Landscape vs. Portrait

Posted: September 13, 2009 in Idle Nonsense, Technophilia, Television

Like others deeply enmeshed in the Information Age and its myriad technologies, I spend a lot of time at the computer. I use it for work and for information gathering. I don’t use it much for games, entertainment, or viewing video. So I found myself wondering recently what numskull conceived of the computer screen in landscape orientation when almost everything I read is better in portrait orientation. All the documents I create are in portrait, and the inability to see more than a portion of the page is irritating. Almost immediately, the answer occurred to me that, despite the computer display’s meager origins in command-line user interfaces and vertically scrolling text, the screen itself had more in common with the landscape orientation of the TV than with the portrait orientation of the printed page.

Although we live in three-dimensional space, the height dimension is so thin or flat compared to length and width that height is poorly perceived by the human visual sense. (Side note: height used to be spelled heighth, with the same final th as length and width, but that concordance was dropped at some point.) Prior to the last century, we had no flight, no buildings taller than a few stories, and relatively few needs to process visual stimuli in terms of height. Accordingly, we believed for millennia that the world is flat, and our mental maps were organized primarily in two dimensions: along and across the horizon. We took a landscape view of most visual stimuli: having depth and width but little meaningful height beyond the scale of the human figure.

In fact, I suspect the height of the portrait orientation derives from the obvious need for vertical space in portraiture. Why the printed page also settled into portrait orientation isn’t so obvious to me. On occasion, one finds a book created in landscape orientation, but that’s usually when publishing a picture book, typically a children’s book. Printed music varies more widely than text, but it also uses the portrait orientation as the standard. A perfectly square area might be the obvious compromise, but it appears only rarely — mostly in charts, graphs, and maps that are more constrained by the information they present than are text or imagery. Photography may be the sole medium where changing orientation has clear utility and is accomplished so simply by rotating the camera 90 degrees.

Back to the computer screen. The origins of screen and display technology were in pictorial display, which is to say, visual processing of moving images on TV rather than reading text. If the CRT (cathode ray tube) constrained early computer screens to landscape orientation, that limitation was overcome with the rotatable screen, which though still available has not been widely adopted. As computer usage has matured, it’s become clear that the medium is better suited, like the TV, to video than to text. Although reading from the screen isn’t foreclosed, the nature of the medium inevitably transforms reading into something else, something akin to reading but not quite the same, really. Christine Rosen develops this idea in a fascinating article in The New Atlantis titled “People of the Screen.”

The introduction of the widescreen display for computers clearly moves the computer away from being a work machine towards being an entertainment device. Any argument that it can be both simultaneously strikes me as hollow, along the lines of the TV being an educational device. If the computer does eventually become the complete home media center and replaces the TV and stand-alone stereo system as hoped by many technophiles, perhaps it will be fulfilling its destiny, with obvious implications for further debasing the literacy and erudition of the general public.

  1. My guess was that the cell phone would become a total media center: showing videos; making videos; sending texts; twitters (tweets?); sharing and storing photos; putting thumb-paintings on the cover of a die-hard magazine; all manner of quick-silver “networking” as well as games, music, newly composed ring tones, voice mail, what have you. And, it fits in your pocket.
    I have a cell phone I rarely use, mostly because it’s so old and limited. The newer ones I’ve seen offer a portrait screen, landscape, or square, depending on how one holds it.
    Further, I thought we were already a culture more keen on visual literacy resulting from miniaturized eye-hand coordination.

  2. Brutus says:

    I thought we were already a culture more keen on visual literacy resulting from miniaturized eye-hand coordination

    Interesting observation. Fine motor control used to be the domain of craftsman and artists. Of course, the literate typically developed penmanship that looks positively florid by today’s meager standards. But yes, the miniaturization of our dexterity and field of vision is a curiosity.

  3. JimmyBean says:

    I don’t know if I said it already but …This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, :)

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

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