Web Magazine for Information Professionals

The Tablet Symposium

Ryan Burns reports on a one-day symposium on tablet computers, e-readers and other new media objects held at the University of Sussex on 10 April 2013.

The Tablet Symposium [1] brought together researchers and practitioners to examine questions about uses of tablet computers and e-readers across many walks of life, including academic, artistic, pedagogical, corporate and everyday contexts.

As a co-organiser of the event, I was thrilled by the range of presentations that we were fortunate enough to be able to include in the symposium.  It was fascinating to see such a broad range of perspectives being applied to such a very focused object of study. I was particularly struck by the fact that, although every speaker was talking about the same object, everybody attributed a slightly different set of meanings to that object.  The Tablet Symposium highlighted how in some domains such as comics, the role of tablets is very well-defined, while in others such as museum curation, the role of tablets is still uncertain.  The range of speakers and topics created a truly interdisciplinary event with a delightful collegial atmosphere in which many ideas were shared and developed. 

Panel 1: Usability

Pass the iPad: Tablet Computers  for Collaborative Creating and Sharing in Groups at Home and School

Nicola Yuill, University of Sussex; Yvonne Rogers, University College London; Jochen Rick, Saarland University;
Stefan Kreitmayer, Open University

Nicola presented the findings of her team’s research comparing the role of tablets to that of paper.  Specifically, they were interested in whether tablets can be used for collaborative work, rather than merely for the sort of personal uses such as gaming that we might more commonly associate with tablets.  Nicola emphasised that she was not asking whether tablets were better than paper; rather she was interested in how any specific medium such as tablets or paper might affect workflow.  A starting-point for this research was the idea that most screen-based computing devices such as mobile phones and PCs are understood to be personal.  With tablets, however, their size, shape and wireless nature means that they could be much more readily shared than other screen-based devices, perhaps allowing them to be simultaneously personal and communal devices.

banner logo of the Tablet Symposium

Presenting research based on analysis of the game of picture consequences [2] at the 13th Brighton Science Festival in February 2013 [3], Nicola showed that tablets can be used as ‘scrap computers’ or communal devices that are handed around amongst a team.  The collaborative nature of the task meant that tablets were experienced as communal, rather than personal, objects.  Nicola’s paper raised some interesting questions in particular about the extent to which we conceive of tablets as personal devices.  Using tablets in a collaborative task such as picture consequences highlighted how a tablet user may sometimes feel a strong relationship to the material object, and at other times feel that it is the intangible data contained within the object that they really ‘own’. 

The Distance Between Us: Incorporating the Advancements of Touchscreen Technology into Current Museum Touring Exhibition Practices

Clair Battison and Louise Egan, Victoria and Albert Museum

Clair and Louise’s presentation gave a concrete illustration of the comparison of paper and tablet computers.  They outlined a pilot project at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), which used tablets to replace paper in the recording of information about exhibits being displayed in touring exhibitions.  When a museum exhibition goes on tour, a huge variety of documents are required to accompany each object to ensure that it is transported and displayed correctly.  A single complex object may require 150 photographs to illustrate sufficiently how it should be displayed once it reaches its destination. 

The trial used tablet computers to record various types of data including written descriptions and photographs of touring exhibits.  Clair and Louise explained that the trial proved intuitive and efficient.  The benefits of tablets in the trial were that they could store vast amounts of data on many different objects without taking up the same large space as paper documents.  The image clarity and ability to zoom removed the need to annotate images, in turn saving time and removing language problems that can be encountered when the exhibit is being displayed abroad.  The ability to use Skype or other Internet-based video communication tools was incredibly useful, as exhibitors abroad could contact curators at the V&A to ask questions about how to display an object, using live video to help explain the problem they were having.  The drawbacks were that the Internet connection was not always reliable when the tablet was sent to other locations.  Most problematic, however, was the fact that IT at the V&A would not support the use of apps. 

In conclusion, Clair and Louise questioned whether the benefits experienced were due to specific tablet computer features such as a touchscreen, or whether these benefits would be attained by any portable computer. 

Tablets: Specific, Generic, Perfect?

Ryan Burns, University of Sussex

In my paper, I sought to critique a perception that I have encountered in interviews and observations with users of tablet computers: namely, that tablets are perfect.  I have found that users often seek to blame something external to the tablet computer whenever it goes wrong.  Users may blame poor Internet connection, a lack of useful apps for a given task, a lack of suitable third-party add-ons such as Bluetooth keyboards, or even simply a minor design flaw in their otherwise perfect device.  So even when they fail, tablets are regarded as infallible: any given problem is always something else’s fault. 

