The accoutrements of the thinking writer.

I don’t have a problem with technology’s place in our lives at all. I have, however, a growing problem with the backlit screen, and a growing desire to see it, if not abolished, then at least dethroned and humbled.

Backlit screens are something we’ve grown very used to without realizing what they’ve done to our way of thinking. They are hypnotic, arresting, and distracting. No matter how small a backlit screen is, it quickly occupies your whole field of vision. It ruins your sense of your surroundings in the same way a flashlight ruins your night-vision. It is, to my mind, the single biggest reason that we find ourselves trying to divide our attentions between a “real-life” world and a “digital” world – a dualistic mindset that causes eventual burnout.

In the beginning, computers featured blinking lights, fans, buttons, switches, paper punchcards and printouts, all of which we as humans can “read” and connect with just as we would with any other physical object, without having any sense of escaping from reality.1

This video is from a 1969 Disney movie, and I do not mean to use it as an example of the state of serious computer science in the 1960s. [Update: the original video from The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes has been pulled; I’ve replaced it with the Willy Wonka video linked at the end of this paragraph, as it illustrates the same point.] I do mean to use it as a rough example of where computers fit into the popular mindset of our culture at that time. You can see, from listening to Professor Quigley’s line of reasoning and his use cases, that in 1969 the computer was seen primarily as an appliance, like a washing machine. It had brains and memory and could be fed instructions – but the whole point of it all was that it could augment your everyday life and make it more convenient, e.g., open the door to let your cat in while you were away. The highest possible use envisioned for the computer at that time was as an advanced calculator – i.e., still an appliance, just an appliance for NASA engineers this time instead of housewives. You used a computer as you would any other appliance, by flipping switches and pressing buttons, and the results were typically imagined as a printed piece of paper in plain language.

Another movie clip, from the 1980s this time. Look at the change in the popular idea of What Computers Are All About. Now the computer featured a backlit screen: sort of like television (already a highly-evolved alternate reality in its own right) except you were interacting with it.

When the backlit screen came on the scene, computers ceased to be appliances and became windows into an alternate universe.

The movies of the 1980s reflected fascination with this idea, and, twenty years later, the movies of our decade still reflect this fascination. The backlit screen was the feature that changed popular conception of computing technology, and it created this jarring mental framework that leads us to think of computer-based interaction as involving an “alternate reality”. We have been trying to escape from this idea ever since.

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I seem to recall seeing a lot of articles online about “blogging burnouts:” people who started blogs or personal websites back in the day and now never write on them any more, and either feel guilty about it or just consciously decide to move on. Many of the people who used to find their websites and blogs to be great outlets for creative expression no longer seem to have the time for them – no longer seem able to make time for them.

There are still plenty of active bloggers, sure, but there is also a lot of turnover among us. It seems like very few people keep at it for a really long time. This, to me, is another indicator of how wearing-down this alternate-reality thing is. It’s addicting but ultimately unsatisfying. There will always be participants, but eventually you will experience burnout. You can’t make yourself stay in an alternate reality for too long; even many self-described geeks eventually want out .2

At the same time, though, we find it very hard to give up the web, that thing that we can hook up to our brain and instantly know what our friends are up to and what the name of that actor in that movie was. The web works beautifully as an add-on to our normal lives, but suffers in the prison of the backlit screen. With the backlit screen, the web is a place you can only see when you stare inside your computer or your cell phone. Your eyes have to focus continually, and your pupils have to adjust to different light levels to see into this web. It is its own dimension, utterly separate from what you see when you look around the room or out the window.

The backlit screens have splintered and multiplied, and are no longer chained to a desk. Now you can have the web in your pocket, on your phone, on your coffee room table. This goes a long way toward making the web less and less a separate reality than a feature of the normal one. Indeed, our language has already adapted to reflect this – the word ‘cyberspace’ already has the sound of a goofy anachronism, impossible to utter without irony. The original flaw of the backlit screen, though, remains in effect: it forces you to experience connectedness only by ruining your day-vision. In the end, the iPhone is still just as much a part of the old ‘cyberspace’ paradigm as the green-screen terminal in War Games: a dimension unto its own, an end unto itself, a prison.

Some time ago, I, like many others, grew tired of writing for the backlit screen. But I tried podcasting and, surprisingly, I kept it up, because I found I could create an experience that didn’t tether people to their computers: something that you could listen to while out for a walk, or while driving to work. This appealed to me a great deal. It’s the same reason why I’m interested in publishing for Kindle: the variety and immediate delivery of the web without the eye strain, without the glowing screen that ruins your day-vision for your immediate surroundings.

My dream is to produce audio experiences without ever once having to sit down in front of a backlit screen. But an even bigger dream is the idea that one day, you will be able to listen without ever sitting down in front of a backlit computer screen either. When the backlit screen has followed the CRT down the path of obsolescence and electronic ink is everywhere, the web will flourish only as a delivery path for things to wind up on your table, in your armchair, your picnic table and your car.

—JD

1 I hold up the original radio as the most natural interface of any communications technology man has created so far. It has simple controls which map naturally to their functions and are easily understood, and you process its output through your ear, with no special interpretation necessary and with very low cognitive overhead – even compared with, for example, television.

2 There are so many of these kinds of posts being written these days that I can just Google ‘back to pen and paper’ and pick one at random.

In The Elements of Typographic Style Robert Bringhurst has this to say about backlit screens:

“The screen mimics the sky, not the earth. It bombards the eye with light instead of waiting to repay the gift of vision. It is not simultaneously restful and lively, like a field full of flowers, or the face of a thinking human being, or a well-made typographic page. And we read the screen the way we read the sky: in quick sweeps, guessing at the weather from the changing shapes of clouds, or like astronomers, in magnified small bits, examining details. We look to it for clues and revelations more than wisdom. This makes it an attractive place for open storage of pulverized information – names, dates, library call numbers, for instance – but not so good a place for thoughtful text.”

Joel Dueck (Author)

Episode 95 of the 99% Invisible podcast gives further examples of how the popular idea of computer interfaces evolved from levers and buttons to glowing, backlit glass.

Star Trek: The Next Generation didn’t have as much money for set design as did the original series, which had panels wired with jewels and glowing buttons. Instead, they cut out film and put them over glass panes.

Joel Dueck (Author)