Why Did Apple Reverse the Way We Scroll Up and Down?

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Sept. 20 2011 12:10 PM

Apple's Mousetrap

Why did Apple reverse the way we scroll up and down?

Mac OS X Lion.
Mac OS X Lion has changed scrolling

In July, Apple released its new operating system, Mac OS X Lion, and pulled a Frank Lloyd Wright. The architect would return to the homes he had designed and rearrange the furniture as he saw fit, often in the middle of the night. You like the piano there? Too bad, it has to go in the center of the room! Similarly, 1 million Apple users downloaded Lion the first day and noticed something odd when their computers restarted: Down was up, up was down. Apple had decreed that "natural scrolling" was the new standard, overturning 25 years of convention. This was more discomfiting than rearranging furniture. This was pulling out the chair as you were taking a seat.

With natural scrolling, a trackpad or a mouse wheel no longer follows the direction of the scrollbars. Rather, the pointer responds as if your finger were touching the screen. One reason Apple made the change is to integrate the way we interact with our iPhones, iPads, and MacBooks. The secondary effect is to bind us more closely to the Apple way of computing. The trackpad is rapidly developing its own complicated sign language; I'm addicted to the two-finger swipe to flip between web pages. Using a Windows machine with a mouse suddenly feels very 1997.

But natural scrolling made my head hurt. The pleasant experience of working on my Mac became a mental chore akin to walking upstairs backward. I gave natural scrolling a try for three days and then turned it off. (Lion, thankfully, does at least allow you to change the default setting.) As I later learned, all of this was sort of discussed by Heidegger. The German philosopher wrote about the concepts of readiness-to-hand and unreadiness-to-hand that influenced the field of artificial intelligence. When we use a hammer to drive nails, the hammer becomes an extension of our hand. We "see through" the hammer to do the job we need to do. But if the hammer feels funny or the head wiggles, we become aware of the hammer. We are no longer "coping skillfully with the world."

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Tony Chemero, a cognitive scientist at Franklin & Marshall, devised a clever experiment to test Heidegger's concept. He and his colleagues wrote a "stupid, simple" computer program that required a study participant to herd a dot to the center of the screen. They also had participants count backward from 100 by three. At a certain point during the experiment, the connection between the mouse and the pointer would "break"—not enough that you lost complete control of the mouse, but enough so that you couldn't guide it as accurately as you might like. The mouse became a lousy tool.

Chemero told me it was easy to see when the mouse stopped working: The participant's heart rate, respiration rate, and skin conductance spiked. (Some participants also stopped counting.) Having the mouse malfunction produced a physical reaction similar to telling a lie. "It's a sudden feeling of incompetence, of things not being right," Chemero says. That may seem like the science of the obvious—man gets pissed at computer, man's heart rate goes up—but there's a second aspect to Chemero's research: When the mouse is working properly, human hand movements produce what is called "pink noise."

Pink noise is "the signature of a unified system of parts." Chemero gave me the example of walking. When we walk on a level path, our stride length would appear to be mostly the same, but there are subtle variations. These variations create a system that has a "long memory." The way we walked 20 paces ago affects the pace we are about to take. "If the system were not interconnected in the way that it is, it would show variability, randomness, or white noise," he said. Pink noise is "a not-quite quite randomness, a system whose parts interact densely in real time."

Scientists have observed pink noise in the bodily adjustments required to remain standing, in our heartbeats, in quasars, and even in the way movies are cut. With natural scrolling, Apple was messing with the laws of the universe! Think of my surprise then, when an informal poll among friends revealed that most had switched without a hitch. Two days of discomfort at most. And here I was feeling like my hand had been cut off. No one likes to realize they have the old brain, that they're becoming obsolete. So I'm a natural scroller now, in the pink, working with the new hammer.

Michael Agger is an editor at The New Yorker. Follow him on Twitter.

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