Some time ago, I stepped away from corporate life to work on designing better computer keyboards with my husband. People ask “Why keyboards?”, and I tell them: the best keyboards out there weren’t all that good, so we set out to make the product we wished we could buy (and eventually, we did). This is true but hardly sufficient. This is my attempt at explaining the parts of “why” that don’t fit into a soundbite.
When I was a child in the 1980s, we had a computer in the basement. Aside from our car, it was probably the single most expensive object we owned. It lived in the basement, and to my toddler mind it took on the properties of a magical creature, its green eye unblinking in the dark. I hide under a chair and peer up at my father as he worked. His hands moved steadily over the keys, and as he typed I was sure he was making magic.
It wasn’t until third grade that I learned to type. Our teacher pulled us out of class for a weekly pilgrimage to the computer lab. The ANSI keyboard was an object that held mysteries. What does Scroll Lock do? Sys Req? We would hit the Caps Lock key over and over, toggling a green light on and off, on and off. Typing class wasn’t a “class” so much as semi-supervised time with a software typing tutor: press t, press y, press t, press y. When we finished a module the teacher would come around and drape a piece of laminated construction paper over our hands, and the typing races began.
We raced each other, and shouted our typing scores like a challenge. I never came in first (Mike Lyng, who also was the fastest at his times tables, always did) but I came second a few times. By the end of the course, we were proud. We could type, a skill that eluded many of the grown-ups we knew. We had our first beginning mastery of an adult art.
My grandmother is a farmer, and when I was a child she earned pin money by typing up the paperwork of the town lawyer and doctor had written out longhand. It seemed a kind of alchemy, taking fat sheafs of indecipherable scrawl and returning with neat stacks of thin paper, double-spaced. Her typing imposed order on chaos, and gave her status in a man’s world.
When I write longhand, sometimes the words slide out of the rollerball, oozing luxuriously in loops and scrawls. But after a time my hand begins to cramp, to feel claw-like, and my thoughts outpace my penmanship.
When I type, it isn’t like that. The words don’t come singly, but in battalions — a great outflow of characters tumbling over each other toward expression. I close my eyes to help me find the words hidden in my brain, and my hands move confidently over the keys to bring them to life. I think of Tiresias, the blind portal between the worlds.
There is an elegance to typing, but there is not refinement. It is the elegance of the weaver catching her shuttle, the woodworker putting the gouge to the piece turning on the lathe, the auto worker with his rivet-gun on the line. Typing is Zen, is flow. It is at once mechanical and fluid.
Proper typing has a wholesome, old-fashioned, mechanical property to it. Children will gaze in passive rapture at a screen, but give a toddler a keyboard and he will mash it. This is an object that works at his level. This is a tool he can bend to his will.
If your job is mediated by computer, at some point you will learn a handful of shortcut keys — Ctrl-C to copy, Ctrl-V to paste; Shift-F2 to comment; Ctrl-Shift-4 to format in currency; Ctrl-Shift-N to pull up a new layer. Learning keyboard shortcuts can be almost giddy at the best of times. That which was difficult has now become easy. You have been initiated into the secrets of your software.
At my first corporate job, I was out of my depth. A bookish science major, I was the only analyst in the office not coming off of a name-brand internship. I’d never taken marketing or finance and had only one semester of accounting, taken pass/fail. I spent months staying late to fix things I had unwittingly done wrong the first time.
But at a keyboard, I shone.
I zipped between Excel model and PowerPoint, danced my fingers through financial statements, and updated tables with my fingers ablur. My mentor would sometimes call others over to me to gawk at my typing speed, at my utter transcendence of the mortal’s need for a mouse. “Look at her,” one associate said. “She’s an animal.” In an environment where I felt all too flawed and human, it was high praise.
Typing is a tactile, sensory thing despite its tie to the digital world. Keys are smooth like river stones. When I fidget at a keyboard, I find myself stroking the little nubbins—homing dots — with my index finger, like absentmindedly scratching a cat behind the ear.
Our phone and tablet makers have eschewed the art of typing. We twiddle our thumbs like B-movie villains, and tap rapidly against unyielding glass. Or we Swype, each word one long pull of a finger, like we did as children drawing with sticks in the mud.
Typing is old-school haptic technology. Your fingers fly, pushing keys multiple times a second, faster than you could ever consciously pick out the letters, and only seldom do they err. The key itself provides resistance and pushback, letting you know if a key has been pushed, or if you’ve missed your mark.
There are keyboard connoisseurs who obsess over the mechanisms and technologies inside keyboards. There’s a whole vocabulary of words with different meanings, a typist’s cant impenetrable to the uninitiated: Alps, Cherry, red, brown, blue, clear, stem, travel.
When you push on a key, it activates a switch that sends a simple signal: off is now on, on is now off again. The electronics are literally as simple as as it gets. The ways of activating the switch are myriad, and not all are created equal.
If you find a cheap desktop keyboard, chances are good that it uses rubber dome switches. To the refined palate of the typist, rubber domes feel mushy, unsatisfying. Like pushing your fingers through a bowl of polenta. The transcendent moment of
Most laptop keyboards use scissor switches, fragile bitty plastic cross-arms that slide out as you depress a key. They have no mush, but they fail to satisfy. Your finger slams the bottom of the key right away, rebuffed almost before it has begun to type.
The mechanical switch is the crème de la crème. It is infused with subtleties you can pick up with the delicate sensibilities of your fingers. Your fingers have built into them the refinement of a trained sommelier: “this switch is crisper,” you will say. “This one is scratchy.” Freed from featureless glass, your fingers are in dialogue with you about the world.
Typing is musical. The sound of keys tapping is the background score in our offices. It can be a distraction, or it can be familiar and soothing, like the tap tappity tap of a rain shower on a summer’s day.
It is not so strange that the computer keyboard and the piano forte keyboard share a name, is it? Familiar key combinations are arpeggios — one, two, three; Ctrl, Shift, Del.
When we are stuck for ideas, we instinctively type the same nonsense glissando: asdfjkl;
We type our password in the same little rhythm, always, to the point where many of us could not write out our password unless we were able to type it first. The password rhythm is a little motif repeated throughout the day.
The resolute feeling of ending a particularly satisfying sentence with a flourished period and the grace note of space.