iPad: The wonder tool of the noughties?

iPad: The wonder tool of the noughties?

22 Feb 2011

Oakman_thumbDr Jodi Oakman

E-mail: J.Oakman@latrobe.edu.au

 

In a technology driven age, we are eager to embrace the next new thing, usually without consideration of potential adverse consequences. In 2010, Australia was the recipient of the much-awaited iPad. Its introduction saw people camped out overnight, eager to be amongst the first to embrace this sleek and sexy device.

Many iPad owners claim a transformed working life, stating their laptops are now defunct and dreaming of a life without a sore back or neck caused by carrying these weighty machines. However, before we throw out the old, it is worth considering some history to assist us with navigating our bodies and minds through these rapid technological changes.

Many lessons can be learned from the eighties when desktop computers landed on workers desks. Computers morphed from being a stand-alone icon occupying an entire room into the “desktop computer” or something that could feasibly squeeze onto a desk. These first generations of desktop computers were large and unwieldy, and did indeed fit on a desk, but left little space for anything else, causing workers to adopt awful postures in an effort to accommodate this new tool.

The introduction of the desktop computer meant a huge shift in work practices. However, consultation and training were grossly lacking. The impact on work was huge and many workers sustained injuries to their bodies as they tried to manage this equipment and the organisational changes that accompanied this shift.

Most of us are familiar with the acronym RSI or repetitive strain injury. It is an old fashioned term and not used by those of us working in contemporary occupational health. Many issues surround the term RSI, principally it implies causality of the injury, in most cases the cause of pain and discomfort in the arms, necks and backs of workers is unknown.

Photos of workstations in the eighties make us laugh, with huge screens positioned to ensure stability for the machine but not so for the user, a complete contradiction of good ergonomic practice. The introduction of the iPad seems like a gift, a smaller, lighter device, something that enables us to cart whole libraries, but weighs under a kilo. What is the problem? 

The introduction of laptops seemed like it was going to solve all our problems, it was small and portable, until you added the accessories, carrying 4 or 5 kilos on one shoulder. Not to mention the other physical issues related to laptop usage such as its screen height, small keyboard and touchpad mouse, all designed to keep you hunched over, with minimal movement, the opposite of what our bodies actually need.

Move forward then to the iPad, which on the surface negates many issues associated with the laptop, it is small and light but with many features. Indeed, it does solve some of the immediate issues concerning weight, but it certainly does not solve the postural problems associated with the laptop and in fact can exacerbate them. Using the iPad keyboard requires even more bending than its cousin the laptop, a posture that is often responsible for neck pain. Its keyboard is small designed for short quick usage, but not for extended periods.

The key issue is that we don’t know what the consequences of long term iPad usage are and as a result should be cautious with our uptake. In some schools, iPads are replacing laptops in an attempt at reducing loads carried by school children. On face value this would seem sensible, but there are lessons to be heeded from the past.

Issues other than physical ones should also be carefully considered. In particular the social impacts of introducing a mandatory piece of technology into schools that requires an Internet connection for it be its most useful. A growing area of commentary is describing the impact of email and social media on our lives, claiming it is making us more isolated and less community focused. Some assert we should be protecting our children and teenagers from these impacts by controlling their internet access, the introduction of iPads for school use makes this much more difficult for parents to achieve.

The rapid march of technology cannot be stopped but it should be approached with a more considered and rational manner than we are currently observing. A more reflective approach may help reduce some of the angst suffered in the past and we can then attempt to navigate a more sustainable pathway for our future generations.

Dr Jodi Oakman is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Human Biosciences and at the Centre for Ergonomics and Human Factors at La Trobe University.

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