The Evils Of A World Filled With Touchscreens

111103_TECH_many_ipadsAll signs point to our heading towards a future in which we will exist surrounded by software-enabled touchscreens. Why this could be a grave mistake, via Slate:

What touchscreens lack is something called affordance — an object’s built-in ability to tell you how it works. A doorknob affords turning. The button on a car stereo affords pushing. A touchscreen affords nothing. It relies on software for any affordance, which in turn relies on total immersion for the user.

What we want, apparently, is to surround ourselves with touchscreens of varying size—tiny ones in our pockets, medium-size models for our laps and dashboards, and massive versions for our walls. We want tomorrow’s vintage shops to be lined with identical, blank, anonymous slabs. We want things to be vessels for software, and nothing more. Immersion is a fantastic quality while flicking virtual birds at digital pigs in your smartphone. Immersion at 80 mph is less desirable.

When the iPhone arrived in 2007, it was a revelation, redefining the phone and the computer in one deft swipe. With its iconic, monolithic design and touch-sensitive interface, the iPhone was science fiction made real—the beginning of a new era of gadget lust and device convergence. It was ridiculously popular, as well, dwarfing the sales of any other Apple product, and selling as many as 100 million to date. But in the past four years, the iPhone has created its own, dubious legacy. Its touchscreen transformed the way we interact with technology, and created a new industry standard for gadget design. While the multitouch capacitive display was the perfect interface for a smartphone—folding the functions of a mouse, keyboard, and desktop into a phone, without cramping the display or adding rows of buttons—its broader influence throughout the world of consumer electronics has been a minor disaster.

Steve Jobs didn’t invent touchscreens, nor did some faceless Apple engineer. The first prototypes showed up in the 1960s, a decade before Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded their company. The iPhone wasn’t even the first application of the multitouch technology. It simply made touchscreens irresistible, with an intuitive operating system that replaced the analog, button-studded face of other cellphones with a shape-shifting, digital playpen. Before the iPhone, touchscreens were exotic. Now they are everywhere—in cars, on refrigerators, beside CNN anchors.

The ubiquity of touchscreens has been even worse for other sorts of devices. It’s one thing to have to slow or stop mid-jog, and fiddle with an iPod so it performs its basic functions. It’s another to take your eyes from the road, and poke at the touchscreen in your car’s center console, tapping through menus, holding and dragging scroll bars, to access a specific radio station or playlist. That’s the state of the art in automotive infotainment, as the industry abandons decades of experience with analog controls for the sake of embedded, iPhone-like touchscreens. The allure, as always, is the infinite. Why should the designers at Toyota or Volkswagen commit to a row of radio station preset buttons, when that real estate could multitask instead? A smooth touchscreen can absorb the digital stand-ins for those old-fashioned buttons whenever it’s convenient, so you can order movie tickets or make dinner reservations instead.

55 Comments on "The Evils Of A World Filled With Touchscreens"

  1. Anonymous | Dec 7, 2011 at 6:58 pm |

    This article displays some fundamental misunderstandings about usability. Perceived affordance is the key, not just affordance. When you’re talking about a button that you’re looking at, it doesn’t matter much at all if it’s an actual button or just the image of one. Either way your brain translates that as being something that affords pushing. Screens afford a lot of things. Looking and touching are the obvious ones, but any flat plane affords setting things on top of it, for instance. By making it a screen that requires vision, we remove “setting things on top of it” because doing so obscures the visual component, but that doesn’t change the fact that the flat panel still affords it. We have jokes about people using their cd trays as cup holders because the cd tray does, in fact, afford putting cups of a certain size in it. This could have been mitigated by paying attention to its perceived affordance (obscuring this affordance in some way so that it is no longer an obvious use).

