Some thoughts on interface, part 1

So we’re all used to our friends and colleagues sharing some words of wisdom on a topic in which they have few-to-zero qualifications. Before you get too excited, that’s exactly what’s about to happen here. While you should stop reading and/or disregard everything I’m about to say, there’s a chance that my blatant attempt at reverse psychology compels you to read on and ultimately agree that you don’t have to know what you’re talking about to have something interesting to add to a discussion.

I don’t know much about interfaces. But what I do have is a strange and burgeoning fascination with input and output devices of the twentieth century. Certain types of keyboards, dot matrix printers, light pens — don’t ask me why.

And over the last few months I’ve been experimenting with a couple of new ways of expressing myself with the written word. The first will be familiar to you all: shorthand. The second might be new to you: Dvorak. Shorthand is of course a different form of notation that makes it much quicker to write words in English. Dvorak is an alternative to the QWERTY keyboard layout. You might not have realised that there even was an alternative to QWERTY; indeed, my computer keyboard looks exactly like yours — but on my computer, each key is remapped to a different letter (in MacOS this is easily done at the operating system level), so that if you press the F key then a U comes out, and if you press the J key then H comes out. Why? Well you’ll have to wait for part 2 of this post.

What I want to do in part 1 is convey some of the things I’ve realised about language and technology as I’ve struggled to master shorthand. We’ll pick up the discussion next time when we look at Dvorak.

How does shorthand work?

You can find out about shorthand elsewhere, but what you really need to know is that the basic principle is to replace the spelling system of longhand — which is unnecessarily labour intensive and overcomplicated — with a much quicker way of notating words. There are different systems, but I learnt Gregg shorthand. Here are the basic building blocks:

In Gregg, marks are phonetic for simplicity (the C and the K in the word cake both sound the same — so let’s just use one symbol); and they are designed to be effortlessly quick to write. Letters like K and G and R and especially M take ages to write: all those changes of direction are wasted effort.

But Gregg gains its biggest advantage over longhand when it’s combining letters and sounds into incredibly simple shapes. Consider the word ‘minimum’; I mean, time yourself trying to write that. It has more vertical lines than a barcode. Gregg condenses the three syllables into the most pleasing of strokes.

And there are plenty more like it. Writing shorthand in full flow is exactly that: flow. Happily, ‘minimum’ is also a dream to write with Dvorak and a bloody pain to write with Qwerty — more on that in part 2.

Anyway, if you want to know more about shorthand then I won’t bother Googling it for you. But I will say that you’re almost certainly not going to find it useful. What I hadn’t appreciated is that shorthand trades readability for writability. Very soon you’ll be writing far faster than longhand, but you’ll find yourself picking through your notes line by line trying to decipher the meaning. Shorthand was designed for secretaries taking dictation and then immediately transcribing on a typewriter while the memory is fresh and time is cheap. It works well for this but that’s not what I need at all.

Shorthand rewards certain kinds of writing

But while it may not have been obvious to shorthand writers back then (any good technology appears invisible to its users), the distance of time gives us a remarkable impression of how shorthand shapes behaviour. It might make us think again about just how much contemporary interfaces are changing the way we communicate and think.

Very early on, the Gregg writer encounters the ‘brief form’: strokes for common phrases that are condensed yet further. You can see in the image above that single letters are the brief forms for very common words like ‘can’ and ‘would’ and ‘are’. In the original formulation of Gregg, there are hundreds of these that the user is expected to learn.

Now, obviously it’s important which words get brief forms and which don’t: for example, ‘Dear Sir’ gets a brief form, but ‘Dearest Friend’ doesn’t. So guess which one you’re going to use.

Shorthand’s emphasis on the briefest possible forms is a big influence; the shorthand writer is always aware of the line of least resistance. Of course, shorthand is not designed for people who have a choice in what they are writing; it was intended almost explicitly for people rapid taking dictation of other people’s words in well-defined contexts like the courtroom. But as someone in a different position entirely, I find myself thinking not in words and sentences as I would in longhand, but instead trying to translate the sense in my head into the words which are easiest to write and best drilled into your memory. If you’re writing a letter in shorthand, you are channelled through twentieth century formal speak and punished for thinking outside it. Conform to Dear Sir, not Hello, or Hi There, or Why Aren’t You Replying To My Messages You Stupid ****. In a sense, my thoughts are being controlled by the implicit preferences of the technology. Dear Sir is just one example of this, but they are myriad. (Do I even need to bother making a contemporary comparison?)

