Review: The User Illusion

The User Illusion: Cutting Consciousness Down to Size by Tor Nørretranders is a remarkable book. It’s not hyperbole to say that it’s one of the most mind-blowing non-fiction books I’ve ever read, nor to say that nearly every page contains some sort of interesting or profound insight or revelation about the human mind. It’s a rare section of my copy of this book that doesn’t have something underlined.

The crux of Nørretranders’ argument is that our consciousness, what we think of as I, is limited. Very limited. Our brains receive over 11 millions of bits of information every second, from the eye, skin, ear, nose, and mouth. But our consciousness can only process about 40 bits per second at most (More likely 1-16 bits per second.).

Millions and millions of bits are condensed to a conscious experience that contains practically no information at all. Every single second, every one of us discards millions of bits in order to arrive at the special state known as consciousness…Consciousness is not about information, but about its opposite: order.

Thus, most of what we experience is not conscious. Far more happens around us and to us than we can possibly be conscious of. We sense far more than we are conscious of. We don’t know–we can’t consciously know–very much of what goes on inside us.

And we can’t consciously see the raw world outside either. “We do not see what we sense. We see what we think we sense,” writes Nørretranders. What we think of as our senses are really an interpretation done by our unconscious minds, discarding, filtering, and reconstructing the information coming in. Lots of information is brought in, processed, and a simulation is experienced. Thus, what we experience “directly” is an illusion. We’re actually experiencing a simulation, constructed by our unconscious, of the world.

In order to do this, the brain has to discard an amazing amount of information and sort through the information to see what is important unconsciously. Thinking, as it turns out, is highly unconscious. Indeed, most of people’s experiences and operations are unconscious.

As it turns out, all this unconscious activity also takes time. About half a second, in fact. We don’t experience real time in real time; real time is about a half second in the past. Our consciousness lags a little behind, but our minds make us seem like we’re experiencing it in real time. Our consciousness performs a little readjustment, so that “awareness of an outer stimulus is experienced as if it occurred immediately after the stimulus, even though in fact a half second passes before we become conscious of it.”

Our reactions are much quicker than half a second, however. We can react to a lot that we never even become conscious of.

It is possible to react without being conscious of why. It is possible to preprogram complicated patterns of action that are sparked off without our knowing why. Perhaps many of our reactions and responses occur without our consciousness being informed about what happened.

Nørretranders notes that

A number of the skills we use in everyday life are not conscious when we use them…We can cycle, but we can’t say how…The learning of these skills is controlled by consciousness, but the application is not. When we learn [an activity], initially we feel our way forward, fumbling and stuttering, awkward and confused. Suddenly a change occurs, and we start performing the activity best if we do not think about what we’re doing.

Nørretranders introduces some interesting terms that should interest designers and information architects. A major one is exformation. Exformation is the information that we’ve gotten rid of, and computation is the means by which we discard information. “There is less information in 4 than in 2+2,” he says. Tacit knowing is another term that notes that most of what we know cannot be stated.

The phrase “The User Illusion” is what Alan Kay and the PARC designers called “the simplified myth everyone builds to explain (and make guesses about) the system’s actions and what should be done next.” Nørretranders says the user illusion is “a good metaphor for consciousness. Our consciousness is our user illusion for ourselves and our world.” The world we experience is really an illusion; colors, sounds, smells, tastes, etc. are interpretation made by our brain.

Designers take note: it is not only the conscious mind that takes in our designs. Users perceive unconsciously details they may not consciously be aware of. This can be where the “gut reaction” that is difficult to put into words comes in.

Other choice quotes:

  • “The bandwidth of language is far lower than the bandwidth of sensation.”
  • “Civilization is about removing information about our surroundings; discarding information about nature so our senses are not burdened with all that information and our consciousness can concentrate on other matters.”
  • “Technology is about making things predictable and repeatable so we do not need to devote so much time and attention to them…technology is therefore dull.”
  • “The computer….presents its user with very little information: in its user interface, it makes use mainly of the bandwidth of language. Information society can seem stressful because it contains not too much information, but too little.”

“We have to face the fact we are far more than we believe ourselves to be; that we have far more resources than we perceive; that we leave our mark on more of the world than we notice,” writes Nørretranders. It’s incredible, powerful stuff.

A really, really fascinating book and highly recommended. Note that the first handful of chapters are some tough going, but it gets easier.