    The author is right that there’s a problem with visual-only cues in an attention-needed environment like for a car driver and their radio. But the problem is not one of affordance. Any protuberance on the dash technically affords pushing or feeling, whether it performs an action when you do so or not. The problem with using a screen for the sole action cues is that it lacks _perceived_ affordance, because you’re not using your eyes to perceive the screen if you’re driving (or you shouldn’t be anyway). This is a failure of interface design because the form of perception was not taken into account, not because touch screens are bad. This can be mitigated if the screen is large enough to permit rapid glances at it being sufficient, and then the primary actions (play, for instance) need to be big and bold buttons that can be easily hit without paying close attention to the screen. The problem is not the screen, it’s how the screen is used.

    Maybe that distinction isn’t a big one if you’re not a usability engineer but it can make all the difference in the world when you’re trying to explain why an interface should be set up in a certain way to managers who read articles about the coolest new technology and want to incorporate it whether it’s appropriate to the interface or not, because they think it will make the product cutting edge.

  2. quartz99 | Dec 7, 2011 at 2:58 pm |

    This article displays some fundamental misunderstandings about usability. Perceived affordance is the key, not just affordance. When you’re talking about a button that you’re looking at, it doesn’t matter much at all if it’s an actual button or just the image of one. Either way your brain translates that as being something that affords pushing. Screens afford a lot of things. Looking and touching are the obvious ones, but any flat plane affords setting things on top of it, for instance. By making it a screen that requires vision, we remove “setting things on top of it” because doing so obscures the visual component, but that doesn’t change the fact that the flat panel still affords it. We have jokes about people using their cd trays as cup holders because the cd tray does, in fact, afford putting cups of a certain size in it. This could have been mitigated by paying attention to its perceived affordance (obscuring this affordance in some way so that it is no longer an obvious use).

    The author is right that there’s a problem with visual-only cues in an attention-needed environment like for a car driver and their radio. But the problem is not one of affordance. Any protuberance on the dash technically affords pushing or feeling, whether it performs an action when you do so or not. The problem with using a screen for the sole action cues is that it lacks _perceived_ affordance, because you’re not using your eyes to perceive the screen if you’re driving (or you shouldn’t be anyway). This is a failure of interface design because the form of perception was not taken into account, not because touch screens are bad. This can be mitigated if the screen is large enough to permit rapid glances at it being sufficient, and then the primary actions (play, for instance) need to be big and bold buttons that can be easily hit without paying close attention to the screen. The problem is not the screen, it’s how the screen is used.

    Maybe that distinction isn’t a big one if you’re not a usability engineer but it can make all the difference in the world when you’re trying to explain why an interface should be set up in a certain way to managers who read articles about the coolest new technology and want to incorporate it whether it’s appropriate to the interface or not, because they think it will make the product cutting edge.

    • So basically, people are too distracted to do the task at hand, like actually driving a car without having to update their facebook account that says they are trying to get from point a to b. It would be nice to have a touch a screen that goes from park to reverse, to drive, and then park again.  It would also be nice to tell your car, via voice command (barring drinking, or a basic grasp of language), that you are wanting to go from point a to b.  However, there are several variables that might get in the way (i.e. cars in front of you, pedestrians, school buses) that might interfere with the general laziness of the people with this technology. Such an inconvenience.  I am pretty sure the only people that could afford this convenience are the well to do (i.e. the 1%) and whatever inconvenience the pedestrian, or schoolchildren, may present could be taken care of with an out of court settlement.

      • This is not to say I’m against technology, as long as it is for the general good.  I’m just saying technological advances need to be made available for everybody; not just for those who can afford it.

  3. Mr Willow | Dec 7, 2011 at 7:15 pm |

    If that horrifies you, just wait until they implement this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHL5tJ9ja_w into everyday technology. 

    Be afraid. . . be very afraid.

  4. Mr Willow | Dec 7, 2011 at 3:15 pm |

    If that horrifies you, just wait until they implement this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JHL5tJ9ja_w into everyday technology. 

    Be afraid. . . be very afraid.

    • care for a not so stimulating game of catch? One second let me grab another chair, or would you like a virtual one?

