Jarosław Kopeć Reading/writing in ICT. Habitual alliances and individual style.


Henderson and Card14 described types of windows-based graphical user intefaces (GUIs) years before Windows 8.1 was developed and distributed to PC users. The participants of the experiment presented in this paper used, during the experiment, this modern operating system with its default user interface. Windows 8.1 enables its user to organize the space of the screen and to control the display in many ways. Users can choose which type of display fits them best. The typology of basic ways of organizing information in the limited space of a computer screen using a windows-based GUI, which I employ in this paper to discuss participants’ individual styles of conducting CRRC tasks, comes from Card and Henderson. These are the four basic types they point out: 

1. Alternating screen usage – a user can switch allocation of the screen from one application to another;

2. Distorted views – windows are minimized or distorted in order to remind a user of their existence, without necessarily taking all the screen;

3. Large virtual workspaces – the screen is treated as a “moveable viewport” for displaying parts of a bigger workspace;

4. Multiple virtual workspaces – there is more than one workspace, which is connected to another one, and a user can switch between both.

Microsoft Windows offers a flexible interface, which enables a user to choose how he or she wants to use it in terms of controlling the display. It is another moment when habitual alliances come into play. One can either switch between full-screen applications (1) or use certain ways of distorting views, such as minimizing and shifting between tabs in the browser, or one can use the screen as a large virtual workspace (3), the most similar parallel to the material desk. The different choices of organizing the space of the screen will be analysed within the categories pointed out by Henderson and Card in another chapter of the paper.

Remediation is understood as a representation of one medium in another medium.15 This study concentrates on the users’ behaviours; therefore a transposition of the term is required. In this paper the term remediation is used to describe such actions taken in relation with non-humans (hardware and/or software), which are incorporated into human-computer interaction from other interactions with non-digital non-humans, e.g. using a cursor to follow the lines of text displayed on a screen as if it was a pointer following lines of a printed codex. The diagnosis that a particular practice is remediated holds only when a reader did something similar in a non-digital environment, for example while reading a printed book. This is investigated using the supplementary material coming from the interviews. Remediation in this sense can be understood as a migration of a habitual alliance from non-digital to digital.


The sample was purposive. There were eight participants. They were all students or alumni no more than a year after graduation. They came from various fields, from law and sociology to veterinary medicine and computer science. It was my intention to gather various academic fields, where none of the participants was equally competent in all the subjects used for constructing the task. In the text participants are addressed by nicknames given to them to let them stay anonymous.

The data was gathered in two phases.

During the first phase I gathered screen-capture recordings of the actions undertaken by the participants in order to complete the task given. The task was to prepare a written response to three questions (translated here from Polish):

1. Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – what was the official cause of the American attack on Iraq in 2003? Have weapons of mass destruction been found in Iraq?

2. Life on Titan – what is the hypothesis about life on Titan – Saturn’s moon – about? What is the mystery of the presence of methane in that moon’s atmosphere? What do the observations of Titan bring to the discussion on abiogenesis?

3. Algorithms for accessing information on the Internet – how does the Google Search Engine decide what the answers to our queries are? How does Backrub work and is it still at the heart of Google Search? What is the hypothesis of filter bubble about?

The choice of questions was dictated by two principles. Firstly, they were supposed to cover three distinct areas of knowledge. Secondly, they were supposed to be deep or complicated enough to take more than an hour to answer (it was tested in a pilot study before the experiment whether they were appropriate in this matter).

All participants were given 1 hour and 15 minutes to complete the task on a PC computer installed in the common room at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales” at the University of Warsaw. The computer was operating on Microsoft Windows 8.1, and had web browsers (Chrome and Firefox) and a word processor (LibreOffice) installed aside from the software preinstalled by the developer of the operating system (Internet Explorer, Notepad). Participants were instructed to either send their answer via e-mail to a given account or save them on the hard drive of the computer at the given directory.

In the second phase I conducted semi-structured interviews with the participants. These concentrated on participants’ daily habits of reading online, using various non-humans for reading and organizing information. In the second half of the interview I jumped to asking them about the most interesting moments in their processes. I wanted them to first elaborate on their daily habits, and after that talk about what happened during the experiment. I intended to make them place the observations I made during the experiment in the wider context of their daily practices of using computers and other digital machines for reading.

Screen-recordings were compressed and transcribed into time logs accompanied by notes. The interviews were also transcribed and excerpts from them, translated into English, are quoted in the next part of the paper.

The analysis of the data was conducted both using visualizations of quantitative data and close reading and interpretation of the processes. The visualizations served only a supplementary role, so they are not addressed in this paper.

14 D.A. Henderson, Jr., S.K. Card, “Rooms: The Use of Multiple Virtual Workspaces to Reduce Space Contention in a Window-Based Graphical User Interface”, ACM Transaction on Graphics, vol. 5, no. 3, 1986, pp. 211-243.

15 J. Bolter, D. Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge, MA, 2000.