Sunday, December 10, 2006

The keyboard

I spend a lot of time each day "working the keyboard." It's easy to take it for granted; I learned to touch type in junior high school when the ability to type with speed and accuracy was part of a common job description. Little did we know at the time that we were heading into a future when everyone typed, and that typing would no longer be considered a special skill. (Nor would it be considered something "girly".)

There has been some questioning of the keyboard in the form of criticism of the QWERTY design. I tried switching to a Dvorak keyboard for a while, but didn't have the patience to work up to an approximation of the unconscious ease with which I type today. Recent ads I've seen are touting voice recognition as the replacement for typing, but I don't want to say all of my thoughts out loud, and in most offices with open or cubicled designs voice recognition would lead to cacophony. No, I'm happy to type, I just want it to be more efficient.

What I haven't seen questioned, yet it must have occurred to someone, is why we are still typing every letter when software could fill in or complete most words for us. Remember the ads that used to be on the back of magazines: "if u cn rd ths u cn gt a gd jb"? That's how I'd like to type. Yes, I can add those into my MS Word autocorrect, and I have placed a select number of long words I hate to type into the list. But we know that our language is very predictable and we should be able to take advantage of that. There are interesting IM keyboard options like T9 Word -- although obviously, the IM vocabulary doesn't need a large dictionary behind it. Open Office tries to help out by auto-completing words as you type, but this is useless for a touch typist because you have to 1) watch the screen (I often type while staring into space) and 2) take your fingers off their normal home row positions to hit the enter key. The Open Office method might work with a re-organized keyboard with a special key that means "go for it" when the screen shows the correct word, but I still think that would be slower than touch typing.

A neighbor of mine is a court reporter. She has the chorded court reporter "typewriter" which today hooks into a computer that auto-translates from the shorthand coming out of the device to words. The output isn't perfect, but it's good enough to be used in a courtroom in real time to feed the text to lawyers. That shows me that it can be done. Yes, of course, we'd all have to learn something new. But upcoming generations would benefit from a better solution to getting words onto a screen.


Jonathan said...

I have been developing some serious repetitive stress/tendonitis issues from keyboarding. Now that it's an issue that effects me, I ask around and pay attention, and an incredibly high percentage of the people I know who's jobs (not to mention free time) require computer use (I think the mouse is just as bad as the keyboard) for most of the day have pretty bad RSI issues.

Maybe in forty years when half the population has become disabled from keyboarding people will finally get computer input devices which aren't actually hazardous to our health.

Jonathan Rochkind

Karen Coyle said...


(This is the second time I am typing this because Blogger went south on me. The irony is obvious.)

I'm of the generation in which young women could always get a job in a typing pool. I did that at one time, although fortunately only for a few weeks. There were five of us in a room, with IBM Selectrics on our desks and slots where unseen researchers would drop handwritten reports to be typed. We typed for 8 hours a day, pretty solidly.

Because we were all adept at eye-to-hand touch typing, we could talk while we typed (accurately!). I was the temp so I mainly listened. All day long these women chatted. What amazes me as I look back on it is that not one of them ever mentioned having any signs of RSI -- and believe me, if any one of them had had a pain or even a twinge, it would have been a topic of conversation for HOURS.

I have come to the conclusion that there is a distinct difference between typing as it was done then and the kind of keyboarding that we all do today. It's not just the quality of the equipment, although the keyboards on those IBM machines were very comfortable. No, there's something different about typing as you work and as you think, as compared to the rote and rhythmic typing from a page.

The ergonomic folks are always trying to tweek the keyboard -- tilted or not, curved or not, split, etc. I don't think the keyboard is the only problem; I think we need a different way to enter data for the way that we are working today. Typing, in the sense of pushing buttons corresponding to letters, just is no longer the right tool for the job.

Anonymous said...

In the pre-keyboard days (with both Selectric and manual typewriters) we moved more. We had to put paper in with a nice rolling motion and take paper out often with that extremely satisfying yank at the end. With the old manual carriage returns, we got to fling our arms across our chests. We had to change pages on our manuscript and bend down when we dropped one on the floor. In other words, it wasn't nearly as repetitive and we had a lot more upper-body movement going on. Now we make very small, almost minute movements that, I think, cause a whole lot more problems in very subtle ways.

Michele Newberry