Friday, August 31, 2012

Feeling Qwerty?

A Key Question:

The button you press on a computer keyboard to go to the next line is, on my Mac, labeled return, with the word enter in smaller text above it. PC keyboards just say enter.

One can see the reasoning behind this. Once you have input data (typed shit), you then “enter” it by moving on to the next line. Never mind that the text you have typed already appears on the screen. What the cursor is doing, then, is “entering” a new, blank space in which one may input more data (type more shit). It often comes with a helpful bent arrow pointing to the left. This a visual remnant of an earlier age (see below.)

The Mac, on the other hand, which wants to be more intuitive and connected to older methods of inputting data (typing shit), uses a word which has lost all meaning with people young enough never to have known a manual typewriter: return.

Here’s how it worked: when you wanted to move down a line, you had to press in a handle on the cylindar the paper was rolled around (the carriage), and physically slide it back over to the left so that it could march, one keystroke at a time, back over to the right. If it was already in the far left position, disengaging the handle meant the paper would go up a notch, bringing the keys into a blank space. To write (type shit), you literally had to “return” the carriage to the left.

Nowadays, we don’t have metal keys on long, thin fingers waiting in a semi-circle like an orchestra to strike an impression onto paper through an ink-soaked ribbon or ink-lined plastic strip. We have a flashing cursor, a vertical hair awaiting our bidding on a screen. It’s temporal, like a ticking clock, blinking at you expectantly.

It appears when you move into a rectangular text entry area on Facebook, waiting patiently against the left-hand wall, ready to become a witty remark or status update. It used to be that Facebook required a deliberate click on a dark blue “comment” button to post your comment, which could just as easily have been called the “are you sure you want to say this?” button. It naturally assumed that anything you typed was in fact a comment, and not, say, a series of sad face emoticons or a joke ☹.

It had also been a “share” button, reinforcing the idea that social media is for “sharing,” rather than “showing off” or “desperately seeking attention.” The extra step of actually having to move your cursor over to the button and click on it gave the typist / smartass a few precious moments for reflection, in case he or she decided the comment wasn’t as witty as it seemed.

Now, Facebook has no button to share or comment at all. You simply type your shit, and hit return. Or enter. And ta-da: there it is for everyone to read.

↵  ↵  ↵  ↵  ↵  ↵ 

But what does it mean to deliver a comment, or join a hierarchical conversation via a button called “return”? Are you returning to the dialogue? Are you returning a bon mot like a verbal tennis ball? Are you returning someone’s sad face emoticons like an overcooked steak back to the kitchen from which it came? What of a button called “enter”? Are you entering the vertical narrative each time as if merging finto traffic from an on-ramp? Are you a character forever entering from stage left? Or entering it like deja vu, stepping again and again into that same room?

What we name our tools does not go unnoticed. OK, it does most of the time, by most people. But it’s worth stepping back every now and then and considering what we call the things which have become invisible to us. Take the carriage, for instance. It is a conveyance — a means by which to carry something. A carriage was usually pulled by horses until it became a railway car, which became, on a road, just a car. Car — short for carriage. In England, roads are still called "carriageways." The typewriter roll carries the paper. The paper carries the words. Our fingers carry the message. We speak with our hands. A typewriter neither types nor writes. A typist types, and a writer writes. Perhaps a reader will read. The word “text” has become a verb. We rarely use into our phones for actual speech. We enter and return, back and forth, in and out, all day long.

We’re forever typing shit. 

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