are as ubiquitous as automobiles and toasters, but exploiting their capabilities
still seems to require the training of a supersonic test pilot. VCR displays blinking
a constant 12 noon around the world testify to this conundrum. As interactive
television, palmtop diaries and "smart" credit cards proliferate, the
gap between millions of untrained users and an equal number of sophisticated microprocessors
will become even more sharply apparent. With people spending a growing proportion
of their lives in front of computer screens--informing and entertaining one another,
exchanging correspondence, working, shopping and falling in love--some accommodation
must be found between limited human attention spans and increasingly complex collections
of software and data. Computers
currently respond only to what interface designers call direct manipulation. Nothing
happens unless a person gives commands from a keyboard, mouse or touch screen.
The computer is merely a passive entity waiting to execute specific, highly detailed
instructions; it provides little help for complex tasks or for carrying out actions
(such as searches for information) that may take an indefinite time. If
untrained consumers are to employ future computers and networks effectively, direct
manipulation will have to give way to some form of delegation.
software companies have set high hopes on so called software agents, which "know"
users' interests and can act autonomously on their behalf. Instead of exercising
complete control (and taking responsibility for every move the computer makes),
people will be engaged in a cooperative process in which both human and computer
agents initiate communication, monitor events and perform tasks to meet a user's
goals. The average person will
have many alter egos in effect, digital proxies-- operating simultaneously in