Q is for Qwerty

The opening theme song of Murder, She Wrote starts with the protagonist, Jessica Fletcher, clacking away at a typewriter, writing one of her famous crime novels. The show first aired in the ’80s, so the whole thing has a vintage look to it, and it’s all set to a jaunty, chirpy little tune that seems completely inappropriate for the subject matter. It’s a juxtaposition I find myself chuckling at every single time I caption the show at work these days, but when I was younger, what I took away from that theme was the image of those fingers moving gracefully over the typewriter.

Growing up, I loved typing. One of my dream jobs was “writing”, not so much because I was looking for an outlet for creativity, but because I wanted a job where typing was a major requirement. I imagined myself as an author, sitting in front of a typewriter, face scrunched in concentration. Later on, when that typewriter changed into a keyboard, the image lost some of its charm, but my love for typing remained. I’d spend hours learning to touch type, taking lots of tests to check my speed. (It still aggravates me that my father types with one finger on each hand.) It was a sensory thing as well – I loved the feel of bouncy keys, and I loved the sound they made when I typed, like abstract percussion.

Then I grew up, real life took over, and I started focusing on what I thought were “real” jobs that could earn real money. For years, I didn’t think about typing – it was just another part of everyday life, but I didn’t get any pleasure from it. But life comes back full circle, and I now have a job that probably comes closest to my original writer/typist fantasy. My work involves A LOT of typing, mixed with enough cerebral stuff to keep me sane and interested on a day-to-day basis. (My original fantasy would’ve seen me die of boredom quite quickly, I think.)

All this, however, is just preamble to the fact that, in all these years of typing and loving typing, I’ve never once questioned why the modern keyboard is laid out the way it is, in such seemingly random fashion. (I must admit first that it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise how the Qwerty keyboard got its name.) It has a fairly interesting history, evolving out of a need to keep commonly used letters far away from each other to prevent jamming problems on earlier typewriters, but what’s more interesting is the fact that it has become so ubiquitous, so entrenched in people’s minds, that there’s very little impetus to change it to something that could be more functional. A lot of people seem to agree that the Qwerty keyboard may not be the best system to achieve speed, but also that it would take too long to get people to unlearn their current typing habits (touch typing or otherwise) for it to be a worthwhile effort. In fact, the Wikipedia page for the Qwerty keyboard, amusingly enough, lists “inertia” as one of the reasons why it prevails to this day, more than a century after its invention.

Basically, even though we’re a society that has made huge, near-impossible leaps in technology over a very short span of time, we’ve still not been able to shake off a habit we learned ages ago. I know that I barely think about where I’m placing my hands when I type, so if you changed the layout of my keyboard, I would be completely lost. Why, just the other day, I was typing out a post on my sister-in-law’s iMac, and because I’m used to the Windows keyboard at work, I was thrown off by the lack of ‘Home’ and ‘End’ keys on the Mac keyboard, to the point that I completely lost momentum of thought because I was so distracted by the actual typing.

Old habits die hard, they say. This one’s lasted almost 150 years, and is all set to keep going. For good or bad, it looks like the Qwerty system is here to stay – even with apparently faster alternatives out there, like Dvorak, no-one seems keen on spending the time and energy it would take to switch over. It’s also an official Scrabble word, so the next time you’re playing and someone puts ‘QWERTY’ on a Triple Word tile and makes 83 points, take a few minutes to think about the lasting power of habits.

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