the time.
Accidental turns of the stern did no harm.
Watches in olden times were expensive instruments, manu
factured by hand. They were sold in jewelry stores. Over time,
with the introduction of digital technology, the cost of watches
decreased rapidly, while their accuracy and reliability increased.
Watches became tools, available in a wide variety of styles and
shapes and with an ever-increasing number of functions. Watches
were sold everywhere, from local shops to sporting goods stores
to electronic stores. Moreover, accurate clocks were incorporated in
many appliances, from phones to musical keyboards: many people
no longer felt the need to wear a watch. Watches became inexpen
sive enough that the average person could own multiple watches.
They became fashion accessories, where one changed the watch
with each change in activity and each change of clothes.
In the modern digital watch, instead of winding the spring, we
change the battery, or in the case of a solar-powered watch, ensure
that it gets its weekly dose of light. The technology has allowed
more functions: the watch can give the day of the week, the month,
and the year; it can act as a stopwatch (which itself has several
functions), a countdown timer, and an alarm clock (or two); it has
the ability to show the time for different time zones; it can act as
a counter and even as a calculator. My watch, shown in Figure
1.8, has many functions. It even has a radio receiver to allow it to
set its time with official time stations around the world. Even so,
it is far less complex than many that are available. Some watches
have built-in compasses and barometers, accelerometers, and tem
perature gauges. Some have GPS and Internet receivers so they
can display the weather and news, e-mail messages, and the lat
est from social networks. Some have built-in cameras. Some work
with buttons, knobs, motion, or speech. Some detect gestures. The
watch is no longer just an instrument for telling time: it has become
a platform for enhancing multiple activities and lifestyles.
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 33
The added functions cause problems: How can all these func
tions fit into a small, wearable size? There are no easy answers.
Many people have solved the problem by not using a watch. They
use their phone instead. A cell phone performs all the functions
much better than the tiny watch, while also displaying the time.
Now imagine a future where instead of the phone replacing
the watch, the two will merge, perhaps worn on the wrist, per
haps on the head like glasses, complete with display screen. The
phone, watch, and components of a computer will all form one
unit. We will have flexible displays that show only a tiny amount
of information in their normal state, but that can unroll to consid
erable size. Projectors will be so small and light that they can be
built into watches or phones (or perhaps rings and other jewelry),
projecting their images onto any convenient surface. Or perhaps
our devices won't have displays, but will quietly whisper the re
sults into our ears, or simply use whatever display happens to be
available: the display in the seatback of cars or airplanes, hotel
room televisions, whatever is nearby. The devices will be able to
do many useful things, but I fear they will also frustrate: so many
things to control, so little space for controls or signifiers. The ob
vious solution is to use exotic gestures or spoken commands, but
how will we learn, and then remember, them? As I discuss later,
the best solution is for there to be agreed upon standards, so we
need learn the controls only once. But as I also discuss, agreeing
upon these is a complex process, with many competing forces hin
dering rapid resolution. We will see.
The same technology that simplifies life by providing more
functions in each device also complicates life by making the device
harder to learn, harder to use. This is the paradox of technology
and the challenge for the designer.
T_he Design Challenge
Design requires the cooperative efforts of multiple disciplines. The
number of different disciplines required to produce a successful
product is staggering. Great design requires great designers, but
that isn't enough: it also requires great management, because the
34 The Design of Everyday Things
hardest part of producing a product is coordinating all the many,
separate disciplines, each with different goals and priorities. Each
discipline has a different perspective of the relative importance of
the many factors that make up a product. One discipline argues
that it must be usable and understandable, another that it must be
attractive, yet another that it has to be affordable. Moreover, the de
vice has to be reliable, be able to be manufactured and serviced. It
must be distinguishable from competing products and superior in
critical dimensions such as price, reliability, appearance, and the
functions it provides. Finally, people have to actually purchase
it. It doesn't matter how good a product is if, in the end, nobody
Quite often each discipline believes its distinct contribution to
be most important: "Price," argues the marketing representative,
"price plus these features." "Reliable," insist the engineers. "We
have to be able to manufacture it in our existing plants," say the
manufacturing representatives. "We keep getting service calls,"
say the support people; "we need to solve those problems in the
design." "You can't put all that together and still have a reasonable
product," says the design team. Who is right? Everyone is right.
The successful product has to satisfy all these requirements.
