Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Carrying a Laptop: A Social Puzzle

I am writing this post on my newest acquisition, an 11” Macbook Air. It’s a lovely piece of machinery, very small and light and surprisingly powerful—it can, for instance, run World of Warcraft at respectable frame rates without my having to turn the graphics settings down low.

It is small, but not small enough to fit in any of my pockets. The obvious solution is to buy or make a carrier for it, a cloth or leather pouch big enough for the computer and perhaps its charger, with a strap that leaves my hands free. Which raises some design questions.

Given the size of the computer and the shape of the human body, the most convenient way to design such a pouch is lying over my chest, a reasonably flat area of about the right width, supported by a strap going behind my neck. Baby carriers are often made that way, with some additional straps—most babies are heavier than most laptops. WWI soldiers carried front packs as well as back packs; for all I know soldiers still do. But I do not think I have ever seen a case for a laptop, or papers, or anything similar designed to hang in front of the carrier’s chest. All such seem to be designed either to go on your back or to hang by your side. What I don't know is why.

Pursuing that question further, I try to imagine making and wearing a case for my new toy designed along what seem to be to be sensible lines. My response to the imagined scene is discomfort, embarrassment. I feel as though I would be doing something odd, violating some unspoken norm. People would look at me oddly.

Why I feel that way, and why carry bags are designed as they are, I do not know. One possibility is that it is because the most common such device is a woman’s purse and women’s purses normally hang at their sides, perhaps because women’s breasts would get in the way of a frontal design. But that is only a guess, and one made by a not very observant guesser; perhaps some women’s purses are designed in the way I have just suggested that they are not and I have just not noticed them.

My best evidence is inside my head, where I seem to have internalized a norm mandating bad design for the case for my new toy.


At 5:51 PM, November 10, 2010, Blogger jimbino said...

When I last backpacked around South America, it was common for me and others to wear our 2-piece, normally zipped together, backpacks separated, the large one on the back and the small one on the front, for better balance.

You just need to get one of these, put on some lederhosen and kneesocks and carry a hiking staff and your computer in the front backpack. That will look natural.

At 6:06 PM, November 10, 2010, Anonymous back40 said...

They are called chest packs and are common with sportsmen but there are a wide variety of models, some specifically for hardware (cameras, radios etc.) You won't be a fashion victim, you'll be ultra hip.

At 11:38 PM, November 10, 2010, Blogger Michael said...

Maybe it's like body language - placing something at your front, between you and other people, is a defensive, closed posture. I've been advised to open my body language before - avoid crossing my arms in front of me, they tell me, and hold a drink at my side, not at my front.

At 1:55 AM, November 11, 2010, Blogger Brandon Berg said...

Funny you should mention this. I just got back from Shanghai, where it was quite common to see people wearing backpacks in front.

At 2:02 AM, November 11, 2010, Blogger lowly said...

for geeks, not wanting to look like geeks, or convenient CCW; or, just hauling a lot of crap

At 6:23 AM, November 11, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect it's in part market size. As a woman who has tried to carry things in front, I can confirm your speculation about anatomy. I carry my laptop either in a canvas bag carried on my shoulder or in a backpack (the latter if I have other stuff to carry around too, like when traveling).

At 6:24 AM, November 11, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That anonymous comment was Monica; Blogger didn't give me a way to enter that this time.

At 6:34 AM, November 11, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My solution would be to simply carry it in a normal-sized laptop bag, or even in a backpack, worn normally.

At 7:29 AM, November 11, 2010, Blogger eclectic said...

Addressing the technical, rather than the sociological, issue that you raise:
Another non-standard laptop carrier is one which has the laptop at the side, hip level, but narrow end up. (commercial versions of these exist, they're just rare) For a small laptop (13" or less) this works very well to make it more comfortable to carry, hugging the body more closely, getting caught on things less often, and so on. I imagine it would work quite well for your 11" device. Perhaps the charger could go on the strap in a separate pocket, like a photographer's spare film carrier?

At 9:24 AM, November 11, 2010, Blogger Matt said...

Suspending it from a strap around your neck sounds very convenient...right up until it swings around behind you and begins to strangle you. And then gets caught on something, you suffocate to death, and relatives you never heard of when you were alive pop out of the woodwork and claim the right to sue the manufacturer into destitution because they're in such extreme grief over your death.

There's no particular reason that a more traditional backpack design (one supported by two shoulders, rather than one neck) couldn't be worn in front (as indeed you note that baby backpacks often are), if you felt like it...but it wouldn't really be much more convenient than in back, all things considered, even in the best case...and in the worst case, it would be meaningfully less so.

At 9:26 AM, November 11, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I use a modified bike courier bag (10 yr old timbuk2). It is quite comfortable as either a front or back bag. The strap is designed as a diagonal strap and works either way.

I'll usually have it on my back because that's necessary when on a bicycle (as is the cross strap) and it leaves my arms more free. But for sitting down, it's a simple matter to just slide it around to the front.

At 9:27 AM, November 11, 2010, Anonymous BobW said...

From an ergonomic standpoint, even if it's a very small bag, there are times when you'll want to look down. You won't want the bag in the way.

I just got back from a conference where I carried a totally inappropriately bulky (but paid for) laptop bag around. At times it's handy to swing it around to the back.

At 6:34 AM, November 12, 2010, Anonymous yu said...

I hope you'll have a good luck.

At 6:30 PM, November 13, 2010, Anonymous RKN said...

One link:

Lots of different bags. Superb quality.

Posted from my Android, which fits inside my shirt pocket!

At 3:25 AM, November 14, 2010, Anonymous Ando_F said...

A front carry pouch will indeed look odd, so it's going to be hard to find exactly what you are after. However it should be pretty easy to patch something together.

I'd recommend Hard Graft for inspiring the 'feel' you could pursue []. If it looks like natural clothing fabrics, it should attract less attention. Start with a widely available felt sleeve (portrait format), add a leather guitar strap, and then make a few stitches to keep it all together.

To stop your front pouch from swinging around, I'd also recommend an offset strap attachment similar to Tuch [], with the strap anchored at both a top and a diagonally opposite bottom corner.

You'll still look odd, but perhaps a little less so if you get it crafty and inventive enough.

At 12:50 PM, November 17, 2010, Blogger Suburbanbanshee said...

I gather that you don't fall down much (falling forward is much more common than falling backward, I'd bet).

If I did carry something in front, I'd want it to be in my coat. Carrying fairly large folders or paperbacks in an inside coat or cloak pocket, or inside a jacket, isn't uncommon; but I doubt even an Air is that light. Also, folders don't care if you bang them against somebody or fall on your face on top of them.

At 8:51 PM, November 18, 2010, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At my job I wear a white coat with side pockets. These contain a stethoscope and other instruments. This weight is ultimately supported,not by my chest or back, but by the collar around my neck. This results fast in me adopting a stooping, hunch-backed pose. I suspect front bags would do much the same, and result in back pain.

At 1:09 AM, November 22, 2010, Anonymous Steve Dekorte said...

How about having a tailor add an internal pocket for the macbook air to a decent sport jacket?


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