Sep 13, 2014

User-friendly devices and device-friendly users

This 2000 sketch from the Norwegian television program Øystein og jeg has been a classic since it was posted on YouTube. One reason we (including medievalists) like it is, probably, that it reminds us that information and communication technologies we take for granted today – such as the codex – were once ‘new media’. In other words, reading a book is not learned naturally, like learning language; people have to be trained to use technology.

information and communication technologies we take for granted today – such as the codex – were once ‘new media’
This issue is centrally important to our project, and a source of many questions we would like to explore. For example, how widespread was runic literacy in early medieval England? (This question is still a point of scholarly debate.) Did people who wrote in runes do so because they expected others to read them easily, or because they expected others to read them with difficulty or not be able to read them at all? What were all the various ways in which medieval people learned how to read different kinds of texts, for different purposes? How did medieval people learn how to navigate a book, and how were navigation systems designed to take medieval users into account? What forms of medieval encoding failed because they were too difficult to learn, and which ones succeeded because readers found them easy to learn or thought it worth the effort to learn them? How did reading practices affect design and encoding, and how did design and encoding affect reading practices?

Somewhere in the middle of design, training, social practice, and user experience must be an optimum spot where users learn technologies with maximum efficiency. Finding that spot is obviously of great importance for anyone developing new technologies or applications. Studying the history of a technology therefore has immense potential benefits for present innovation. This project wanders through ground that is familiar to medievalists – the traditional disciplines of epigraphy, paleography, codicology, and literary study – but it also seeks to connect that source of knowledge to the newer fields of media studies, digital humanities, information design, and the like. One thing I am discovering, even at the start of our wanderings, is that the familiar ground is not as well-trodden as one might expect, and that many questions still need to be answered, and new questions asked.

Yin Liu


D’Arcens, Louise. Comic Medievalism: Laughing at the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2014.


  1. I like your point about user experience and efficiency. Then there is the pull of the familiar, the comfortable technology. Here is a nice riff on the "Medieval Helpdesk" video in that respect, going in quite the opposite direction. This is the "Book Book" by Ikea.