Thursday, February 02, 2006

Mom, I think I'm a Cyborg

Keyboards are good. Mouses are dumb.

If I was an alien looking to slowdown the technological advancement of the human race, I would have implanted into their society the things we call the keyboard and the mouse. In fact, the only personal proof I have that this was not the case is if aliens were involved they would have updated the pain by now. Like making the "shift" key a foot pedal or something.

Assuming mailicious aliens weren't involved, this isn't good news. It means we were silly enough to have invented these things ourselves. And then we were silly enough to let them "catch on". And we're silly enough to not personally diverge to a more efficient invention just in case we might later still need to know how to use this one. We humans follow a frighteningly simple herd mentality, God forbid someone jumps off a cliff and yells "free USB fobs!" - we'd be goners.

Truth is however, that with the keyboard at least - we have adapted. Our brains and fingers have optimized this abomination enough to actually get decent output. Obviously, the optimal tool would be one that can output words (actually, getting rid of words and going right to thoughts would be way better, but that is as of yet - out of scope) as fast as we can think them.

Now you might actually have been thinking the opposite. That the mouse is the more precise tool of the two. Well not for me it isn't. For artists and graphic manipulators the mouse is all that and a bag of chips - but for text people like myself, you can keep your seedy mice.

The problem with mice (which the nefarious aliens know all too well) is that its use removes your hand from the keyboard. To open a file in your favorite editor, chances are you grab the mouse, find the pointer with your eyes, move it to "file", click, move it down to "open" (hopefully not having to deal with any of those sub-menus that always seem to unpop off my screen as I'm moving down trying to get a lower entry) and once again click.

The alternative way to do this using just the keyboard (which I'm callously assuming is where your fingers already are) is to hold ALT, press F, let go of both, then hit O (thats as in "oh", not zero).

I have never written down all those operations before now and just looking at the two makes me feel stupid to have every used a mouse to open a file. The ALT-F method is no secret - why the heck don't we use it? ALT-F then O is even two different hands - it really is quite fast. My only explanation is that such keystrokes are cryptic and will require a bout or two of memorization whereas the peachy mouse-menu route hand-holds us right along the way. The mouse cursor gives us a constant bookmark of where our thought process is "I just clicked the file menu - now I'm moving to click open".

There is a nice book by Andy Clark called Natural Born Cyborgs. He makes an interesting observation that we all are already cyborgs (loosely defined as a fusion of humans and technology). His example is that if I am at your house, I may ask you "Do you know what the word poikilotherm means?". If you don't you would say "No, but we can look it up!". Upon consulting your house dictionary or your ubiquitous wifi connection, you can easily do that.

Now similarly, I might ask "Do you know what time it is?". And, at the very instant of me asking, you may not. However, the common response is to raise your wrist to your face and say "Yeah, its 4:30".

You liar. YOU did not know. Your watch knew but took credit for its perpetual temporal omniscience. I always know what time it is cuz dadburnit - I have a watch! In effect, we have extended our concept of self to include our watches - thus in Dr. Clark's claim we are cyborg. (Note that grammatically speaking, that sentence should end in "cyborgs", not "cyborg" - but if you ever watched Star Trek you'd know that cyborgs don't use contractions and often speak of themselves in a hive mentality - thus if we are them, no worries about speaking like them)

I may be creating a tenuous connection, but to me, the mouse seems like the dictionary and keyboard like the watch. That is, the keyboard is way more a part of me than the mouse is. I say this because I have painted myself into a very interesting computer-using corner.

My primary editor is a program called Emacs. It is as old as me. It was invented to provide editing capabilities on machines long before there were graphical windowing systems or meeces (some claim it was invented to scare small children, these however are bad people and ought to be ignored). Thus, everything (I mean everything) can be done with a precarious set of keystrokes. Without argument, these keystrokes are hard to learn - but once you do, your productivity goes up. Or more precisely, you are no longer slowed-down by the burden of learning the keystrokes while your real intent is to actually get work done. You go from an unproductive keystroke learning stage, hurdle the entire semi-productive mouse usage stage, and arrive in a land of control-key laden goodness.

To further my argument that keyboard=watch, here is my predicament. I sometimes get asked "What's the keystrokes to do XYZ in emacs?". After a moment of thought, I often find myself stunned that I do not know. I mean - I DO KNOW - I do XYZ all the time! I just can't tell you.

In effect, I have used these keystrokes so long and talked about them so little that the exact sequences have left my conscious mind. In other words, there are many keystrokes that my fingers know that I do not. At times, I have literally had to observe my own fingers to answer a question about how to do something.

To this end (again, I work 99% of the time in text, I fully understand my observations are irrelevant for more graphical professions) I have structured my desktop to be purely manipulatable by keyboard. I didn't do this consciously - it happened in stages and one day I noticed my mouse had dust on it. Using the mouse feels like using a pen in my left hand. I can do it, my output will inevitably be the same (albeit harder to read maybe) but I'm faster with the pen in my right hand.

I fully understand that if the aliens I mentioned in the first paragraph do exist, then I am a dangerous revolutionary in their eyes. I am thwarting their ingenious mouse device intended to often remove my hands from my productive keyboard. It is distressingly likely that some large death ray is pointed at the top of my head as we speak (and thanks to my body's recent affinity for dihydrotestosterone, this is much easier to target from space).

You never know though, it is possible they may be more subtle and simply try to slow me in other ways. I shall in the coming weeks keep a close eye for incoming packages that lack return addresses but contain USB footpedals that have the word "shift" on them. If such a thing arrives, I may heed the warning and go back to using my mouse. Until then, ALT-f x.

1 comment:

Some Guy said...

we are cyborg

We are humans, or we are human?
We are sheep.