Power that lags behind genius

Leonardo's Laptop
July 25, 2003

Leonardo's Laptop takes an original look at the latest online technology, with a particular slant on its application to human needs. The theme of "universal usability" leads into chapters on the e hyphens: e-healthcare and e-learning as well as e-business and e-government. It raises the prospect of 1 million-person communities, and systems that would allow doctors access to a patient's notes from any part of the world, in any language.

However, these areas of technology are susceptible to instant obsolescence, and Leonardo's Laptop is not immune. The "phonecam" is almost upon us, and the PhotoQuilt, which enabled thousands of people to create a joint photo archive, touches on current concerns over the inappropriate use of digital images. Palmtop technology is moving swiftly towards tablet PCs with writing, typing and docking facilities, though it may be a while before personal accessories such as lapel pins and earrings can be used to store (let alone exchange) data.

It is refreshing to hear from an expert who not only takes an interest in subjects outside his own field, but who is also prepared to offer the opposite argument and acknowledge potential difficulties. Each chapter ends with "Skeptic's Corner", though an opportunity is lost when the author at one point merely invites readers to disagree with him, and the practical difficulties presented by e-commerce are referred to without further discussion or analysis. The book is fast moving and accessible, though the informal style gives rise to lines such as "Leonardo was more than just a Renaissance geek" - and if a word such as "nonanthropomorphic" needs an explanation in brackets then it could have been left out.

The speed of development, the impact of new technology and its implications for every aspect of life are neatly highlighted by comparisons with Leonardo da Vinci, the world he knew and the horizons that he himself scanned, probably the ultimate in blue-sky thinking. If a mathematical problem that took 12 hours to solve using a PC a decade ago can now be completed in six seconds, then the impact on the world of a Leonardo having access to such power can only be imagined. Leonardo's genius is touched on by reference to the information sources at his disposal: his library contained all of 45 volumes. The points of comparison with Leonardo are marked in the text with a capital L taken from his signature, and each chapter ends with an illustration from his works. The drawing of "a skull in profile to the left" is a tribute to Leonardo as a craftsman, the sheer quality of draughtsmanship an unconscious recognition of the skills needed by the natural philosophers to record their findings, a tradition that links Leonardo with Humboldt, Darwin and the Victorian botanists whose meticulous records combine art with science.

It is interesting to speculate whether any individual now could do as much as Leonardo, even with today's online libraries and computer enhancement to hand, and whether their discoveries could ever compete with a man whose ideas and observations were not just surprisingly modern but centuries ahead of their time.

Tim Connell is professor of languages, City University.

Leonardo's Laptop

Author - Ben Shneiderman
ISBN - 0 262 19476 7
Publisher - MIT Press
Price - £16.50
Pages - 269

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