I proposed that this sense of tablets as perfect results from a lack of clear understanding about what exactly a tablet computer is.  Is my tablet computer this generic material device that I’m holding?  Or is it the collection of specific apps and files that are located inscrutably and immaterially ‘inside’ the device?  I argued that generic tablet computers are regarded as perfect, while specific apps and files are seen as fallible.  This allows users to experience all sorts of failures and problems when using a tablet computer, yet retain the belief that tablets are perfect.  I concluded that the tendency to blame the specific and regard the generic as infallible reflects our understanding of technology more generally.  While a given technology may be fallible, technological solutions in general are regarded as, potentially, perfect. 

Ubiquitous Computing at  our Fingertips: Everyday  Practices  and  Experiences  in  the  Context  of Tablet Computing

Mareike Glöss, Uppsala University

Mareike took a perspective based on her background in cultural anthropology to critique the idealised aim of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) to achieve ‘ubiquitous computing at our fingertips’.  Arguing that HCI has been limited by the idea of people sitting in front of a PC, Mareike claimed that ubiquitous computing is not something that we should aim for: it is already here.  It is just so messy that it is difficult to see. 

Because of the messy way in which ubiquitous computing devices are spread through our lives, Mareike argued that to study tablet users requires more than just interviews.  An understanding of tablets as embedded in everyday life is required, and we must analyse experience, materiality and practice as three related ways in which users make sense of their tablets.  Mareike constructed some spider diagrams to illustrate how tablets belong to assemblages of co-constituting objects and influences.  Our experience of the tablet as a material object, for example, often relies on an invisible relationship to the table or desk on which it is placed as well as to the body of the person holding it. 

The overall message of Mareike’s presentation was that it is really impossible to study tablet computers as a standalone object.  The ways in which they are understood in relation to a range of other objects, devices and uses – and whether they are considered as a new mobile device or a new personal computing device – are essential components of any analysis of tablet computers. 

Panel 2: In Practice

Touch: Sensitive? Democratising the Composer - Performer - Listener Triangle within the Digital Score

Mick Feltham, University of Sussex

Mick spoke about his practice-based research into relationships between composers, performers and listeners, and how they are affected by digital objects such as tablets.  Describing digital technology that would allow the audience to influence the score of a piece as it was being played, Mick argued that tablets represent a new paradigm for artistic and social interaction. 

Addressing the consequences of this new paradigm, Mick asked whether the audience’s ability to influence the score paradoxically removes them from their original role as witness to a musical performance.  Mick concluded by asking whether, compared to the transparent technology of musical instruments, the ‘black box’ of tablet technology might allow artists to retain their sovereignty in the composer-performer-listener triangle. 

Reinventing Painting: the Relationship Between Tradition and Technology in the Age of Mobile Devices

Nadja Ryzhakova, iPad Artist

Nadja uses her iPad to create works of art: a practice that she calls ‘iPainting’ [4].  Nadja turned to New Media Art quite recently, believing that new media technologies can enhance the art of painting by bringing new types of hybridity to the form and making painting more instantaneous. 

Against a perception that new technologies might damage or reduce traditional artistic practices, Nadja traced a history of the interrelation of art and technology.  The camera obscura is one example of a (once-)new technology that developed alongside artistic practices.  And, of course, no fine art form is entirely immaterial; even Nadja’s digital art relies on the specific material features of the iPad.  Nadja’s presentation raised the interesting question of whether tablet technology could have more impact on the production of art or its consumption.  David Hockney’s 2012 exhibition at the Royal Academy in London [5] illustrated how the display and consumption of even digital paintings still relies on traditional gallery settings.  Nadja herself sells her artwork as prints, rather than as digital reproductions.   

Touch as Puppetry: Achieving Subtle and Nuanced Performance through Tangible Touch Interfaces

Ian Grant, University of Sussex

Ian’s presentation evaluated the problematic relationship between touch interfaces and users.  Ian argued that the touchscreen interface essentially aims to turn specific movements of a person’s fingers into a coherent visual experience.  With tablets, unlike PCs, the input (fingers) and the output (screen) share the same material surface: the glass screen.  Although in the short history of computing technology this seems radical, Ian built on his background as a puppeteer to argue that the idea of turning specific movements of the fingers into a coherent visual scene has been the central facet of puppetry for millennia. 

Ian went on to critique the perception that touchscreen devices provide a natural or intuitive interface.  Against the notion that interfaces should be invisible to users, Ian argued that we have to learn a specific ‘taxonomy of gestures’ in order to use tablets in what comes to feel like an intuitive way.  Ian concluded that the intuitive or natural touch interface cannot really be considered as such, because it is totally defined by prescribed gestures that manufacturers build into their devices.  