  5. Anarchy Pony | Dec 7, 2011 at 7:43 pm |

    Pacified apes made docile and obedient by their electronic opiates.

    Consumer electronics are the opiate of the masses.

  6. Anarchy Pony | Dec 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm |

    Pacified apes made docile and obedient by their electronic opiates.

    Consumer electronics are the opiate of the masses.

    • Anarchy Pony | Dec 7, 2011 at 3:44 pm |

      Yes I understand the irony of the means through which I have conveyed this sentiment.

      • guns are the opiates of the masses. Try to do something revolutionary and be prepared to meet the deadly pacifiers. Electronixs if used correctly and in moderation can be pretty cool.

      • 36thchamber | Dec 7, 2011 at 5:10 pm |

        Yeah, but I for one agree with you. There are certain technologies that come along and genuinely make life somewhat better. The internet and computers was one of those inventions.

        Most technology isn’t really that, in my opinion. Most of it is precisely what you say: opiates for the masses. Just another way to get us to paradoxically worship the dollar while yet continually giving it way to other people for shit we don’t really need…..

        • Anarchy Pony | Dec 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm |

          Well yeah, the internet has inherent value as a tool of mass communication that far exceeds the limits of earlier forms like the telephone. But it has also great potential for misuse, and governments and industry are currently working feverishly to loop controls over it. It must be navigated carefully in order to fully access the more positive aspects of it, otherwise all you are left with is propaganda and lolcats.
          But crap like smart phones and tablets and all that are mostly just pointless novelty, they really don’t add anything significant.

      • lol, yeah, it reminds of OWS nerds who are “gonna take down corporations” by using corporate services like  facebook, youtube, twitter, apple, etc.
        —oh no, no, no, they aren’t ineffectual hypocrites to keep utilizing the products of the culture they claim to despise (and neither are you! no sir!), see, because they “acknowledge the irony” of their disingenuous assertions…hipsters are never hypocrites, they’re always “just being ironic”; isn’t that ironic?

        lol, gawd people are funny.
        doomed, doomed, doomed, so so so so fucking doomed.
        but funny.
        and ironic.

        • Anarchy Pony | Dec 8, 2011 at 1:24 am |

          Wow, someone needs to drink a tall glass of get the fuck over yourself.
          If everyone is just doomed and there is no hope, then fuck off.

      • I don’t see any irony in it, The internet is a bit different a beast than “consumer” electronics(something so conceptually absurd, that us as humans had to create it). Theres still a couple paradoxical techno-anarchists (the open source crowd) that still think something reasonably useful to society can be salvaged from the bastardized culture that is gunking up the world of electronics

        • Anarchy Pony | Dec 8, 2011 at 2:47 am |

          Well, the internet is and will be for probably some time, a primary means of communications and a necessary tributary to navigate in public discourse. That being said, I would be perfectly happy to be without it. All of evolution and natural history didn’t occur so we could watch tv and websurf.

  7. Anarchy Pony | Dec 7, 2011 at 7:44 pm |

    Yes I understand the irony of the means through which I have conveyed this sentiment.

  8. care for a not so stimulating game of catch? One second let me grab another chair, or would you like a virtual one?

  9. guns are the opiates of the masses. Try to do something revolutionary and be prepared to meet the deadly pacifiers. Electronixs if used correctly and in moderation can be pretty cool.

  10. 36thchamber | Dec 7, 2011 at 9:10 pm |

    Yeah, but I for one agree with you. There are certain technologies that come along and genuinely make life somewhat better. The internet and computers was one of those inventions.

    Most technology isn’t really that, in my opinion. Most of it is precisely what you say: opiates for the masses. Just another way to get us to paradoxically worship the dollar while yet continually giving it way to other people for shit we don’t really need…..

  11. Tablets are the shit, technology is amazing. One day, when the Internet is hard-wired to our glasses or contact lenses, we won’t even need the physical screen.

