The changing keyboard

Monday, August 16, 2010

In her New York Times column last week, Virginia Heffernan wrote about the changing role of the standard QWERTY keyboard layout. Smart phones and touch screen devices that use software-based keyboards can reconfigure themselves according to a user’s current needs. When the software senses that a user is typing a URL, for instance, a “.com” button appears; an email address field elicits a prominent @ button. Originally designed to prevent keys from jamming on manual typewriters, the standard QWERTY layout doesn’t always make sense as an input device for software.

Does this mean that the old keyboard standard is on its way out? Not likely. The collective muscle memory of 136 years of use would be impossible to undo. But with increased ability to tailor the configuration of input devices to user context, the QWERTY keyboard may not be the most appropriate default. It isn’t necessarily the most efficient either. In his book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr writes about Friedrich Nietzsche’s “writing ball,” a typewriter with keys arranged around a ball in concentric circles to facilitate the most efficient typing possible. With practice one could type up to 800 characters a minute, the fastest typewriter that had ever been built. Nietzsche began using it out of desperation when his failing eyesight had nearly forced him to give up writing altogether. Once he started using the new machine, his friends noted that his work took on a new forcefulness, as if the tool had changed the way he thought. Nietzsche agreed. “You are right,” he said. “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.”

Of course, minor changes to the placement of keys on a screen aren’t nearly as important as the device itself. Carr uses Nietzsche’s example to build his case that technology (typewriters, then computers, now the internet) fundamentally change the way we think. What’s likely to change our way of thinking and writing isn’t going to be how many times we have to tap a handheld screen to form properly punctuated sentences, but the fact that we can do so in the first place.