The hard part is to convince people to understand the view
points of the others, to abandon their disciplinary viewpoint and
to think of the design from the viewpoints of the person who buys
the product and those who use it, often different people. The view
point of the business is also important, because it does not matter
how wonderful the product is if not enough people buy it. If a
product does not sell, the company must often stop producing it,
even if it is a great product. Few companies can sustain the huge
cost of keeping an unprofitable product alive long enough for its
sales to reach profitability-with new products, this period is usu
ally measured in years, and sometimes, as with the adoption of
high-definition television, decades.
Designing well is not easy. The manufacturer wants something
that can be produced economically. The store wants something
that will be attractive to its customers. The purchaser has several
ONE: The Psychopathology of Everyday Things 35
demands. In the store, the purchaser focuses on price and appear
ance, and perhaps on prestige value. At home, the same person
will pay more attention to functionality and usability. The repair
service cares about maintainability: how easy is the device to take
ap art, diagnose, and service? The needs of those concerned are
different and often conflict. Nonetheless, if the design team has
representatives from all the constituencies present at the same
time, it is of ten possible to reach satisfactory solutions for all
the needs. It is when the disciplines operate independently of one
another that maj or clashes and deficiencies occur. The challenge
is to use the principles of human-centered design to produce pos
itive results, products that enhance lives and add to our pleasure
and enjoyment. The goal is to produce a great product, one that is
successful, and that customers love. It can be done.
36 The Design of Everyday Things
The Hype about Hyperlinks
The Al Problem. as ifs called - of making machines behave close
enough to how humans behave intelligently - ... has not been solved.
Moreover, there is nothing on the horizon that says, I see some light.
Words like "artificial intelligence." "intelligent agents." "servants" - all
these hyped words we hear in the press - are restatements of the mess
and the problem we're in.
We would love to have a machine that could go and search the Web.
and our personal stores. knowing our preferences. and knowing what
we mean when we say something. But we Just don't have anything at
Michael Dertouzos. Director, Laboratory for Computer Science, MIT'
Successful retrieval of information is the primary goal of most
Web users. According to a Pew Foundation report: "Search
engines are highly popular among Internet users. Searching
the Internet is one of the earliest activities people try when
they first start using the Internet, and most users quickly feel
comfortable with the act of searching ... 84% of internet users
have used search engines and, on a given day, 56% of those
online use a search engine. " 2 As everyone who has searched on
the Web knows, the power of search engines has changed
dramatically in the past decade. To understand the current situ
ation and to anticipate future developments we need to under
stand the problems involved in providing quick and reliable
searches, how it was done a decade ago and how it is done now.
W hen I finished the manuscript of this book in 1999, the
people whose judgment I trusted were deeply pessimistic
HUBERT L. DREYFUS
LONDON AND NEW YORK
about the future of information retrieval on the World Wide
Web. The issues they raised are still relevant, although, as we
shall soon see, their pessimism is not. In this second edition I
will retain a shortened and lightly edited version of my opening
remarks from the first edition up to the point where the then
current understanding of the problem of search became his
tory, and the attitude of the reliable researchers changed
almost overnight. Then, in the new material that makes up the
second half of this chapter, I'll explain what is possible now,
how it became possible, and, based on these new develop
ments, I'll predict where search is going from here.
In 1999 I wrote:
The Web is vast and growing exuberantly. At a recent count, it
had over a billion pages and it continues to grow at the rate of
at least a million pages a day. 3 (It is characteristic of the Web
that these statistics, as you read them, are already far out of
date.) There is an amazing amount of useful information on
the Web but it is getting harder and harder to find. The prob
lem arises from the way information is organized ( or, better,
disorganized) on the Web. The way the Web works, each
element of this welter of information is linked to many other
elements by hyperlinks. Such links can link any element of
information to any other element for any reason that happens
to occur to whoever is making the link. No authority or agreed
upon catalogue system constrains the linker's associations. 4
Hyperlinks have not been introduced because they are
more useful for retrieving relevant information than the old
systematic ordering. Rather, they are the natural way to use the
speed and processing power of computers to relate a vast
amount of information without needing to understand it or
impose any authoritarian or even generally accepted structure
on it. But, when everything can be linked to everything else
without regard for purpose or meaning, the vast size of the
Web and the arbitrariness of the links make it extremely dif
ficult for people desiring specific information to find the
information they seek.
The traditional way of ordering information depends on
someone - a zoologist, a librarian, a philosopher - having
worked out a classification scheme according to the meanings
of the terms involved and the interests of the users. 5 People can
then enter new information into this classification scheme on
the basis of what they understand to be the meaning of the
categories and of the new information. If one wants to use
the information, one has to depend on those who developed
the classifications to have organized the information on the
basis of its meaning so that users can find the information that
is relevant given their interests.