    Have fun with your doorknob-turning. Me? I’ll keep reading e-books and playing video games on my mobile phone that allows me to see a map of the city that I’m visiting and my exact location in it while I walk through.

  12. Tablets are the shit, technology is amazing. One day, when the Internet is hard-wired to our glasses or contact lenses, we won’t even need the physical screen.

    Have fun with your doorknob-turning. Me? I’ll keep reading e-books and playing video games on my mobile phone that allows me to see a map of the city that I’m visiting and my exact location in it while I walk through.

    • oops, didnt mean to ‘like’..

      technology is not so amazing when it breaks and needs to be replaced, like my computer :(…

      if we ever find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic world with no electricity or batteries, i’ll at least be thankful for my book collection and experience in electronic-less navigation.  plus, there have been many instances where i’ve been thankful for the experience I’ve had while trying to find directions;)

      • I agree, experiences whilst lost and needing directions often leads to human interaction….

        Imagen that, real conversations in a digital world… You actually have to look up!

    • I don’t wear “glasses” or “contacts” guess I’ll be left out of the future. However I find some solace in the fact I’ll be able to see “my exact location” by simply opening my “eyes”.

    • Anarchy Pony | Dec 7, 2011 at 7:10 pm |

      God you fuckers are pathetic.

    • Nunzio X | Dec 7, 2011 at 8:03 pm |

      I guess actually being in the city isn’t as important as having your mobile phone provide independent confirmation of the fact.

    • Allenqualls2 | Dec 8, 2011 at 7:06 am |

      Meanwhile, you will miss everything that makes that city unique from every other city. Enjoy your Macdonalds, asshole. 

  13. oops, didnt mean to ‘like’..

    technology is not so amazing when it breaks and needs to be replaced, like my computer :(…

    if we ever find ourselves in a post-apocalyptic world with no electricity or batteries, i’ll at least be thankful for my book collection and experience in electronic-less navigation.  plus, there have been many instances where i’ve been thankful for the experience I’ve had while trying to find directions;)

  14. Anarchy Pony | Dec 7, 2011 at 9:57 pm |

    Well yeah, the internet has inherent value as a tool of mass communication that far exceeds the limits of earlier forms like the telephone. But it has also great potential for misuse, and governments and industry are currently working feverishly to loop controls over it. It must be navigated carefully in order to fully access the more positive aspects of it, otherwise all you are left with is propaganda and lolcats.
    But crap like smart phones and tablets and all that are mostly just pointless novelty, they really don’t add anything significant.

  15. Mamagriff50 | Dec 7, 2011 at 10:12 pm |

    “Hmmmm” A government for the people, by the people…….How unique.   It’s about time. No more for the corporations, by the corporations.

  16. Mamagriff50 | Dec 7, 2011 at 6:12 pm |

    “Hmmmm” A government for the people, by the people…….How unique.   It’s about time. No more for the corporations, by the corporations.

  17. Anonymous | Dec 7, 2011 at 10:24 pm |

    I agree, experiences whilst lost and needing directions often leads to human interaction….

    Imagen that, real conversations in a digital world… You actually have to look up!

  18. I don’t wear “glasses” or “contacts” guess I’ll be left out of the future. However I find some solace in the fact I’ll be able to see “my exact location” by simply opening my “eyes”.

  19. Anarchy Pony | Dec 7, 2011 at 11:10 pm |

    God you fuckers are pathetic.

  20. Suddenly Spam! | Dec 7, 2011 at 11:12 pm |

    Steve Jobs invented everything. Stop lying disinfo.

  21. Redacted | Dec 7, 2011 at 7:12 pm |

    Steve Jobs invented everything. Stop lying disinfo.

  22. I guess actually being in the city isn’t as important as having your mobile phone provide independent confirmation of the fact.

  23. Given the choice of touchscreen controls versus actual knobs/sliders/buttons, I’ll take the “old fashioned” controls every time.

