Six letters that define so much of our waking lives.
If they are not there on the screen in front of you, chances are they are only a click away. In some ways, these six letters are a triumph of design. They’re wired into our brains, replicated on keyboards, phones and tablets across the world – and have changed very little since Milwaukee port official Christopher Sholes used the layout to stop mechanical levers jamming on a 19th-Century typewriter.
In another sense, though, the over 140 years of continuity embodied in keyboards show a strange tension at work behind technology’s claims of progress and perfectibility. And it’s the same for other interfaces. The mice or mouse attached to almost every desktop system in the world still conforms to the same essential design set out in the 1965 paper on “computer-aided display controller” that coined the term.
Even touchscreens ape established layouts and conventions. Appropriately enough, the name for this inertia is the “qwerty phenomenon. Some things simply seem to be too deeply and universally engrained to be susceptible to change, even if there would be numerous advantages in doing so.
The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, patented in 1936, is the only other option with any global following. Yet, it’s not just the physical conventions locked into our devices that matter, but the assumptions bound up with them – and the way these assumptions define as well as serve our purposes. Take the way these six letters encourage us to treat our hands.
The 27 bones, over 60 muscles and tendons, and three nerves of the human hand are sensitive to minute variations in pressure, velocity, position, temperature and texture. They are effortlessly able to execute three-dimensional maneuvers while sensing and responding to all of these. Yet, in computing terms, all this incredible bandwidth is usually funnelled into tapping on keys able to recognize only two information states – on and off. Even the most advanced touchscreen is barely able to register five fingers’ worth of contact points on its textures, depthless surface.