The Human Factor

Neuroscience: The Human Factor

Ever feel like a character in a science-fiction story in which some rogue technology goes awry, and begins to alter who you are? Lately, I've started to think that's actually happening to me -- to all of us. That some recent advances in media technology are accelerating the process of human evolution, and that we are becoming something else. Professor William Gribbons thinks my theory is a little wacky, but I think I've got some proof.

Gribbons, who is director of the Human Factors and Information Design Program at Bentley University, Waltham, Mass., is one of the leading academic experts on how human beings physically interact with media, and he tells me that it takes "tens of thousands of years" before an evolutionary trait can manifest -- at least biologically.

But tell that to my fingers, which have suddenly begun to experience something akin to natural selection ever since I began typing - or I should say, trying to type -- on touchscreens. Let me explain. I've been a journalist for more than 30 years, and began at a time when typing fast and accurately was a pretty important skill. I started on a manual typewriter, progressed to early electrics, then those nifty, self-correcting IBM Selectrics, through clunky, early word processors, and ultimately to state-of-the-art, ergonomically designed modern day keyboards. And I got fast. So fast, that I wrote this paragraph in one minute and 36 seconds, according to the stopwatch app on my smartphone. So fast, that I can take notes about as fast as most people I interview can speak. That's pretty fast, and has given me a slight professional advantage in my trade.

That's all gone now, thanks to touchscreens, on which I type as slow, make as many mistakes, and use auto-correct features just as often, as my teenage daughter and her friends, who probably write faster than I do on the devices. In fact, it just took me four times as long to type this paragraph on my smartphone, as it took me to type the preceding paragraph on my laptop. But that's progress, if not evolution - and as Gribbons notes, media designers often forget the human factor when they create a media interface. They often design, he says, for "ideal" conditions, for people who have 20/20 vision or can see clearly in low-light conditions, when the reality is most of us neither have perfect senses, nor consume media in perfect situations.

Gribbons learned this firsthand recently, when he invited some technicians from Bose Corp. to come in and set up the ultimate home entertainment system for him. They evaluated his living room and proceeded to place his new large-screen digital TV in front of his fireplace. They put the speakers of his new sound system in the way of foot traffic. They moved his couch so that it blocked the entry into the room.

When they left, Gribbons moved things around so that the glare from his fireplace bounced off his new set, and the speakers were safely tucked in less-than-optimal audio range, but he was comfortable. And comfort -- whether it is lying on a couch watching TV, or typing on an ergonomically designed keyboard -- is an important factor when it comes to how we relate to media.

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