It’s curious to feel the creative principles of the technology at work, and how they are imposed upon you. We should all recall Nelson asking his semaphore man to transmit the message ‘England confides that every man will do his duty’ to the ships forming up before the battle of Trafalgar. The signal officer gently replied that expects would be much quicker to send than confides, as expects was in the vocabulary but confideswould have to be spelled out by letter; and so that famous missive was born. We might reasonably expect secretaries hearing ‘Dearest Friend’ to have made comparable corrections. I think these examples of conformity are much more obvious to us than to the people using them at the time.

So far, so obvious — using a tool designed for out of date office communiques makes you sound like you work in an out of date office.

But there are more sinister effects. The manual I found on eBay — one of the later publications from the Gregg line — came from the 1950s. By this point Gregg had matured and simplified over many decades and was now easier to learn and more useful for everyday life. Far easier than, say, the 1916 edition which I found almost incomprehensibly difficult to follow.

But I’ll let you judge for yourself the applicability of Gregg to the world we live in today by reproducing in full the transcription exercise that congratulates you upon finishing Chapter 4:

No man uses the services of a secretary if he can get along without one. He takes a secretary because he hopes that with the secretary’s help he will be able to get more work and better work. If you wish to help him in doing this, you must learn your job quickly and reach the point where you can work alone with only the occasional help from him.

The secretary who holds her job and gets ahead in it is the one who helps her chief to carry his business load. She not only knows how to work when her chief is in the office, but is able to look after his affairs whenever he has to go away on a business trip or is absent on holiday. A secretary who can do this is worth his weight in gold.

That’s right: Gregg shorthand turns you into a massive sexist.

Before you protest that this is an example of bad teaching, not bad product, let me assure you that the sexism is indeed institutionally designed into the language. ‘He’ is far easier to write than ‘she’; ‘his’ far easier than ‘her’. Check out the full list of Gregg brief forms for yourself and you’ll see an endless cascade of assertive verbs, ladjectives, and testosteronouns. I, immediate, immediately, important, importance, improve, improvement, individual, industry, influence, inquire, and so on… Dismiss it as a product of its time if you like; what I find most compelling is just how much this still affects the writer in the 21st century.

Suffice it to say that I found Gregg incredibly austere; you would really struggle using it for creative writing, for instance, where context won’t help you decipher your string of agonisingly sonorous adjectives. (Unless you happen to be writing an epistolary novel in which two CEOs negotiate the price of a grain shipment to Lake Erie.)

Pop-philosophy time!

The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.

To completely bastardise Wittgenstein, your vocabulary is a natural limit of expression. That limit may seem obvious, as you’ll be reminded each time you encounter one of those wonderful phrases in a foreign language that literally have no translation (deja vu, Schadenfreude). But how many of us consider the language technology in the same terms? I’m constantly cursing my pen for taking notes so slowly; but I rarely consider how the obligatory economy of language in my notes might have an impact on my train of thought or even my personality. And what about voice search? Have you noticed people becoming much less polite when speaking to Siri or Alexa, because please and thank you might not be understood and, in any case, don’t deserve to be heard by a machine?

Surely all this stuff really matters. That’s what I realised when I tried to learn shorthand. And even though I know I won’t be using it on a day-to-day basis, it’s given me a new insight on things.

Where Dvorak differs is that I am using it every day. It has totally usurped qwerty — and I’ve learnt just as much from it. More in fact, as retraining a lifetime of muscle memory really puts you in touch with the inner workings and fundamental shortcomings of your brain.

But we’ll cover that next time. For now, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what this means for how we should think about touchscreen keyboards, emojis, predictive text, and character limits, even as they exert their design manifestos on our very personalities.