    I don’t want to have to look at a fucking screen just to control the goddamned device; I spend too much time staring at a screen as it is.

  24. Nunzio X | Dec 7, 2011 at 8:09 pm |

    Given the choice of touchscreen controls versus actual knobs/sliders/buttons, I’ll take the “old fashioned” controls every time.

    I don’t want to have to look at a fucking screen just to control the goddamned device; I spend too much time staring at a screen as it is.

  25. Back in my day we had rotary dial telephones!  And we LIKED IT!

  26. Back in my day we had rotary dial telephones!  And we LIKED IT!

    • Anarchy Pony | Dec 8, 2011 at 2:49 am |

      I always thought that they were kind of cool and had a fascinating aesthetic, while push button phones were so plain.

  27. lol, yeah, it reminds of OWS nerds who are “gonna take down corporations” by using corporate services like  facebook, youtube, twitter, apple, etc.
    —oh no, no, no, they aren’t ineffectual hypocrites to keep utilizing the products of the culture they claim to despise (and neither are you! no sir!), see, because they “acknowledge the irony” of their disingenuous assertions…hipsters are never hypocrites, they’re always “just being ironic”; isn’t that ironic?

    lol, gawd people are funny.
    doomed, doomed, doomed, so so so so fucking doomed.
    but funny.
    and ironic.

  28. Anarchy Pony | Dec 8, 2011 at 5:24 am |

    Wow, someone needs to drink a tall glass of get the fuck over yourself.
    If everyone is just doomed and there is no hope, then fuck off.

  29. I don’t see any irony in it, The internet is a bit different a beast than “consumer” electronics(something so conceptually absurd, that us as humans had to create it). Theres still a couple paradoxical techno-anarchists (the open source crowd) that still think something reasonably useful to society can be salvaged from the bastardized culture that is gunking up the world of electronics

  30. Anarchy Pony | Dec 8, 2011 at 6:47 am |

    Well, the internet is and will be for probably some time, a primary means of communications and a necessary tributary to navigate in public discourse. That being said, I would be perfectly happy to be without it. All of evolution and natural history didn’t occur so we could watch tv and websurf.

  31. Anarchy Pony | Dec 8, 2011 at 6:49 am |

    I always thought that they were kind of cool and had a fascinating aesthetic, while push button phones were so plain.

  32. thank god someone noticed this before it’s too late
    oh wait a minute
    its already too late
    never mind

  33. BuzzCoastin | Dec 8, 2011 at 4:46 am |

    thank god someone noticed this before it’s too late
    oh wait a minute
    its already too late
    never mind

  34. So basically, people are too distracted to do the task at hand, like actually driving a car without having to update their facebook account that says they are trying to get from point a to b. It would be nice to have a touch a screen that goes from park to reverse, to drive, and then park again.  It would also be nice to tell your car, via voice command (barring drinking, or a basic grasp of language), that you are wanting to go from point a to b.  However, there are several variables that might get in the way (i.e. cars in front of you, pedestrians, school buses) that might interfere with the general laziness of the people with this technology. Such an inconvenience.  I am pretty sure the only people that could afford this convenience are the well to do (i.e. the 1%) and whatever inconvenience the pedestrian, or schoolchildren, may present could be taken care of with an out of court settlement.

  35. This is not to say I’m against technology, as long as it is for the general good.  I’m just saying technological advances need to be made available for everybody; not just for those who can afford it.

  36. Allenqualls2 | Dec 8, 2011 at 11:06 am |

    Meanwhile, you will miss everything that makes that city unique from every other city. Enjoy your Macdonalds, asshole. 

  37. Unknownable | Mar 1, 2012 at 11:23 am |

    There is a way to have both analog controls and a digital touch screen… Have the analog controls assignable to present functions and make it so the user can assign them however they want…. Much like how many MIDI and USB (HID) devices, (esp Music Creation devices such as the Novation Lauchpad or the Korg MIDI controllers), work…

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