The Unbearable Smallness of Technology

The watchword in technology development seems to be size, the smaller, the better. It has been for a long time; look at how congratulatory we are about the fact that computers have gone from being things which fill entire rooms to gadgets which can be stuck in the pocket. This aspect of the great race to the smallest size possible is kind of exciting; the fact that technology is constantly being refined and improved is rather amazing because I keep thinking that we will get to the end of the line and the point of no return and we don’t. The bar just keeps moving in terms of what we are capable of designing. It is kind of neat to look at things even from a few years ago and to see the very palpable difference, which is evidence of how quickly we are progressing.

But there’s another aspect to this which doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of attention and that’s that there is a big disability issue going on here. Smaller is not necessarily better for some disabled users of technology. I’m thinking of people who lack fine motor control, people with tremors, people with nerve damage, missing fingers, frozen fingers, arthritis. The list goes on. There are lots of people who have trouble working with very small things, is what I am driving at.

For us, the more things downsize, the more frustrating it becomes. I can barely use a lot of cellphones because the buttons are too close together. I mash them, I can’t feel the differences between them because my fingertips are not very sensitive, and I end up punching one thing when I mean to hit a completely different button. I can’t use touchscreen navigation at all because it’s either oversensitive and my tremors send it jiggering all about, or it’s not sensitive enough and I am afraid of breaking it because I can’t quite tell where my fingers end and the phone begins; imagine holding an egg in your hand but not really being able to tell how firmly you are holding it.

No, really. Imagine holding an egg and knowing that there is an egg in your hand, but not really being able to tell where the egg is. You can feel it, vaguely. Imagine trying to close your hand around an object when you cannot fix or locate the object in relation to your hand. Now, imagine doing that with a jerk or tremor; you may think you have control but your fist could clamp shut at any minute, and then all you have is a broken egg.

Netbooks, which were all the rage for a while, are pretty much impossible for me to use because the keyboard is too crowded. I run into the problem, again, of mashing keys together and of not knowing where my hands are in relation to the keyboard. Things like Blackberries are just beyond my capability. I tried to type on one once and it was like trying to thread an embroidery needle with one of the cables on the Golden Gate Bridge. Not. Gonna. Happen.

Even using full sized equipment, I make rampant typos, as anyone who¬† has seen me type in real time can testify. Those typos are usually the result of keys being closer together than I think they are. My hand strays, my finger splays, and words start sprouting extra letters or letters I meant to touch are nowhere to be seen while there’s a string of other characters that don’t belong. I’m pretty good about weeding them out, although a few sneak through anyhow and later I sigh and go back and fix them.

This is not because I’m not a proficient typist or because I wasn’t taught how to type. It is because my hands have trouble with keyboards. This does not make me a failure, it just means that I have to be careful about which products I buy so that I know I can use them. I don’t test keyboards for feel of the keys, I test them to see whether or not my hands can fit. To make sure that the keys are separate and different enough that I will probably hit the right ones most of the time. To confirm that my frozen right pinkie finger is not constantly going to jam up against the enter key and cause problems. (Since the enter key happens to be the key which, you know, executes commands, it is kind of critical that I not hit it by accident.)

For me, the increasingly smaller size of technology is a big problem. I’ll be replacing my cell phone soon, when I switch carriers, and I am very worried about my options. The only cell phones that appear designed for people who have trouble with small buttons are also designed for people who are not very technologically savvy, because they are designed for older adults and for some reason technology designers seem to think that older adults do not know how to use technology.

My grandmother is a software developer. She can run circles around me on pretty much every computer or program ever designed. She can take software which is completely not intuitive in any way and understand it in under five minutes. She can out-gadget pretty much anyone I know and she does. So don’t tell me that older technology users do not know how to use technology or are confused by it in some way. Some just needs things to be a bit larger because they have arthritis or tremors or visual impairments and it’s hard to use things which are teeny-tiny.

And don’t tell me that disabled and older users of technology don’t deserve the full suite of features that one might reasonably expect. Just design a phone that’s a bit bigger, with larger buttons that I can actually hit, which has all the features that the smaller phone has. That’s all I’m asking for, is something a bit larger which will be comfortable and functional for me as a user.

One Reply to “The Unbearable Smallness of Technology”

  1. Thanks for writing this, because it’s something I really hadn’t much thought about. For me, and I’m sure lots of other people, smaller is awesome because it means lighter, and when you have back pain and have to carry your shit everywhere all day, lighter is a freaking godsend. But the important thing is options, not shutting people out by making everything the same because Smaller Is The Future.

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