This is post I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but time (as it does) has gotten away from me. I started thinking about this issue back around the end of 2008 or so when it was announced that, globally, laptop sales had exceeded desktops. It’s easy to see the appeal: setting up camp anywhere from the couch, to a train car, to Starbucks, to the library, all with (mostly) no wires and no hassle. But, I can’t help but wonder if the shift to laptops will end up being, on the whole, rather unhealty for us.
There are a whole slew of unpleasant things that can happen to you from using computers: neck problems, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, repetitive strain injuries, etc. These things are too mundane to be really frightening, but occur with disturbing frequency. I don’t want to sound alarmist here: fortunately, the ergonomics of computer use have been well studied over the decades. If you follow the published advice in setting up your work area and take on healthy habits (posture, typing technique, etc.) then you can dramatically lower your risk.
At a desktop, I think it’s much easier to pay minimal attention to adjusting your working environment and still get it mostly right: the screen will be in generally the right place, and its easy to find some combination of chair height and keyboard position that suits.
With laptops, however, it is nearly impossible to work ergonomically using the laptop on its own. In order to have the keyboard at a comfortable position for your hands, you have to have the screen at a height that is much too low (unless, of course, you are a tyrannosaurus Rex) for your neck. Simply put, if you work primarily with a laptop computer, and you don’t setup your primary work area with either a separate screen or a separate keyboard, then you are asking for trouble. The stress we put on our bodies working like this may seem slight, but consider the amount of work you do at a computer day in and day out. Most of our careers will be dependent on using a computer on a least a regular basis. Some of us will have careers that we spend almost entirely in front of a computer. Don’t risk it!
This problem has been so well studied, and the guidelines so easy to find (a google search for “computer ergonomics” will land you dozens of helpful sites. I’d recommend the CDC, or DoHS) that you’d be foolish not to make a little bit of effort. A separate keyboard you can plug in while you elevate your laptop to the proper viewing height is a cheap and effective solution if you’re freelancing. If your laptop is issued by your employer and you live in an industrialized nation, then there will be appropriate health & safety statues that should make them only too eager to give you the equipment you need.
I already know two people (my age!) who have been diagnosed with various problems caused by their computer use. It was a wakeup call for me, and I’m a desktop man.
The repercussions of the switch to a laptop-style interface remain to be seen in terms of long term health problems for computer users, but its hard to imagine them being anything other than, on the whole, bad news bears. I don’t mean to sound anti-laptop or anti-computer here (nothing could be further from my sentiment!), but there’s a safe(r) way of computing and a dangerous(er)* one. I’m optimistic that a little education will go a long way in preventing injuries.
Of course, the laptop is not the only interface paradigm that’s on the rise. Apple’s iPad seems to be leading the charge into large(ish) scale touchscreen devices entering widespread use, and people typing on various cramped mobile phone keyboards have been common for several years now. These interfaces need some scientific scrutiny as well, but the typical usage pattern (short activity with plenty of breaks) probably means there’s not too much to worry about.
*yeah, I know.