The myopic approach to computing

A child may appear equally glued to a television screen, but the computer screen is generally positioned only 18in in front of our eyes, as opposed to metres away in the case of the television. The child may spend hours attending to close work on a computer screen, forgetting entirely to exercise the eyes by focusing on something more distant.

Short sightedness can be relatively easily corrected with spectacles or contact lenses, but are parents aware of the other risks? Are they warned by computer manufacturers?

Many people are unaware of the problems they might face from incorrect or overuse of computers.

More information about repetitive strain injury is available now - in part due to a couple of high-profile legal challenges faced by keyboard makers in the US - and employers wary of being taken to court by their staff are paying more attention to providing ergonomic furniture, rest breaks and alternative data-input methods.

RSI can be extremely painful, even debilitating, and if left unchecked can become chronic. Users are advised to seek alternative input mechanisms, such as voice, if they do start to suffer from tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of too much repetitive keyboard work.

But what are people told of the stress involved in some of the work performed while using computers? Consider call centre operators, who are often under pressure to successfully answer a query or make a sale in a specified period of time, knowing that their supervisors may be listening to their performance throughout. Add to that the stresses associated with using an ill-designed computer system, and it becomes clear that many human beings are operating under considerable strain.

Dr Gitte Lindgaard is a psychologist who studies computer systems' usability, and is about to relocate from Melbourne's Swinburne University of Technology to Canada. She believes there are real health risks for employees in such situations. In one case study, Lindgaard identified phenomenally high rates of absenteeism and staff turnover (120 per cent in three months). This included two staff members suffering nervous breakdowns, two attempted suicides and six staff placed on long-term stress leave, all because of a badly designed computer system which was difficult for staff to train on and was difficult to use.

Susan Wolfe, principal consultant with the Hiser Group, which also specialises in computer systems' usability, was a keynote speaker at the Ozchi conference late in 1999. She agrees with Lindgaard that the use of personal computer systems is a learned, rather than an instinctive, behaviour. For that reason, she believes that more effort needs to be put into designing computer systems that are easier, and which people can use more intuitively.

In her keynote address to the Ozchi conference, Wolfe said, "Our biggest challenge comes from the fact that the users' expectations have changed. It is no longer rocket scientists interacting with rocket science applications. It is now you and I doing everyday tasks and having every expectation that they will be simple and obvious to complete."

Usually, however, these are issues of personal comfort, not of lethal threat. There are serious health issues arising from the rapid advances in technology. It is still unclear, for example, how safe it is to spend long periods of time with a mobile telephone jammed against the cranium.

The widely circulated letter from communications researcher Dr George Carlo to AT&T chairman Michael Armstrong, penned late in 1999, cited studies that appeared to demonstrate a link between some rare neural cancers and heavy use of mobile telephones.

According to Carlo, "the question of wireless phone safety is unclear"; he called on the telecommunications industry to make more widely available reports pointing to such risks.

It would be nice to see computer and communications companies attend a little more to the human element, and to at least alert technology users to some of the health issues associated with their products.

At the moment, it is left to others to warn that "beyond here be dragons".

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Beverley Head

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