Back to the Scroll?

Writing is just a way to record things on an external flat surface…it allows multiple people to refer to to your thinking and it sort of extends memory because you can refer later to something you wrote down. In fact, it can even help clarify your thinking to see it down on paper.

I seem to recall learning that early writing consisted of impressions on clay tablets and then, after that, papyrus. Papyrus was an improvement because it was thinner, easier to store, didn’t shatter, etc. Scrolls were an early innovation which allowed more information to be captured. (Of course, I am not a historian but this all seems pretty reasonable…)

(As an aside, in grad school, I had a professor who used a old overhead projector that had a spindle on the left and right side of the screen with a scroll of clear plastic on the left. He would write the information or create the visual and then, instead of erasing it for the next one, he would just turn the crank and it would roll up the plastic on the right hand spool and fresh plastic would advance from the spool on the left side. No, it wasn’t that long ago…um…but it was just at the beginning of the PC era and lot’s of people didn’t have one then.)

(As another aside, I recall reading somewhere that the earliest writing was actually for business purposes…to make trades, someone needed to invent the receipt and the record of the inventory…)

The innovation of the scroll probably allowed people to develop more complex thoughts both because it was easier to write on than a clay tablet and because they could continue on writing longer. Probably it promoted a more linear style of thinking…hyperlinks would have been a challenge.

After the scroll, we have the invention of paper which changed the game again. Paper is thinner and cheaper so more people could write more stuff. And, standard sizes made manufacturing easier but may have changed the way we think as well. Now, instead of a flow we had a series of pages. They could (and often were at first) viewed as simply a chopped-up scroll. Page breaks came when you ran out of paper and then the information just continued onto the next page.

But, today, the “page” is a metaphor used for all kinds of things, including web-based information which really doesn’t have to be either linear or chopped up. In our business, we often construct our deliverables using a page concept. We even use landscape layout whenever we can to make the pages portable across print, computer screen, and projected presentation platforms.

So what will be/is happening to the way we think? Where in the past scrolls gave us the opportunity to develop longer threads of linear thought, will all the hyperlinks and “mash-ups” help us improve at making connections between different ideas, different disciplines? Will the fact that the content is digital (and only one screen is visible at a time) possibly harm our ability to follow longer trains of logic?

What if we brought back the scroll, updated for the digital age? After all there is no limit to how far you can scroll down on a web page. (There probably is but I haven’t found it…I’m sure it can go a long way.) Scrolling horizontally creates a problem because it is harder for people to return back to the next line to continue reading, assuming it is text. So we probably shouldn’t scroll indefinitely horizontally.

But, one of the big assumed “no-no’s” of web design is having a page where the user has to scroll. Each screen should be sort of one idea, and then you click buttons to step through whatever the process or information is. If you hit a link and take a detour, you might never come back if you hit something more interesting that what you were doing previously. (So could this lead to even less focus and ability to concentrate?) For some research on the subject, check out some web design guidelines.

Of course, user understanding of how web pages work has evolved over time. Things that were unfamiliar to users five years ago have become natural for many users. People now get scrolling.

So, maybe the answer is to bring back the scroll. I dare you.

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