Do you type, I mean, really touch-type?
A lot of us do, it’s an essential skill to develop in most careers these days, even if it still isn’t taught as well as it should be in either Spanish or English schools as far as I can tell. Despite recent experimentation with voice recognition and dictation software, I am far more comfortable with a full-sized keyboard into which I can pour my thoughts out as words without the slightest though as to the motor skills involved. In fact, if I DO stop to think too hard about where each finger is going, then I am liable to completely mess up. Each finger knows what it’s got to do and I just stay out of the way mentally and let them get on with the job.
It’s weird though when you think about it, the layout of the keyboard we use. QWERTYUIOP… Hardly intuitive. So, what’s that all about? It’s a legacy from the invention of the typewriter, back in the 1870s.
I learned to type on a machine not quite that old but still of the traditional design, where each keystroke swung a lever towards a central spot, whilst advancing the paper carriage along one space each time (with a loud clunk) whilst the ribbon moved the other way. I never reached touch-typing speed on that old family heirloom but it was the first one I used, the sheer noise and force required to shove down each key seems laughable now.
Many people did of course achieve phenomenal speeds on the first lever style keyboards, and the mechanism itself could not always keep up in the early days – levers weren’t dropping back fast enough, and tended to collide with the next letter flying towards the ribbon as typing speeds increased.
Remington’s QWERTY keyboard layout was the best attempt to tackle this problem, by spacing out the most used letters (in the English language) so that the levers of the keys were less like to catch on one another as they were used at speed. Given first mover advantage this layout was quickly adopted by other manufacturers, and became the standard – not least because developing speed and proficiency as a transferable skill depended on absolute consistency from one machine to another.
And it’s that need for consistency, in the application of a largely unconscious and muscle-memory dependent activity, which accounts for the fact that we still use the QWERTY keyboard today. After all, you wouldn’t buy a car which had the brake and accelerator swapped over or arranged in an arbitrary pattern would you? You have to trust that your feet are going to find the right pedals to make that emergency stop without reference to your brain if they have to, and you don’t want to think about every manouevre you make either. I find it hard enough going from left hand to right hand drive…
There are been attempts over the years to introduce keyboards designed for ergonomics in terms of actual typing ease and ability, now that we are simply tapping on a key rather than swinging a lengthy lever.
The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard was patented in 1936, and proponents claim its layout uses less finger motion, increases typing rate, and reduces errors when tested against the QWERTY layout. Rather than deliberately separating frequently used letters and letter pairs to stop levers clashing, it was designed to put them together or pair them on matching fingers, and this reduction in finger distance travelled is claimed to permit faster rates of typing while reducing repetitive strain injuries. Basically it was designed with the physiology of hand in mind, rather than the mechanical problems of a 19th century device and this makes a lot of sense.
Want to try it? Most major desktop operating systems will support the Dvorak keyboard, but if the one you are looking down at (and you will!) still has the QWERTY layout you might not get very far. You’d have better luck on a virtual keyboard, but whilst iOS8 does support third party keyboards yet I could not find an app to try this out – Android phones however you can easily use different keyboard styles and layouts, and if you love it and you don’t touch-type at speed on a desktop then you could always purchase a Dvorak layout keyboard for use with your computer.
After all, it is strange watching a generation of kids growing up thumb-tapping away on their QWERTY virtual keyboards on mobile devices, when its layout was conceived to solve a mechanical problem on a device they have never used, and may never have seen in real life. Kids are the best at learning new languages after all and new motor skills, and whilst I was no kid 15 years ago I got up to amazing skills multi-tap texting on the numerical keypads of my early Nokia mobiles, you CAN learn new ways of doing things if you practice enough and are motivated to do so.
But it’s hard to see how widespread global adoption of any other system is going to surpass QWERTY now, I think its far more likely that voice recognition and dictation will be the real game-changer here most likely to supplant what we are all used to.
For now though I will keep tapping away at my good old standard mac QWERTY board, it’s what my fingers know and I can type at a speed I can think/write at, without too much RSI. I don’t have to push down a heavy lever to punch molecules of ink off a strip of ribbon, each key only moves a few millimetres – although my kids can detect the legacy of my earliest bashing out of homework essays in my keystrokes even today – “Mum hush, you type so LOUDLY!”
Costa Connected, for Costa Blanca News, November 14th 2014
©Maya Middlemiss, Casslar Consulting SL