Game Comics: An Analysis of an Emergent Hybrid Form

Daniel Goodbrey, University of Hertfordshire

While a common media response to tablets and the iPad in particular was one of bewilderment – what is the iPad actually for? – the comics world instantly fell in love with tablets.   It was immediately obvious that they would allow comics authors a previously unknown freedom to exploit an infinite visual space that could be traversed and manipulated by readers in unique ways that were impossible using print media. 

Daniel spoke about ‘game comics’: video games that use the language of comics.  To evaluate whether tablets could support this emerging hybrid form, Daniel presented his own game comic, ‘A Duck Has an Adventure’ [6].  Available as an Android app and as a Web version, Daniel’s game comic makes creative use of the tension between reading and playing.  I recommend readers visit the site or download the app and play/read it to get a sense of this tension, and to enjoy the light-hearted game comic for themselves.  This is perhaps the best way to judge whether the tablet computer does in fact feel like the perfect medium for this type of game comic hybrid. 

Figure 1: Daniel Goodbrey's game comic ‘A Duck Has an Adventure’

Figure 1: Daniel Goodbrey's game comic ‘A Duck Has an Adventure’

Panel 3: Ubiquity

Tablet Edition: Public Habits and Uses of the Mobile Internet and Online News Media

Jeremy Matthew, King’s College London

Building on a quote from Rupert Murdoch, who in 2010 claimed that the iPad would be the saviour of newspapers, Jeremy assessed the current state of tablets as news providers.  A central theme of his presentation was the question of how to define meaningful engagement with news media.  Although two-thirds of tablet users access news on their devices, the type of news content that they access is different from print-based or even Web-based media, with tablet news apps often using video, images and brief written summaries. 

Jeremy described how the news consumption patterns of tablet users often ignore traditional channels.  Many tablet users receive news through social networks, with trending topics a potential equivalent of headlines.  Amongst other problems with defining news-worthiness for tablet users, Jeremy argued that trending topics might be described as performative displays by users wishing to demonstrate their knowledge of current affairs, rather than representing true engagement with any given news story. 

Touching the Screen: Immediacy and Discrepancy in the Use of Tablet Computers

Timo Kaerlein, University of Paderborn

The fact that touchscreens have been called ‘natural user interfaces’ indicated to Timo that something of a birth myth surrounded tablets when they were first introduced.  The idea that tablet interfaces are invisible, natural and intuitive seemed to play into a tradition in Western thought from Aristotle through to Heidegger and phenomenology in which touch is figured as the epitome of intimacy.  In the ideal vision of HCI, a perfect touchscreen would become invisible to the user, allowing an unrestrained connectivity in which the user and device formed one unified object. 

Against this sense of intimacy that is attributed to tablets, Timo explained that no matter how intimate users regard the relationship with their device, the device only ever ‘perceives’ the person touching it as merely a source of electrical conductivity.  The immediacy of touchscreen interfaces necessarily involves frustrating side-effects.  Tiny amounts of oils and dirt on a human finger disrupt the touchscreen by leaving marks on the screen.  Touching the screen has the simultaneous effect of obscuring it.  Rather than an intimate relationship between user and object, then, the human component actually prevents the smooth operation of touchscreen devices.   Timo’s critique revealed the disconcerting idea that in HCI contexts, the human being is often in fact a disruptive and problematic element, unsettling the otherwise perfect functioning of a tablet device. 

e-Book Usability: Reading Time and Comprehension

Hannah Lee,  Thomas Young & Claudia Roda, The American University of Paris

Hannah’s presentation dealt with a question that is relevant to almost any use of tablet computers: the difference between reading time and comprehension when using tablets compared to paper.  Hannah presented a pilot study in which reading time and comprehension were compared on e-ink readers and on paper, for both fiction and non-fiction texts.  It was found that reading time and comprehension do differ between paper and e-readers, although the limits of the study prevented firm conclusions as to why this may be. 

Tablet computers can be broadly divided into dedicated e-readers such as the Kindle or Nook, and multimedia devices such as the iPad, Samsung Galaxy and Kindle Fire.  As it stands, the e-ink technology used in dedicated e-readers is incompatible with the technology in multimedia tablets.  This forces the user to make significant decisions about what a tablet computer could or should be used for, in turn having major consequences for how we define what a tablet computer is. 

Tipu’s Tiger: Killer App?

