Chapter Four Excerpt


A few years ago someone asked me which of my high school courses had been the most useful. After a few moments of aimless consideration I surprised myself with my answer. “Typing,” I replied. Of the store of knowledge and skills I have acquired through the years, only typing was achieved solely and definitively in that short window of time decades ago. I was the only boy in the class, since typing was for secretaries, who were girls.

Today a great many of my associates make their livelihood as computer programmers. They spend every day typing at their terminals. Many of them are not touch typists, though they are singularly adept at hunt-and-peck. Studies have shown that such fluency never approaches the speeds of touch typing, and it is very unusual for hunt-and-peck typists to unlearn those habits to become touch typists. They seldom reach even half the rate expected of entry-level typists. In fact there is a great deal of variation in typing speeds across skill levels.

In spite of their lack of proficiency, most hunt-and-peck programmers would probably argue that their lack of typing skill has no effect on their job performance. After all, being a programmer is not like being a copy typist whose job is the mindless and mechanical reproduction of previously recorded material. A key entry operator may execute 56,000 to 83,000 keystrokes per day, which corresponds to only 0.51 to 0.35 seconds per keystroke. But at those rates the symbols seem to flow through the human without conscious intervention. A programmer, on the other hand, in interacting with a computer terminal spends less than a third of time in actual communication. Thus any inefficiency in typing is diluted by the relatively small fraction of the time in which the skill can be exercised.

Some indication of the value of fluency in typing was obtained by Alphonse Chapanis and his associates at Johns Hopkins University, who conducted experiments in interactive human communications in the early 1970s. In these experiments pairs of volunteer subjects were given tasks to accomplish that involved the necessity for the exchange of information. For example, one subject was given a telephone directory and the other a map. How long would it take to locate the physician who was closest to a given address on the map? The pairs required to communicate by typing took almost two and a half times as long to solve the problem as those who were allowed to talk to each other--even if the participants were skilled typists. Chapanis’s conclusion was that the copy typing that we learn is not effective in interactive communications, where the messages are characterized by hesitations, mistakes, changes of thought, and irregular tempos.

From my own experiences in direct communication through typing, I would agree with Chapanis’s conclusion. We are not used to speaking to another person in that clumsy way. Nevertheless, I feel quite different about communicating with a computer through typing. The computer cannot speak to me, nor I to it. Fluency in typing does seem important to me in that keyboard efficiency is in the way of reaching the computer. Ideally there should be nothing intervening between my thoughts and the computer. The more mechanical considerations intervene, the more they themselves become the focus of attention, and the more my thoughts race ahead of my fingers and are lost as they fall off the output buffer in my mind. It would seem to me to be beneficial if transparency could be closely attained. In the table we previewed a few paragraphs ago, we saw that even skilled typing, at the typical stenographer level of 60 words per minute, is significantly slower than speech. And since I seem to “speak” my thoughts in my mind as I write, I would conclude that there is indeed a mismatch between thinking rate and the speed of keyboard input to a computer. Can this be improved, and if so, how?

It is clearly possible to type as fast as we talk. That authoritative source, the Guinness Book of Records, tells us that the world’s record for typing speed is 170 words per minute. Moreover, it is demonstrated every day in courtrooms across the country that court stenographers, using their own special chord keyboards, are easily able to follow the fastest and most intricate speech. While achieving this remarkable feat, they even chew gum and stare around the room, apparently daydreaming. As far as I can tell, they do not even listen to the boring testimony, which is most everything. Granted, then, it is possible if one is a court stenographer or a world typing champion to match the speed of speech with keyboard input. But what about you and me? Not much chance, I am afraid. To begin there is the keyboard.