The Affordance of Intimacy

The latest iPad commercial struck me as overwrought when it first came out. You know the one, with the mountain climbers, the scuba divers, the documentary filmmaker on the precipice of a waterfall, and a voiceover by Robin Williams from "Dead Poets Society," talking about poetry and what it means to be alive. It's not a terrible commercial. But unlike the holiday iPhone commercial, which showcased how ordinary people, even anti-social teenagers, can do extraordinary things with technology, the iPad commercial seemed to be about how extraordinary people can do extraordinary things with technology, especially if they have extraordinarily protective or specially designed cases for their iPads (and plenty of AppleCare).

But then I listened to John Gruber on his most recent Talk Show podcast. He was talking to Joanna Stern about her piece in the Wall Street Journal, arguing that tablet computers still aren't good for doing "real" work, like working with documents, Microsoft Office, etc. Articles on this subject seem to be a trend.

We've all spent the last 15-20 years using computers to work with documents, usually Microsoft Office documents, so we've come to see that as the primary productive purpose of computers. In a piece about the Surface Pro 2, Lukas Mathis recently detailed all the ways a simple task like writing a job application is easier on a PC than an iPad, how you can have a webpage open as you're writing, grab images and easily embed them into the document, look at a friend's emailed suggestions alongside what you're writing, all the way up to the choice of file formats for the final product: might want to export your letter and CV as PDFs, maybe combine them into a single PDF, or maybe ZIP them. You want to attach the resulting file to an email. It’s reasonably simple on a Mac or PC, but I’m not sure if some of these things are even possible on an iPad.

All of this is true. These are the productivity strengths of the PC: the multi-window, multitasking, multi-file-formatting abilities. But the question isn't whether the iPad is better at any of these activities. The question is whether the iPad is better at any productive activities. And why do we care?

Which brings me back to John Gruber's podcast. Discussing the iPad commercial with Joanna Stern, Gruber made a point that hadn't occurred to me before about what kinds of "work" can be done with a tablet computer.

[That commercial] shows that a lot, if not most, of the things that you could call work or creation that you can do on tablets are things that weren't really good or still aren't good for doing with the laptop. It's new things, right? One of the examples, there's a hockey team and they've got some kind of app and they're using the camera and showing this, and they've got like a play or something, and the guy can draw on the screen...It seems totally natural that the coach is there on the ice with an iPad in his hand, and it would look ridiculous if he was there holding a laptop.

The operative phrase there is "in his hand." When Steve Jobs gave the first public demonstration of the iPad, he famously began the demo by sitting back in a comfortable chair. For some commentators at the time, this signaled the fact that the iPad was a "lean back" rather than a "lean forward" device. Hence, the continuing debate about content consumption over content creation. But it's important to remember the first thing Steve Jobs said as he was sitting down in that chair: "It's so much more intimate than a laptop."

Designers like to talk about affordances, the property of an object that encourages a specific kind of action. Levers afford pulling, knobs afford twisting, buttons afford pushing, and so on. I am not a designer, but I first learned of the concept of affordances in the field of education. Educational psychologists argue that most behavior in a classroom, both good and bad, is the result of affordances. If you wander around the room checking students' homework and you don't give the students anything to do, you shouldn't be surprised if the class descends into chaos. You afforded that behavior.

What makes the iPad stand out from other tablet computers, and what makes it so much more appealing, is that it was designed with intimacy in mind. And I think we're just on the cusp of discovering how that intimacy affords different kinds of behaviors, different kinds of creativity and productivity.

To give just one example from my own life: I left my job as a public radio producer several years ago and took a job teaching writing. My college serves a large population of West African immigrants, many of whom came to this country as refugees, so there are numerous language issues I have to work with in their writing. I determined early on that writing comments on their papers by hand was too difficult. I couldn't fit my chicken scratch words legibly between the lines, and I often ran out of space in the margins.

So I started having them turn in all their papers digitally. That way, I could use Microsoft Word (and eventually Pages) to track changes and insert comments digitally. I even developed keyboard shortcuts so that I could insert certain comments with a single keystroke. This digital system felt more efficient, because I could type faster than I could write, and I didn't have to deal with so much paper.

But there were also certain drawbacks. The process of grading papers felt less humane somehow, like I was merely at the controls of a machine, cranking out widgets. I also didn't love the look of my printed comments: gray boxes with skeletal lines tying them back to the students' original words. My students were often confused about which comments referred to which words.

So recently, I decided to see if I could grade my students' papers entirely with an iPad. I bought Readdle's PDF Expert based on Federico Vittici's review in Macstories, bought myself a decent stylus (since replaced with this one) converted all my students' papers to PDF documents, and got to work.

In his book, "The Hand: how its use shapes the brain, language, and human culture", the neurologist Frank R. Wilson writes,

When personal desire prompts anyone to learn to do something well with the hands, an extremely complicated process is initiated that endows the work with a powerful emotional charge...Indeed, I would go further: I would argue that any theory of human intelligence which ignores the interdependence of hand and brain function, the historic origins of that relationship, or the impact of that history on developmental dynamics in modern humans, is grossly misleading and sterile.

As someone who hasn't enjoyed writing in longhand since I was about ten years old, I was frankly shocked by how different the grading experience felt when I began to annotate my students' words directly on the screen. Somehow, using my hand more directly made all the difference. Not only could I reach out with my pen, circle, and underline, the way I would have on paper, but I could instantly erase and start again, and even zoom in to impossibly small spaces, and then back out again to see the whole document. And if I wanted to use text instead of handwriting, I could just tap in the column and type, or even dictate my words.

When my students got their papers back, they said my comments were much easier to understand, because most of them were written directly beneath the words to which they referred. It seems like a small thing, but the effects matter. Students who had come to this country as refugees were learning how to write better thanks to the tiny words I could scrawl directly on the screen of this device.

The iPad also freed me from my desk. I could still grade at a desk if I wanted, but I could also sit in an easy chair or curl up on the couch. I even spent a whole Sunday morning (one of our recent double digit subzero days in Minnesota) grading in bed.

Which leads me to the biggest difference: how I felt about the process. I didn't dread grading the way I used to. It felt less like grinding away at a machine and more like a creative act. The iPad still allowed me to capture my students' work digitally, so it wasn't a mess of papers, but also engendered this renewed intimacy. By taking my fingers off the keyboard, putting the screen in my hands, and creating that slightly more intimate space, the iPad has turned my interaction with my students' words from an act of digital drudgery to an act of communication.

Can the iPad still improve? Become more powerful? More versatile? Better at inter-app communication? Am I jealous of Lukas Mathis's experience with the Surface Pro's stylus? Of course. But the first thing Apple got right, the most important thing, was how it feels. It's such a small distance from typing in front of a screen to holding the screen in your hands, but something new happens when you reduce that distance. I, for one, am excited to see how developers begin to harness the power that intimacy affords.