Dan Booth Editorial Director
There was a time when keyboards, or more aptly, typewriters, were largely the domain of a specialized group of laborers. Engineers used slide rules, artists used paintbrushes, movie makers used cameras. But a few, we happy few, were writers, and we joined the select band of office workers known as ‘the typing pool’ whose primary tool was a clackity-clacking, greasy-black-ribbon, sticking-keys typewriter. However with the advent of the digital age, some interface was necessary between the human and the machine. Oh, sure, the computer could show us glowing green screens full of numbers and letters; but we needed a way to talk back. And thus the trusty typewriter keyboard was pressed into service as an input device, and today it’s still among the most familiar.
If you are someone who uses a keyboard – and let’s face it, who among us doesn’t these days? – you’ve probably heard stories of how the oddball configuration of keys known as QWERTY came to be. One tale has it that, in a triumph of humankind over technology, early typewriters were so mechanically inept, typists literally out-typed the machine. The solution? Slow down the humans by rearranging keys. Of course, that didn’t slow us down for long.
But for some reason, the keyboard arrangement stuck around, even into the age of the mobile phone. With these magical devices, we could have our keyboards arranged basically anyway we like, but still the quirky QWERTY persists.
During the latest hurricanes to plague the East Coast, my flight that was delayed waiting for the storm to blow over. With nothing else to occupy the time, everyone was on their phones, using their keyboards to message, e-mail or search flight alternatives. (Surprisingly few were actually using the phone to talk.)
We monitored weather radar and news reports, and kept in touch with friends and loved ones. We watched the devastation, and thought about others in its path; our delayed flight seemed a puny annoyance by any comparison.
During this emergency, I’m sure fingers elsewhere were clattering away on other QWERTY keyboards, rearranging schedules and executing contingencies. But all the keyboards in the world can’t halt the storms of life that come our way. We can complain or we can cope – but not much else. No matter how advanced our technology, our journeys are still very much at the mercy of Mother Nature.
Or her lack of it.