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Amish for QWERTY

by Cory Doctorow
07/09/2003

I learned to type before I learned to write. The QWERTY keyboard layout is hard-wired to my brain, such that I can't write anything of significance without that I have a 101-key keyboard in front of me. This has always been a badge of geek pride: unlike the creaking pen-and-ink dinosaurs that I grew up reading, I'm well adapted to the modern reality of technology. There's a secret elitist pride in touch-typing on a laptop while staring off into space, fingers flourishing and caressing the keys.

But last week, my pride got pricked. I was brung low by a phone. Some very nice people from Nokia loaned me a very latest-and-greatest camera-phone, the kind of gadget I've described in my science fiction stories. As I prodded at the little 12-key interface, I felt like my father, a 60s-vintage computer scientist who can't get his wireless network to work, must feel. Like a creaking dino. Like history was passing me by. I'm 31, and I'm obsolete. Or at least Amish.

People think the Amish are technophobes. Far from it. They're ideologues. They have a concept of what right-living consists of, and they'll use any technology that serves that ideal -- and mercilessly eschew any technology that would subvert it. There's nothing wrong with driving the wagon to the next farm when you want to hear from your son, so there's no need to put a phone in the kitchen. On the other hand, there's nothing right about your livestock dying for lack of care, so a cellphone that can call the veterinarian can certainly find a home in the horse barn.

For me, right-living is the 101-key, QWERTY, computer-centric mediated lifestyle. It's having a bulky laptop in my bag, crouching by the toilets at a strange airport with my AC adapter plugged into the always-awkwardly-placed power source, running software that I chose and installed, communicating over the wireless network. I use a network that has no incremental cost for communication, and a device that lets me install any software without permission from anyone else. Right-living is the highly mutated, commodity-hardware- based, public and free Internet. I'm QWERTY-Amish, in other words.

I'm the kind of perennial early adopter who would gladly volunteer to beta test a neural interface, but I find myself in a moral panic when confronted with the 12-button keypad on a cellie, even though that interface is one that has been greedily adopted by billions of people worldwide, from strap-hanging Japanese schoolgirls to Kenyan electoral scrutineers to Filipino guerrillas in the bush. The idea of paying for every message makes my hackles tumesce and evokes a reflexive moral conviction that text-messaging is inherently undemocratic, at least compared to free-as-air email. The idea of only running the software that big-brother telco has permitted me on my handset makes me want to run for the hills.

The thumb-generation who can tap out a text-message under their desks while taking notes with the other hand -- they're in for it, too. The pace of accelerated change means that we're all of us becoming wed to interfaces -- ways of communicating with our tools and our world -- that are doomed, doomed, doomed. The 12-buttoners are marrying the phone company, marrying a centrally controlled network that requires permission to use and improve, a Stalinist technology whose centralized choke points are subject to regulation and the vagaries of the telcos. Long after the phone companies have been out-competed by the pure and open Internet (if such a glorious day comes to pass), the kids of today will be bound by its interface and its conventions.

The sole certainty about the future is its Amishness. We will all bend our brains to suit an interface that we will either have to abandon or be left behind. Choose your interface -- and the values it implies -- carefully, then, before you wed your thought processes to your fingers' dance. It may be the one you're stuck with.

Cory Doctorow is the co-editor of Boing Boing and the Outreach Coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.


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