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Limits of digital usability: the paperless office and the iTunes

Regarding this previous post, I kept thinking about this detail in the Alex Ross comment about the limitations of streaming music:

…My working process as a critic revolves around a stack of disks that I call the Listen Again pile: recent releases that have jumped out of the crowd and demand attention. None of this happens as easily on the computer.

This is just a simple example of an important and broad problem. Media consumption in general (music, movies, books, TV) is becoming more and more digital, but our digital tools for “dealing” with information remain severely limited.

Organizing stuff, annotating it; sharing; archiving; commenting; discarding; highlighting, pausing, resuming, browsing, searching, backing up, queuing, prioritizing, comparing etc. These are important tasks with practical consequences (how much you recall from a book is a particularly obvious example) but there is very little assurance that we have (or will have) the right tools for these tasks.

To complicate the picture, every service has a different approach for these kinds of tasks and different incentives to improve (or even remove) some of these features. (Good luck watching Netflix in Canada)

The core issue is that is a hard problem to grasp and solve. Even if we overcome the commercial limitations (See the DRM battles), it will take a lot of hard work, investment and iteration to maximize the usability of digital files.

A relevant story is the discussion of the “paperless office” in the work environment, a discussion that has this name since 1976.

Paper is a very old technology, and can be very inefficient, but also has very particular strengths:

Central to Sellen and Harper’s investigation is the concept of “affordances” — the activities that an object allows, or affords. The physical properties of paper (its being thin, light, porous, opaque, and flexible) afford the human actions of grasping, carrying, folding, writing, and so on.

This review gives more context:

It is a similar problem in the workplace, where the paperless office is a digital promise that has basically failed to materialize in almost four decades. Investigating the subject, the authors of The Myth of the Paperless Office articulated why the old-school paper is such a useful technology and how existing software was far from being able to really replace:

For example paper makes it easy to arrange documents side by side, and to move our eyes from one to another without tools or software getting in the way, to use the tactile skill of writing to take notes that reinforce memory, to use location memory to recall where something is fixed on a page so that we can follow the structure of a complicated idea, to flip back and forth between parts of a book using nothing but fingers to hold our place, to glance at a document on a desk and identify it and assess its key features.

The ephemeral nature of paper, its sharing limitations, and its fragility are limitations, but those characteristics also make it easy to control access tightly when needed, to tear, fold, shift, flip and dogtag, to arrange around a desk or workspace easily, and to mark it permanently and anonymously.

More importantly, work processes have been developed over decades that make the most of these features of paper, and that is why it remains stubbornly with us. The authors conclude that we need document management systems that can better mimic what paper can do.

In short, large corporations investing billions of dollars in IT over decades have not been able to develop digital tools that can really replace some key qualities of paper. How long will it take until we stop complaining about iTunes?

Update: add this event to list of complaints about digital music.

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