Adding weight to digital things

A sedentary lifestyle is lethal. It’s not enough to exercise regularly, you have to avoid sitting down for long periods.

This will have to affect the way we work. Offices are organised around sitting, finding places for workers to sit, finding places for guests to sit: whole industries revolve around making things that can be accessed from a sitting height. Some people use lecterns or more modern desks designed for use while standing. To be honest, I can’t see how giving yourself varicose veins is a good alternative. Surely the message from this research is that your body needs variety and activity? Lots of small movements that keep your muscles alive and awake.

I saw a Kinect in use for the first time yesterday. The Singapore Simulation and Gaming Association held a ‘family-friendly’ event, which involved an Xbox running Kinect Adventures to occupy the children who had come along. I didn’t manage to get a go, unfortunately, though lots of people have already written about the uncanny nature of interacting using a body rather than a peripheral, and I’d love to try one. But watching it in use was fascinating, and I wondered how it would be used in a workplace, to move around a desktop, rather than a game.

It would certainly be one way to reconcile the need to do work with the need to avoid sitting. It might be expected that it would also reveal certain patterns in our work, through making certain sets of muscles ache more than others. This would be interesting and revealing in itself, of course. But perhaps this new source of fatigue could be used to add a layer to our digital work that isn’t always present?

The metaphor of the desktop, with its files and folders, might be extended through modelling the degree of resistance involved in moving a certain file or performing a particular operation – that is, files would not only have content but weight. Some files could be harder to move than others, or involve more work to manipulate. They would have an extra dimension, becoming more than just equivalent white rectangles with a pixellated drop-shadow. Some files could be sent careening around the desktop with a flick of the wrist, while others might need a solid shove from the core. Maybe this isn’t exactly “weight”, but it’s something quite a lot like it.

How could this be used to communicate more information about them? One immediate choice might be to link filesize to resistance: the larger the file, the heavier it is. There’s something appealing about this, turning a digital property into a physical one. Deleting an old todo-list would be an easier job than pulling photographs off a camera. But it seems unfair, in some ways, to give these files this extra depth without seeing it as a cost to the person moving them around. If file-weight is going to make it harder to do certain jobs, wouldn’t it be more interesting to make this meaningful in the context of the person who’s doing them?

A get-things-done fan or efficiency hacker might see value in making the unappealing jobs light and the potential distractions heavy, so a timesheet could be handled with the same aplomb and dexterity as a sheet of origami paper, while Solitaire or timesink URLs might be dauntingly immobile. I’m sure this sort of self-management would be useful, at least until muscles developed sufficiently. But, to me, it’s more interesting to think about how the meaning of documents could be made tangible through their weight. It should be harder to fling around a will or a contract than a do-list or an IM chat. I have a hunch that I’d treat a heavy text with more respect when contributing to it than I would something flimsy and weightless. There’s a cultural history to access in support of this: we’re used to thinking about lightweight articles or weighty tomes. And there’s something appealing about making an insubstantial property more real, acknowledging that this invisible object has a proper presence and meaning in the world.

There are different ways of determining an object’s worth or meaning, of course, and the way this should relate to its perceived weight. People could decide for themselves, setting it to the degree they felt appropriate. This sounds like extra housework, though, and not the sort of extra work that could be made more than a chore. Perhaps some set of algorithms could look at the file, compare it to the files it came in with, relate this to what it knows about the relationship between senders, check it for keywords, decide where it stands in comparison to documents that have been weighted already, and so on, before assigning it a preliminary weight for people to tweak later. That would be more useful, though it risks setting expectations wrongly, I suppose, with people anticipating a document of little importance paying less attention to something that’s worth more of their time. Whichever way is chosen, it would need to look outside the operating system somehow, examining accompanying messages from the real world, to make sure that the object’s real, social worth was being addressed.

Once people start sending each other documents that can be weighted, of course, we could expect a rapid escalation in heavy files, in the same way that flags and “important!” checkboxes are abused and meaningless right now. Heaving a massive file out of an inbox only to discover an injuction on certain foods being stored in the office fridge would become tedious very quickly, and once the connection between weight and meaning is broken the whole exercise would become worthless. Letting other people influence the weight of a document might culminate in simple but effective denial-of-service attacks, in which users are left frustratedly pawing at gigantic files that block access to the desktop as effectively as a mine collapse. Perhaps weight should be accreted to documents gradually and automatically, reflecting the way they become meaningful. Early versions would seem insubstantial, while later revisions seem overloaded and too troublesome to engage with fully: there would be a brief period when a document is weighty enough to seem worth taking seriously but not yet unmanageable and weighed down by an accumulation of commentary.

All this would slowly change the way office work is conducted and perhaps even what we understand a digital document to be. Bold hopes, perhaps. But perhaps the boldest hope would be that this Sisyphyean struggle to shift a never-ending stream of digital boulders from one virtual place to another might be enough to persuade people to choose to move outside, away from the computer, and leave their humanoid robot to plough the digital fields on their behalf.

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