Ruth Adams, King’s College London  

Tipu’s Tiger is a wooden music box depicting a European man being mauled by a tiger [7].  It was commissioned in the 1790s by the Sultan of Mysore in South India, an enemy of the colonising forces of the East India Company, and is currently on display at the V&A in London.   In 2009, the V&A released an app called Tipu’s iTiger to market the exhibit and the museum.  Rather than an examination of the app itself, Ruth’s presentation questioned how the existence of the app affects our understanding of the original museum object.

Against the criticism that the app trivialises the real exhibit, Ruth argued that Tipu’s Tiger was always a toy.  Although its current status as a museum object lends it a certain importance and solemnity, the object was originally an item of fun.  Furthermore, there is an argument that, as a museum object, Tipu’s Tiger has already been decontextualised.  Ruth argued that the museum object, like its digital counterpart, exists in an inauthentic context.  Instead of worrying that a digital version may remove the object from its proper surroundings, we should recognise that this decontextualisation is the common fate of all museum objects. 

Panel 4: As a Book

Mostly Unreliable?: A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Re-invention of the Book

Caroline Bassett, University of Sussex

Caroline told a story of how the iPad came to be, working against technical histories which see the tablet computer as the latest in a line of computing or communications technologies.  Treating the history of technology and the history of Science Fiction (SF) as related, Caroline argued that the iPad is one example of the mutual influence of SF and technology.  A folk history has built up around the iPad which says that Douglas Adams, creator of the SF series The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy [8], originally conceived the iPad, and Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, went on to create the actual object.  Caroline argued that the link that does indeed exist between Adams and Jobs is more complicated than this story would have us believe. 

Caroline argued that by re-telling the history of the iPad with a focus on its role and position within a series of textual objects, we can reconstitute the object that we hold in our hands today.  If we take the mutual influence of the Hitchhiker’s Guide and the iPad seriously, we must confront the Hitchhiker’s Guide that features in the fifth and final novel in the written series, Mostly Harmless.  By that stage, the Guide had become a frightening and powerful object that treated its human users as subordinate.  By re-telling the story of the iPad to include this textual history, we can reveal aspects of today’s tablet computers that would otherwise remain hidden. 

Off the Shelf: How e-Readers Recapitulate Books’ Multi-function Pasts

Caroline Hamilton, University of Melbourne; Gerard Goggin, University of Sydney

Against the idea that tablets or e-readers might introduce less virtuous or useful types of reading, Caroline argued we need to reconsider the role of the book.  We tend to consider extended, focused reading as a useful intellectual pursuit, unlike skimming through random pages for example.  If tablet users tend to use their devices to flick quickly between different texts, we may criticise these devices for encouraging bad reading habits.  A historical study of the codex book, however, reveals a great diversity of types of reading and uses of books.  From Ramelli’s ‘bookwheel’ [9] which allows a reader to flick between several heavy tomes while sitting in one comfortable chair, to the mid-16th Century ‘album amicorum’ [10] (which Caroline wittily described as ‘Old Facebook’), readers have always adopted various styles of reading and uses of books. 

Caroline argued that extended reading is not and has never been ‘natural’.  In fact, the codex book that we associate with this style of reading is actually logically best suited to navigating non-linear texts – i.e. flicking through a book.  For extended reading of a linear text like a novel, a scroll is a more suitable book form.  Based on a historical reappraisal of books, Caroline argued that tablets are not creating any revolution in reading.  Even if they are changing how we read, this has always been an on-going process in the ever-changing materiality of information devices. 

Assemblage: Tablets as Desire Machine

Russell Pearce, University of Sussex

Russell traced the history of the potential of the tablet computer.  At various stages in what we now retrospectively call its lifespan, the tablet computer represented different potentialities.  By analysing the potential or possibilities that were invoked at specific points in the tablet’s history, we can learn something about digital culture at that time.  The Apple Newton and other early Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) used handwriting recognition as a way to overcome the perceived clunky disconnect of the keyboard.  For Russell, it was the removal of wires that allowed PDAs to start to resemble a book rather than a computer. 

A striking difference between the marketing of the Apple Newton and the marketing of tablets today is summed up by the Newton being promoted as ‘so engaging that people would want to change the way they do things’.  Compared to the current mythology that tablets are intuitive and natural, the idea that users would adapt their own practices to fit in with the Newton operating system represents a radically different potential from the one we associate with tablets today.  Russell brought these ideas together by arguing that the potentiality of each new PDA, slate or tablet device was discussed in a type of media coverage in which news and marketing converged: a model that continues today especially in media coverage of Apple product launches. 

