in which the naked chimp is unmasked, his machines debugged, and his bugbears debunked

Monday, August 27, 2007


If you’ve ever travelled across different countries in Europe, one of the most frustrating things can be sending emails home. If that sounds like a strange thing to say, well, you’ve probably never been travelling in Europe. This is simply because most countries in Europe use a variation on the US-standard QWERTY design: the infamous French AZERTY, or the just slightly less annoying AZERTZ, the standard German layout. The first few internet café sessions are hell. It’s not as if it’s impossible to get the words out, but the little differences and absences are all the more frustrating for being apparently minor. Just like cutting your thumb, you realise how often you use certain keys, and how thoughtlessly, almost automatically, your muscles are programmed to write things in a certain way, in a certain order. But given a few sessions, your neural pathways seem to re-wire themselves, and what was once frustrating becomes as natural as buttering monkeys… stay long enough, and you’ll even have difficulty getting used to QWERTY again…

Each culture/language claims their keyboard is the most efficient, but this is far from clear. What is certain in each case is that the keyboard arrangement of any given culture is a ubiquitous fact, and one that was there long before you sat down to start typing. The system precedes you, and you have to adjust to it. Of course, you could insist on using the apparently more efficient Dvorak arrangement – yes, I’d never heard of it either, until I wiki-ed it. It’s Norwegian, it’s apparently much better… and it never took off. But try demanding one of those puppies in any internet café, or when you order your new laptop. Then imagine training yourself how to use one, only to have to use QWERTY, AZERTY or AZERTZ every time you were cross office floors or borders and needed to shoot of an email or three. It would take hours for you to hunt and peck your way through an email, even one as short as this one here:

“Hey Harry,

We actually ended up receiving another review of this album that was a little more positive, so I think we're going to have to go with that one instead.

This was a great piece, and definitely insightful, but as you guessed, we do try to steer clear of negative reviews.

Hope you understand...



This is actually an exact paste of a message that my friend ‘Harry’ received just the other day, in response to a CD review he’d written of X’s new (and slightly disappointing) album. Harry had been excited to get the hook-up writing for the prestigious website, and had spent the week carefully thinking up and typing out his review, taking care to critically describe and access the relative merits of the work. I read the review – it was well written, thorough, and critical. And this was exactly the problem. After spending so long thinking exactly what to type and how to arrange it, Harry had failed to do the most important thing of all: he hadn’t read between the lines.

Just like the QWERTY keyboard he used to type his rejection, Mike (from his airy NYC loft office) was keyed into a process he, like all the magazine’s employees, were subject to, but not wholly aware of. And, unless he was one of the mag’s founders, it was a system that was already in place when he was in Harry’s position, nervously submitting his first carefully-considered review.

One of two things probably happened on that day. Either Mike submitted a gushing, effusive review of the album in question, or, if he was a little more brave or foolish, he might have submitted something less than positive… What do you think would have happened? In the former case, it probably would have been accepted without fuss, and Bob, seeing how few changes had been made to his work, probably would have ‘taken the hint’ and kept churning out reviews in the same style. Much loved and respected, Bob soon becomes an authority on his genre of music, possessing a knowledge and style that becomes the benchmark… often emulated, but seldom surpassed. Molly Meldrum is a (sad old) case in point. Just get yourself a recognisable style or look (a silly hat will do nicely) and praise everything, and you’ve got a job for life.

But what would have happened in the latter case…? Well, Bob would probably have received an email not dissimilar to the one above. You’re a young wannabe freelance writer, and this is your first hook-up with the aforementioned ‘prestigious music magazine’. What do you do? BOHICA, that’s what. This is not a kind of keyboard. It stands for ‘Bend over (here it comes again)’. If you’re in a new job and the boss is asking for your flexibility and understanding on this matter, this exactly what’s being tacitly demanded.

This is how it happens. Just like the frustrated American backpacker mashing the ‘foreign’ keys frustrating the formation of his digital loveletter to Candy back in Ohio, you either give up, reject the system, or acclimatise. You adapt, you cope. And who knows, in time, you probably even begin to identify with AZERTY and BOHICA, their easily accessible accents and exclamation points… you’ll probably defend the systems against criticism and change, and you’ll definitely install them in your office, your home, your schools… get ‘em for your kids and teach carefully teach them ‘how to’. Eventually, you even come to enjoy it. You end up loving it so much, you can’t wait to be the one who gives the newbie their initiation… and so it is with swift-moving fingers and a strange, almost nameless joy, that you shoot off the email…

1 comment:

Andrew said...

Did Althusser design keyboards?

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