Since Aristotle, we have been accustomed to organize infor
mation in a hierarchy of broader and broader classes, each
including the narrower ones beneath it. So we descend from
things, to living things, to animals, to mammals, to dogs, to
collies, to Lassie. W hen information is organized in such a
vertical database, the user can follow out the meaningful links,
but the user is forced to commit to a certain class of informa
tion before he can view more specific data that fall under that
class. For example, I have to commit to an interest in animals
before I can find out what I want to know about tortoises; and
once having made that commitment to the animal line in the
database, I can't then examine the data on problems of infinity
without backtracking through the commitments I have made.
W hen information is organized horizontally by hyperlinks,
however, as it is on the Web, instead of the relation between a
class and its members, the organizing principle is simply the
inter-connectedness of all elements. There are no hierarchies;
everything is linked to everything else on a single level, and
meaning is irrelevant. Thus hyperlinks allow the user to move
directly from one data entry to any other, as long as they are
related in at least some tenuous fashion. The whole of the
Web lies only a few links away from any page. With a hyper
linked database, the user is encouraged to traverse a vast net
work of information, all of which is equally accessible and
none of which is privileged. So, for instance, among the sites
that contain information on tortoises suggested to me by
my browser, I might click on the one called “Tortoises –
compared to hares”, and be transported instantly to an entry
on Zeno’s paradox.
We can focus the old and new ways of organizing and
retrieving information, and see the attraction of each, by con
trasting the old library culture and the new kind of libraries
made possible by hyperlinks. Table 1 contrasts a meaning
driven, semantic structuring of information with a formal,
syntactic structuring, where meaning plays no role.
Clearly, the user of a hyper-connected library would no
longer be a modern subject with a fixed identity who desires a
more complete and reliable model of the world, 6 but rather a
postmodern, protean being ready to be opened up to ever new
horizons. Such a new being is not interested in collecting what is
significant but in connecting to as wide a web of information as possible.
Web surfers embrace proliferating information as a contri
bution to a new form of life in which surprise and won
der are more important than meaning and usefulness. This
approach appeals especially to those who like the idea of reject
ing hierarchy and authority and who don’t have to worry
about the practical problem of finding relevant information.
So postmodern theorists and artists embrace hyperlinks as a
OLD LIBRARY CULTURE HYPERLINKED CULTURE
a. stable a. flexible
b. hierarchically organized b. single-level
c. defined by specific interests c. allowing all possible associations
Careful selection Access to everything
a. quality of editions a. inclusiveness of editions
b. authenticity of the text b. availability of texts
c. eliminate old material c. save everything
Permanent collections Dynamic collections
a. preservation of a fixed text a. inter textual evolution
b. interested browsing b. playful surfing
Table 1: Opposition between old and new systems of information retrieval
way of freeing us from anonymous specialists organizing our
databases and deciding for us what is relevant to what. Quantity
of connections is valued above the quality of these connections.
The idea has an all-American democratic ring. As Fareed
Zakaria, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs, observes: “The
Internet is profoundly disrespectful of tradition, established
order, and hierarchy, and that is very American.” 7
Those who want to use the available data, however, have to
find the information that is meaningful and relevant to them
given their current concerns. But, given that in a hyperlinked
database anything may be linked to anything else, this is a very
challenging task. Since hyperlinks are made for all sorts of
reasons and since there is only one basic type of link, the
searcher cannot use the meaning of the links to arrive at the
information he is seeking. The problem is tl1at, as far as
meaning is concerned, all hyperlinks are alike. As one
researcher puts it, the retrieval job is worse than looking for a
needle in a haystack; it’s like looking for a specific needle in a
needle stack. Given the lack of any semantic content deter
mining the connections, it looks like any means for searching
the Web must be a formal, syntactic technique called data
mining that tracks statistical relations such as frequency
between meaningless data.
The difficulty of using meaningless mechanical operations
to retrieve meaningful information did not await the arrival
of the Net. It arises whenever anyone seeks to retrieve infor
mation relevant to a specific purpose from a database not
organized to serve that particular purpose. In a typical case,
researchers may be looking for published papers on a topic
they are interested in, but the mere words in the titles of the
papers do not enable a search engine to return just those
documents or websites that meet a specific searcher’s needs.
