Bret Victor

The Insight of Bret Victor

Bret Victor

A Vision of the Future — Really?!

I love stumbling upon a brilliant mind at the right time, a person whose amazing insight causes you to have some fundamental perceptual shifts that enlighten your path forward. The video at the end of this post began one of those encounters. But first…

Bret was a Human Interface Inventor at Apple, an employment experience that, based on his website,, was at times something less than satisfying. Near the end of 2011 he wrote a piece about the future of interactive design, which I highly recommend! Last year, when I first saw the Microsoft video about a “Vision for the Future,” I was completely underwhelmed, not inspired–as I think Microsoft intended the audience to be. I clearly remember thinking, “This is not a future in which I wish to live.” Apparently that video piece was Bret’s impetus for writing A Brief Rant On The Future Of Interaction Design.

In his short rant, Bret says several things about interactivity that I think are dead spot on the mark. Here are a few of his thoughts that resonated with me:

  • A tool addresses human needs by amplifying human capabilities. That is, a tool converts what we can do into what we want to do. A great tool is designed to fit both sides. [I’ve always grumbled about how our tools limit us as much as they define new possibilities.]
  • His graphics for the above are great illustrations of the point.
  • He then goes into detail about the human hands and how sophisticated, sensitive, and capable they are, how we use them in complex ways to manipulate, observe, and gather information that immediately and instinctively informs function–what we do/make with them.
  • He then talks about the limitations of the iPad and Microsoft’s boring vision of the future as merely “pictures under glass” that are basically swiped with a single finger and “sacrifice all the tactile richness of working with our hands, offering instead a hokey visual facade. … Pictures Under Glass is an interaction paradigm of permanent numbness. It’s a Novocaine drip to the wrist. It denies our hands what they do best. And yet, it’s the star player in every Vision Of The Future.”
  • What is the Future Of Interaction? The most important thing to realize about the future is that it’s a choice. [Brilliant!! Instead we passively have these boring vision of the future foist upon us as if they are transformational, inspiring, even “magical.”] People choose which visions to pursue, people choose which research gets funded, people choose how they will spend their careers. … And this is my plea — be inspired by the untapped potential of human capabilities. Don’t just extrapolate yesterday’s technology and then cram people into it.”
  • “In 1968 — three years before the invention of the microprocessor [emphasis mine] — Alan Kay stumbled across Don Bitzer‘s early flat-panel display. Its resolution was 16 pixels by 16 pixels — …  and he went home, and he picked up a pen, and he drew a picture of a goddamn iPad.”
  • “Any dancer or doctor knows full well what an incredibly expressive device your body is. 300 joints! 600 muscles! Hundreds of degrees of freedom! … With an entire body at your command, do you seriously think the Future Of Interaction should be a single finger?”

How Do You Choose to Live Your Life?

These are my notes from the January, 2012, video below* (which really focuses on the field of technology but can be extrapolated to any field) of Bret’s presentation which is divided into 4 parts:

  1. Introduction
  2. His Principle: where he talks for about 30 – 35 minutes about the guiding principle that informs his work, showcasing several examples
  3. Four shorter but compelling examples from the lives of 4 other people
  4. Finding your principle

In the introduction Bret talks about the ways you can choose to live your life. We have heard the top two many times before, but the third?

  • Following your passion or
  • Doing something you love or
  • Following a principle: something you believe is important and necessary and right that guides your work.

The nature of a principle: Violations of the principle aren’t really seen as an opportunity but feel more like a moral wrong and injustice, like you have a responsibility to do something about it. These words (violation, moral wrong, injustice, responsibility) are found in social causes but not in the technology field. They produce an activist lifestyle where a person dedicates his or her life to fighting for a cause, a principle that person believes in deeply.

You recognize a wrong in this world, not a social wrong but a principled wrong, have a vision for what a better world would be, and fight for that principle. Social activists fight by organizing, but we (in technology) can fight by inventing. Principles are larger issues that react to a cultural context, not simple, limited areas of concern. The guiding principle can’t be just anything you believe in as that’s too vague and not actionable. Powerful principles are insightful and illuminate a new way to see the world moving forward.

Finding your principle is a form of self discovery that takes time. You might choose this life, or it might choose you. Bret says that he spent about 10 years making many things, doing many things, experiencing many things, and analyzing himself: what is the broader secret ingredient here that resonates with me? What is my principle?

Often, people define themselves by pursuing excellence in a skill, reaching a specific job title, a specialty, as a problem solver or the master of a craft. But some people define themselves by a cause that matters deeply to them. Practicing a single skill appears to limit the broad range of experiences that seems to be necessary for discerning one’s vision, one’s guiding principle by which they see the world and work in it.

You can choose to sleepwalk through your life and accept the path that’s been laid out for you. You can choose to accept the world as it is. But if you find something you feel is wrong and have a vision for what a better world would be, you can find your principle.

I highly recommend you take the time to listen to his presentation and then think it through your work-a-day-world!


* Presented at the Canadian University Software Engineering Conference (or CUSEC)