Sustainability Implications of Organic UI Technologies: An Inky Problem PDF PDF

June 2nd, 2008

by Eli Blevis

The moment you have decided that sustainability is an issue with respect to interaction design and the design of interactive devices is the moment you realize how complex the business of deciding what to actually do about it is. It is not just a simple matter of calculating the energy and environmental costs of manufacturing, use, salvage, and disposal of one technology over another.

For example, it was long ago claimed that computing technologies would create a paperless office—a claim which is not yet in sight. Many people around me print things rather than read on screen. They like to hold paper in their hands and mark things up. Ever since I acquired a portrait mode capable LCD monitor, I have mostly stopped printing things personally. I can now read and write a whole page of text on my 1200×1600 pixel screen at once at 140% of the size it would be if I printed it. As a result, I almost never print anything anymore. The environmental costs of the energy used to power my display must be weighed against the costs of printing the page when I am just reading, assuming that I would actually power-off my display when I am reading what has been printed. Furthermore, the environmental cost of production of the portrait mode display and the environmental costs of the premature obsolescence and disposal of the display I had before this one are also part of the equation.

Environmental costs are not very static—increasing demands for a technology can drive down some such environmental costs while increasing some others. Nonetheless, Organic UI technologies, such as digital paper or flexible displays and e-ink technologies hold have promising potentials for the development of sustainable practices in interaction design. Each of these potentials has dangers of inducing unsustainable behaviors as well.

One potential owes to an advantage of paper display technology itself. No energy is used when reading an e-ink display owing to the bistability of the material—that is, digital paper preserves its state each time it is updated without the need for additional power. From the perspective of environmental sustainability, this seems to be a more important feature than the issue of the present environmental cost of making “a sheet of” digital paper, since such costs will change dramatically with improvements in the technology and with production at scale.

A second potential owes to the concept of books as durable objects. When it becomes possible to create a book using the new digital paper that can be turned into any book by means of an electronic update, the potential for a more sustainable medium presents itself—one that does not require the cutting of trees. But, the durability of the digital paper book can only match that of the ordinary notion of a book if the other attributes that make ordinary books enduring objects in general are also matched or even exceeded.

A third potential owes to the possibilities for making displays that are more portable, cheaper, smaller, and more pervasive. From a sustainability point of view, pervasive, small, cheap displays may be an advantage to the degree that they build an infrastructure of modularity. If upgrading a display on an interactive device such as a cell phone, PDA, mp3/video player, or laptop becomes as viable as upgrading the storage capacity of a device by substituting a memory card such as an SD card this could have the effect of making digital artifice last longer. On the other hand, if the possibilities of making more portable, cheaper, smaller, and more pervasive displays ends up driving a practice of even more disposability and premature disposal due to frequent obsolescence with respect to display devices—for example on product packaging—the consequences could be devastating from an environmental point of view. Even if the substrates are made of recyclable materials, recycling is not as environmentally sustainable as reuse. And, if the substrates are not made of recyclable or biodegradable materials, the effects on the e-waste stream may possibly augment the toxicity of the present day e-waste stream (see [3]). In any event, the negative social impacts of adding to the e-waste stream and even of certain recycling practices are also a global sustainability issue (see [1,2]).

For digital paper to be better than ordinary paper from a user experience point of view, it will need to properly address at least these following four interactivity Issues: Resolution—the quality of the text will need to be as good or better than paper; Control—the use of digital paper and labels will need to be as easy and straightforward in use as ordinary paper and labels; Portability—digital paper will need to be as portable or more portable than ordinary paper at the same resolutions; Authenticity—the experience of using these displays will need to be as aesthetically authentic and tangible as holding a physical piece of paper. If these user experience concerns can be adequately addressed together with some of the other concerns described above, the potentials of organic display technologies to enable choices for a sustainable future are possible.

1. Iles, A. (2004).Mapping Environmental Justice in Technology Flows: Computer Waste Impacts in Asia. Global Environmental Politics 4:4, November 2004. MIT Press.
2. Schmidt, C. (2006). Unfair trade e-waste in Africa. Environmental Health Perspectives. 114(4): A232–A235.
3. Townsend, G. et al. (2004). RCRA toxicity characterization of computer CPUs and other discarded electronic devices. Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences, University of Florida. US EPA.

Eli Blevis serves on the faculty in the Human-Computer Interaction Design Program of the School of Informatics at Indiana University, Bloomington IN USA. Dr. Blevis’ primary area of research is Sustainable Interaction Design for which he is best known. This area of research and Dr. Blevis’ core expertise is situated within the confluence of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) as it owes to the computing and cognitive sciences and design as it owes to the reflection of design criticism and the practice of critical design. Now a regular contributor for the ACM Interactions forum column, “Sustainably Ours,” Dr. Blevis has published more than forty articles and papers and has given several invited colloquia internationally on Sustainable Interaction Design and the larger context of notions of design.

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