Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

October 1996

Never is a Long Time

Most people would probably think it is stating the obvious that the tools we use affect the quality and quantity of our produced work. Maybe a craftsperson can produce work of higher quality working with hand tools, but using power tools certainly everyone can produce more, and most people can produce work of higher quality.

That the types of tools we use for writing can affect our quality and quantity is less obvious. There was a surprising study that reported that people writing on a PC write more, but of an equal quality, than people writing by hand, but people using a workstation produce both more, and of a higher quality. I can personally vouch that when I experimented with writing my diary on a computer I started writing much more, and pronounced the experiment a success and so continued to do so. I don't want to claim anything about the quality of the writing, but certainly the value of my diary went up for me.

There is a lot of talk these days about electronic publications; there is a growing library of online books, both free and commercial; many publications are producing online versions (the Bulletin being just one of them), and several publications are appearing as online only. And yet it is reported that whenever someone reaches information online that they want that is longer than a screen full, they prefer to print it, and read it on paper. Many people even say that they hate reading books and articles online, and would never read them from the screen, and always print them off, and therefore they only see the advantage of online publications as one of supply – easier to find or obtain, but harder to read.

But never is a long time.

I used to write my programs offline: I would first design them and write them out on paper, and then type them in. I might have been inclined in those days also to have said that I would never do it any other way, because with only 25 lines of screen space, I could get little overview of my programs, but on paper I could get much more on a sheet. However when screens started getting bigger and workstations allowed me to get as much on my screen as I could get on paper, I found I could program just as easily at the keyboard as on paper, easier in fact, because I didn't have to retype it afterwards. The technology changed, and so did my practices.

Screen technology is still changing. In the 1970's I was at a brainstorming session for a computing department deciding which way its research should develop. I asked an engineer present if it was possible that the LCD screens which were then just appearing on wrist-watches and calculators could ever develop into full-scale screens. No, he said, that would never happen because it would need too many pins. However, I am writing this on a light-weight machine with a 100 dpi colour LCD screen very nearly as big, and of much better quality than my workstation screen. Ten years ago people were telling me that they would never want to work on a portable computer because the screens were so unreadable. There are already 300dpi colour screens being made. Just consider the effect that the introduction of 300 dpi laser printers had on desk-top publishing. Most people feel that a quality of 600 dpi is a good enough print quality for professional purposes; how long before 600 dpi screens are available?

When electric motors were first developed, some people thought that each house would have just one big motor somewhere in the house, with a series of pulleys directing the power around the house. In fact our houses are full of small electric motors. Micro-processors have made similar inroads. Have you ever tried counting how many CPUs there are in your house?

Similarly screens are making inroads into our lives. On watches, clocks, telephones, ovens, video recorders, thermometers, shavers. In time as costs drop the quality of all these screens will improve to hundreds of dpi.

You will one day read more or less everything from a screen. Take my word for it.

Luke and Ophelia

First published in the SIGCHI Bulletin, October 1996

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