The price of progress

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A special Rationalbrain report

In this disturbing recent study by the Australian Association of Finger, Wrist, Elbow and Shoulder Surgeons, evidence is provided that the now all-pervading wrist-finger flick method of updating portable computer displays, popularised by Apple, is responsible for a rising number of orthopedic injuries.

A spokesman for the Association, Marilyn Minchin, is quoted as saying:

“Yes, we are seeing more and more young people presenting with this type of injury, and it is not dissimilar in pathology to the Repetitive Strain Injury which accompanied the introduction of computing. It is also similar to ‘mouse-hunch’, on which we have collaborated with our spinal specialist colleagues for a number of years.”

It seems that the root of the issue is the entirely un-natural movement required to achieve a relatively minor outcome. Said Ms. Minchin:

“Our analysis shows that we are actually now doing the opposite of what mankind has developed over thousands of years, that is, mechanical advantage. With mechanical advantage, we can harness a small energy input, to achieve very great mechanical outputs. For example, building the pyramids would have been impossible without mechanical advantage. Measurements show that the so-called ‘Apple-flick’ requires several hundred joules of energy, and possibly more if a more flamboyant or showy technique is used. In contrast, it requires approximately 300 microjoules to refresh an iPad screen – a ratio of approximately 1,000,000 of mechanical disadvantage.”

This study backs up what ergonomists and computer experts have known intuitively for years now – that in the development of technology there are often blind-alleys in the evolution of that technology. This appears to be one of them. Said one developmental technologist, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from Apple:

“A number of years ago, we developed a perfectly good system for updating screens – known as a ‘button’. This device can be implemented either mechanically, requiring perhaps 100 microjoules to actuate, or in software, where the energy requirements are significantly less. In either incarnation, a user retains the mechanical advantage sought. However, it often forgotten that the ‘button’ can also be used for user input and other diverse tasks, not simply a simple command to update a display.”

A team of psychologists from the Australian Institute of Psychometric Anomalies had also been looking at this issue from another perspective, trying to understand the reason for the popularity of this developmental backwater. It’s early days, but a researcher there speculates that:

“In my view, this is primarily the evolutionary equivalent of developing colourful tailfeathers to ensure that you are noticed, even though they are no use for flying and require signficant energy to maintain. This is particularly evident in users of the Apple-flick who choose the more flamboyant flourish, instead of the minimal movement required to actually accomplish the task. They are, in effect, saying “Look at me. I know how to use this. And I spent significant money on it”.

Further research is to focus on not only rehabilitation of injured joints, but also on techniques for weaning users from the psychological imprinting which is thought to be the root cause of the problem. Other manifestations of such imprinting include queuing for days at Apply stores to buy something that will be available at the same price just hours after going on sale, and, insisting that graphics applications run faster on Apple equipment, despite the internal graphics hardware being common in non-Apple equipment.

Rationalbrain will report on developments as they come to hand.


3 thoughts on “The price of progress

    […] those few readers left after my recent jibe at iPad users, let me urge you not to be concerned at the recent news report, describing an experiment in which […]

    I was only kidding « rationalbrain said:
    December 9, 2011 at 7:46 am

    […] while back, while travelling in Europe, I wrote this tongue-in-cheek piece on the perils of modern technology – more specifically, injuries sustained using smart-phones […]

    More technology pain foreseen « rationalbrain said:
    February 8, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    […] A little while ago I pointed out that reality had caught up with parody – specifically relating to repetitive injuries sustained while operating smart phones and pads and the like. The original parody is here. […]

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