To understand the problem it helps to distinguish Data
Retrieval (DR) from Information Retrieval (IR). David Blair,
Professor of Computer and Information Systems at the Uni
versity of Michigan, 8 explains the difference:
Data Base Management Systems have revolutionized the
management and retrieval of data – we can call directory
assistance and get the phone number of just about anyone
anywhere in the US or Canada; we can walk to an ATM in a city
far away from our home town and withdraw cash from our
home bank account; we can go to a ticket office in Michigan
and buy a reserved seat for a play in San Francisco; etc. All of
this is possible, in part. because of the large-scale, reliable
database management systems that have been developed
over the last 35 years.
Data retrieval operates on entities like .. names.··
.. addresses:· .. phone numbers:· .. account balances:·
.. social security numbers:· – all items that typically have
clear. unambiguous references. But although some of the
representations of documents have clear senses and
references – like the author or title of a document – many IR
searches are not based on authors or titles. but are interested
in the .. intellectual content” of the documents [e.g …. Get
me any reports that analyse Central European investment
prospects in service industries”). Descriptions of intellectual
content are almost never determinate. and on large retrieval
systems. especially the WWW, subject descriptions are
usually hopelessly imprecise/indeterminate for all but the
most general searching.9
So searching for a known URL on the WWW is simple and
easy; it has the precision and directedness of data retrieval. But
searching for a Web page with specific intellectual content
using Web search engines can be very difficult, sometimes
The difference between Data Retrieval and Document
Retrieval can be summed up as shown in Table 2.
Before the advent of the Web and Web search engines, the
attempted solution to the document retrieval problem was to
have human beings – that is, indexers who understood the
documents – help describe their contents so that they might
be retrieved by those who wanted them. But there simply
aren’t enough cataloguers to index the Web – it’s too large
and it’s growing too fast.
The early search engines simply created an index of words
associated with a list of documents that contained them, with
scoring based on whether or not the word was in the title,
where Google is concerned, the more votes as to importance,
that is the more hyper-connected websites, the better. Thus,
with the arrival of Google, pessimism turned to optimism
overnight. Page and Brin conclude: “We are optimistic that
our centralized Web search engine architecture will improve
in its ability to cover the pertinent text information over time
and that there is a bright future for search. “24
ONE THE HYPE ABOUT HYPERLINKS
National Public Radio, “The Future of Computing”, Talk of the Nation,
Science Friday, July 7, 2000.
2 Fallows, D., «Search Engine Users», Pew Foundation, URL http:/ I
www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP _Searchengine_us ers.pdf, 2005.12.
3 S. Lawrence and C. L. Giles, NEC Research Institute, “Searching the
World Wide Web”, Science, 280, April 3, 1998, p. 98. Moreo ver, the size
isn’t just the number of Websites or pages; the number of hyperlinks
embedded in the Web pages is even larger.
4 There has been some interesting litigation of late trying to stop this
“free-linking” of anything to anything, in which parties have sued
others who made links to the plaintiffs Web page. Of course, this is a
fraction of a fraction of a per cent, and is unlikely to have any significant
effect on the way the Web is run which has been called a “loose
ad-hocracy”. It no doubt just reflects the dying gasp of the old guard
who would like to place at least some limits on the eventual linking of
everything to everything.
5 The Dewey decimal system was organized in chis way. It did not even
allow the same item to be filed under two different categories, but now
librarians have more leeway and file the same information under several
different headings. For example, Philosophy of Religion would presum
ably be filed under Philosophy and Religion. Still, however, there is an
agreed-upon hierarchical taxonomy.
6 W hat people now refer to as the modern subject came into being in
the early s eventeenth century as – thanks to Luther, the printing press,
and th e new science – people began to think of themselves as self
sufficient individuals. Descartes introduced the idea of the subj ect as
what underlay changing mental states, and Kant argued that, as che
objectifier of everything, the subject must be free and autonomous. As
we shall see in Chapter 4, S0ren Kierkegaard concluded that each one of
us is a subject called upon to take on a fixed identity that defines who
one is and what is meaningful in one’s world.
7 Steve Lohr, “Ideas and Trends: Net Americana; Welcome to the
Internet, the First Clobal Colony,” The New York Times, January 9, 2000.
8 David Blair’s book, Language and Representation in Information Retrieval, New
York, Elsevier Science, 1990, was chosen “Best Information Science
Book of the Year” in 1999 by the American Society for Information
Science, and Blair himself was named “Outstanding Researcher of the
Year” by the same society in the same year.
9 David Blair, Wittgenstein, Language and Information, Springer, 2006, 287.
IO See H. Dreyfus , What Computers (Still) Can’t Do, 3rd edn, Cambridge, MA,
MIT Press, 1992.
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