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Problematising Screens: Why Glowing Rectangles Aren’t Enough

This month a feature article of mine has been published by the UK-based magazine Oh Comely. My subject was screen technology. During an age in which the pixel density of a smartphone display is considered one of the chief arbiters of that smartphone's quality, it's safe to say that we have developed an obsession with the increasing sophistication of screens.

This is not altogether surprising. Screens are really the only popular way we have devised of presenting information to computer users. And, as touch interfaces and tablet devices have evolved, the relevance of physical keyboards and mice has in certain contexts begun to diminish.

But are we happy with screens? "Retina displays" whose pixels, their manufacturers boast, are so small as to be barely distinguishable to the naked eye, have beguiled us with their high resolution representations of graphics and video content. Ever greater pixel densities will undoubtedly be sought by smartphone and tablet users, but there are those who presently question whether such a pursuit should be all-consuming.

My feature for Oh Comely considered the question posed by Little Printer - a thermal printer developed by London design studio BERG. Little Printer takes information already available via screens, such as news articles and weather reports, and re-formats it for print. As BERG's Creative Director, Timo Arnall, explained, printing information "makes it fundamentally different" from viewing the same information on a screen. He added, "we end up with a different relationship to it."

"Printing information 'makes it fundamentally different' from viewing the same information on a screen"

The feel of the paper between our fingertips, the thickness, shape and texture of the paper itself, its quality in natural or artificial light, its ability to be stuffed into a pocket or pinned to a board - those are the different aspects of this specific kind of "relationship" with information which Timo is foregrounding here.

Little Printer exists and has a chance of becoming popular, I hint, not necessarily because it is in and of itself a marvellous printer (though it is very efficient and charmingly designed), but rather because it markets itself to a generation which is increasingly finding that all information delivery occurs through those "glowing rectangles", as Timo put it, which we call screens.

Timo was keen to stress that he was not by any means anti-screen, or anti-digital. Indeed, Little Printer is a cloud-dependent product and would simply not be able to function as designed without digital publishing and Internet technology as we know it. Of course, a computer with a screen is required to set it up!

But as I noted in my piece, designs like Little Printer allow for the otherwise intangible data which lives online to be, "discharged into something we can feel and, most importantly, understand. Invasive vibrations and tactile materials begin to offer replacements for aspects of our lives that are carried out on-screen."

This exact proposition: that digital information may be appropriated by new, "graspable" physical instantiations, is clearly behind BERG's latest project which they announced last week: #Flock. It has been described as a "cuckoo clock powered by tweets" and notifies its owner, through the medium of birdsong, that they have been replied to, retweeted or followed by someone.

With the arrival of widgets like this, a statement is being made about our relationship to the digital and physical - which seem to be ever more tightly enmeshed. This relationship has been very insightfully theorised by sociology grad student PJ Rey in his concept of "co-affordances."

Co-affordances, argues Rey, are mutually dependent values of opposing objects or classes of object. In a nutshell, co-affordances explain why, in an era of Mp3 downloads and iPods, vinyl has enjoyed a renaissance.

It's because the experience, the feel and particular attributes of the vinyl recording have become more clearly understood as distinct. We, through the shifting character of our culture, are demonstrating that those things are valuable to us in direct contrast to the different qualities belonging to other formats.

This is not to say that we will reject the Mp3 eventually. In fact, the co-affordances theory precludes that. Rather, we need both to co-exist in order that we may be constantly reminded of the advantages and disadvantages they separately possess. As Rey puts it: "The concept of co-affordance allows us to talk about how physical and digital media co-produce our experience and knowledge of each."

"Co-affordance allows us to talk about how physical and digital media co-produce our experience and knowledge of each"

Alan Kay, legendary computing pioneer and innovator, recently hit out against the limitations of screens in a long and fascinating interview with Time magazine. In particular, he explained why there were calculable, scientific reasons why screens failed to satisfy the remit of our field of vision:

"One drawback of these screens and the screens today is that the visual angle of the display (about 40°) is much narrower than the human visual field (which is about 135° vertically and 160° horizontally for each eye). This is critical because most of the acuity of an eye is in the fovea (~1-2°) but the rest of the retina has some acuity and is very responsive to changes (which cause the eye to swing to bring the fovea on the change)."

Kay went on to predict that future visual interfaces will appeal in much more sophisticated ways to the potential coded in our own bodies. It was, I should say, consideration of this very problem (that contemporary interfaces fail to recognise computer users' physiological complexity and dexterity) which led me to question our prioritisation of screens in the first place.

As I indicated above, there is no doubt that screens will get more sophisticated. They will flex, morph, be more bright and brilliant, more durable and more sensitive to our touch. But in my piece for Oh Comely and in this blog post I hoped to put forward the suggestion that technology may evolve accompaniments to our screen-biased diet of information consumption - accompaniments which better satisfy our bodies' many capabilities and senses.

Until that happens, we must continue to exist in a state of deference to the screen, acknowledging its dominance at every turn, on every device, in every context. However, a wider variety of interface concepts is currently being prototyped and evolved. The reign of screens, which makes an implicit promise to keep all things digital squarely enclosed behind panes of glass, may not be eternal.

For the my full interview with Timo Arnall and further thoughts on the implications of the screen age, buy the latest issue of Oh Comely magazine at one of these stockists.


Photo: "Korean" by Steven Straiton. Reproduced under a Creative Commons (CC) License.


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