All 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.
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