Let your fingers do the walking

Let your fingers do the walking

Let your fingers do the walking

History of the typewriter recited by Michael Winslow from SansGil—Gil Cocker on Vimeo.

Look at your keyboard – why are there little bumps on the J and F keys? This question, of course, involves a number of hidden assumptions – that you have a keyboard, that the keyboard and its keys are physical objects and not merely images on a cell phone or tablet screen, and that you are actually using a QWERTY keyboard, and not some other arrangement of the keys, or some other typing method.

If all of these assumptions are correct, the bumps are intended to serve as the launching pad for your fingers when touch typing – right index finger on the right bump, and left index finger on the left bump. The rest of your fingers arrange themselves automatically on the keyboard: two thumbs on the space bar, and from there you are supposed to know the rest by heart, like in a navigation exercise with an unlabeled map, which finger to place on which key to obtain the desired character or operation. Right hand, little finger, one row up – P. left hand, middle finger, one row down – C, and so on.

If you didn’t know why these bumps appear on the keys, then you are not alone, and in coming years your number will grow, just like the number of people who don’t learn English cursive writing at school. Touch typing lessons, which paved the way for women to enter secretarial positions, disappeared from some schools in America three or more decades ago, at a time when the system encouraged students to obtain a higher education, according to an article on CSMonitor. In an article published this month through the Associated Press news agency, Julie Phillips, a typing instructor from Dallas, Texas, says that less and less students are coming in with knowledge of typing. She attributes this to advanced typing methods on cell phones and tablet computers with touch screens, systems which predict the full word while it is being typed.

Advanced typing methods are part of a larger story. Typing has passed from the use of noisy typewriters, which required the typist to apply some force to the key in order to obtain a typed letter, through electric typewriters that only required a light tap, and from there to physical keyboards of rather uniform size used with personal computers at home, in the office, in the classroom and at internet cafes. Laptops and mini-laptops changed the size of the keyboard, requiring practice to reacquire touch typing skills on a smaller scale, given that the typist’s fingers had not changed.

The Blackberry, too – that bulky cell phone that conquered the business market before the smartphones arrived, had a full alphabetic keyboard, albeit much smaller than those used with computers. The more popular cell phones offered new keyboards with 12 character keys. Each key represented a number of letters, the choice between them being determined by the number of times the key was pressed. Alternatively, the phones used T9 software, which offered a number of possible words for the same sequence of keys pressed. Advanced smartphones, and the tablet computers that followed them, moved to a touch-sensitive screen, on which the keyboard was a simulation. Plastic keys, which provided tactile feedback and resistance, and which popped back into place by means of a spring, have been replaced by vibration and sound as indicators of a key having been pressed. On smartphones, typing with ten fingers has been replaced by typing with one or two thumbs, while the other fingers hold the phone, or by the use of a single finger, with the phone being held in the other hand.

Advanced typing methods have changed typing from the ground up. With Swype, you key in a sequence of letters using one finger, without taking the finger off the screen, and at the end of typing, the software displays the word that was entered, or a series of possible words, if it can’t identify the word exactly. Apple’s Siri, and similar services, allow the user to do away with the keyboard totally, and to enter text through voice input.

The importance of accurate typing has also declined somewhat. Word processing software, such as Word, can identify spelling errors, marking them in red, and offering corrections. Google identifies typing errors and offers users the word that it assumes they wanted to type in; sometimes it simply give the search results based on that corrected spelling, without waiting for confirmation. iPhone’s autocorrect fixes misspelled words, although it sometimes “corrects” words that are correct, thus becoming a cause for user embarrassment.

The “correct” method of touch typing, which won court clerk Frank McGurrin a prize for typing on a typewriter in 1888, with a speed of 126 words per minute, later swept America. However, is it appropriate for children who teach themselves idiosyncratic typing methods on a variety of keyboard types, even before they learn to write with pencil and paper? A 2011 article in the MIT Technology Review, explains that touch typing, like riding a bicycle and reading, is an example of cognitive automaticity, an action that we carry out without devoting attention to what we are doing, which allows us to write at the speed of our thoughts, uninterrupted. The article also points out that extensive research shows touch typing to still be the fastest typing method.

There are also those who think that typing will not just be replaced, but will be eliminated totally, along with writing. In an interview (in Hebrew) given to me in 2011 by typography artist Oded Azar, he said: “If I look at the process that typography has gone through, I can imagine, in the distant future, that typography will disappear entirely. As a typographer, I am pulling the rug out from under my feet – yes, typography will disappear entirely, because at some stage, the whole experience of visual communication will pass directly between our brains, eliminating the need for an intermediary computer screen or some other tool.”