International Keyboard Shortcut Day 2021: I shortcut, therefore I am

And now for something completely different. You might call this a philosophical reflection on, of all things, the use of keyboard shortcuts.

I did not do a post for IKSD last year (life got in the way a bit) and in previous years, my posts were aimed at teaching some aspect of using keyboard shortcuts. But this year, I want to take a step back and speak to the mouse-using fraternity and present a case for why we should all be using keyboard shortcuts more.

The most common argument for using keyboard shortcuts is that they help us work faster. And while that is certainly true, I suspect it probably isn’t very compelling. I think most people don’t care, and think to themselves that the way they work is just fine. Most people, truth be told, don’t want to work faster. If you disagree, and you’re still a mouser, you’re living a lie—you’d better start learning to use keyboard shortcuts, pronto.

But is there perhaps a more compelling motivation for using keyboard shortcuts than just “working faster”?

The answer, I’ve found, might be in the work of Marshall McLuhan and after him Neil Postman, who explored, amongst others, how technology affects us. I confess that I haven’t read any of McLuhan’s books (I’ve read about his work, but haven’t read his work), but will note that he is famous for his statement “the medium is the message.” I have read a number of Postman’s books, and while he qualifies McLuhan’s statement somewhat, he does point out that the medium has a very strong impact on the message, so much so that it can subvert and even reverse the message. His book Amusing ourselves to death on the problems of television and, more accurately, moving from a print culture to a visual image culture, is truly thought-provoking. Written in 1985, and thus predating the internet- and social media explosion, its message still rings true today.

Now as far as I know, neither McLuhan nor Postman wrote about the mouse and the keyboard, but I will take it upon myself to extend that idea here. Let me start by making the very simple observation that the keyboard and the mouse represent two very different ways of interacting with your computer. In the simplest way I can phrase it, the mouse integrates vision and action, while the keyboard dissociates vision and action. What do I mean by that? Well, when we move the mouse, we are not looking at our mouse-moving hand. Rather, we are looking at the mouse pointer on the screen as if it were where our hand was moving. There is an almost direct relationship between how we move our hand, and how the mouse pointer moves in response. The keyboard is different. If we can touch-type (type without looking at the keyboard), then what we see happening on the screen bears, at least in two-dimensional space, no relation to how our hands are moving. If the program allows, we can manipulate very different parts of the screen with the keyboard. In fact, with the keyboard, I can make things happen on different screens (when I have them set up), without having to drag the mouse pointer across from one screen to the other. Even if we cannot touch-type (i.e., we cannot type without looking at the keyboard), there is still dissociation—we are then looking at our hands moving across the keyboard, knowing that something different is happening on the screen.

Why would this be important? Well, the first issue again is the obvious one—speed. Because we are freed from the constraints of having to physically move (with our hand on the mouse) through the two-dimensional space of the screen, we can get things done faster. Additionally, we use one hand on the mouse, but two on the keyboard, which is, again, faster.

However, I think this still misses the most important point. This dissociation forces us to think differently about using the computer.

And I would argue, think better about using the computer. With the keyboard, with training, even the physical movement of our hands across the keyboard to execute a certain shortcut eventually becomes unconscious, just as, for a seasoned typist, all hand movement during typing is unconscious. When using keyboard shortcuts, then, we are only thinking about the command we want to employ or the action we want to perform, without actually having to think how to perform it. By contrast, using the mouse means that we always have to interrupt our thought about what we want to do with thought about how to do it—the additional mental effort of moving the mouse through the two-dimensional screen space. The mouse, in other words, is disruptive to our thought. And it is always so, even for seasoned users, because of the medium and the association with physical space in the screen. The keyboard, with practice, is not disruptive. It allows for a fluency of thought in our computer work which the mouse cannot. I would even go so far as to contend that, at least at present, speech controlled computing is still partially space bound (we have to tell the computer which word to select, etc.). At present, then, even voice-controlled computing is not as dissociative as keyboard computing (although it might be quicker for some).

Of course, this does not mean that the mouse had no place at all, and there is work which requires the mouse (e.g., CAD work), but it is normally work related to physical space. Text, for example, does not. User interface interaction, normally, also not.

So, to summarise. Why should we use keyboard shortcuts? Because a praxis which employs keyboard shortcuts is one that trains us to work, not simply faster, but at a deeper level, to work more efficiently, to think more clearly about the task we are performing. It is one where we can think freely about what we need to do, without having to think about how to do it. Keyboard shortcuts don’t just help us work faster, they help us work better. And that is something worth thinking about. I, at least, find it compelling. Do you?