Magic, Rhetoric and the iPad

Ryan Eanes, University of Oregon

Ryan discussed the cultural connection between technology and magic.  Taking Arthur C Clarke’s ‘third law’ that ‘any advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’ as a starting point, Ryan addressed our cultural understandings of technology generally and the iPad in particular.  The iPad was described as ‘magical and revolutionary’ in its initial press release.  One definition of magic offered by Ryan was ‘mistaking ideal connections for real connections’.  This idea is manifested as a willingness to ignore the fact that the technology of the iPad was not actually new or revolutionary: multi-touch screens being a particularly common example of an old technology presented as novel in tablet computers.

Ryan outlined the history of magic in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, in which magic is banned because it challenges the sovereignty of God.  Ryan proposed that using an iPad is a very personal experience for reasons of touch, intimacy and the way we select our own set of suitable apps.  Combining these two ideas, the iPad suddenly takes on an impressive quality: it turns the user into a deity.  Being in control of this magical technology, making the device obey us, work for us, appear to ‘know’ us in some way, gives the user a sense of being able to command magic themselves.  In a self-fulfilling mechanism, the magical rhetoric that pervades media coverage of tablet computers is thus experienced as real by tablet computer users, perpetuating the idea that this technology is magical. 


My impression after the first panel ‘Usability’ was that culturally we are still unsure exactly what a tablet could and should be used for, and what an individual’s relationship with the tablet computer should be.  Is it an object that belongs to an individual?  Can it be shared?  Can it be used to replace paper?  Should it?  These questions set the theme for the day, and each subsequent paper shed new light on how to answer them. 

Each speaker in the second panel ‘In Practice’ had a clear idea of what the tablet is for.  Perhaps most significantly, each speaker was consciously engaging with new technology in their artistic practice.  Rather than treating a tablet computer as a mere tool, the speakers in this panel were all conscious that using a tablet computer would have an impact on their practice.  I had the strong impression that without a similar type of conscious engagement with the technology, users would find it very difficult to simply pick up a tablet and start using it effectively and without problems. 

The third panel ‘Ubiquity’ addressed the question of what a tablet computer is or could be, by discussing ways in which tablets might be ubiquitous.  Where the speakers in Panel 2 had discussed ways in which we might successfully integrate tablet technology to our everyday lives, the third panel questioned the necessity of doing so.  Whether in news consumption, reading or museum attendance, the introduction of tablets may solve a perceived problem or offer an apparently novel experience, but this always comes at a cost.  My main impression from this panel was that while using tablets can bring rewards, they are always counterbalanced by certain, possibly unforeseen, drawbacks. 

The final panel ‘As a Book’ drew together some of the questions that had been raised throughout the day by focusing on one specific and well-defined use of tablets: as e-readers.  Yet even here, the main lesson was that it is naïve to think of reading as a well-defined practice.  While we tend to either celebrate or condemn new practices brought about by new technologies, the clear message from this panel was that so-called new practices are often anything but.  I believe there are two useful responses to this idea.  Firstly, we can use this idea to critique the marketing discourses that describe successive technologies as novel, revolutionary, and innovative.  Secondly, we can reject altogether the idea that there are proper, standard or acceptable uses of technology.  We can treat the emergence of new technologies like tablet computers as an opportunity to redefine what practices count as normal.  In so doing, we have an opportunity to mobilise this technology for the benefit of the political, artistic, academic or pedagogical practices that we value. 


  1. The Tablet Symposium http://www.sussex.ac.uk/rcmdc/projects/tablet
  2. An explanation of picture consequences http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Picture_consequences
  3. Brighton Science Festival 2013 http://www.brightonscience.com/2013/about/
  4. Nadja Rhyzakova’s Web site http://ipainting.pro/#!/
  5. David Hockney at the Royal Academy http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/hockney/
  6. A Duck Has An Adventure http://e-merl.com/stuff/duckadv.html
  7. Tipu’s Tiger http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/t/tipus-itiger/
  8. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hitchhiker%27s_Guide_to_the_Galaxy
  9. Ramelli’s Bookwheel http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bookwheel
  10. Album Amicorum http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autograph_book

Author Details

Ryan Burns
PhD researcher
School of Media, Film and Music
University of Sussex

Web site: http://www.sussex.ac.uk/profiles/275228
Email: r.burns@sussex.ac.uk

Ryan is a doctoral researcher whose work examines science, technology and everyday life.  Ryan critiques concepts of digital culture by examining specific uses of tablet computers, in particular the use of tablets by science researchers.  His PhD thesis entitled ‘Tablet computers and technological practices within and beyond the laboratory’ will be completed in Autumn 2014.