Monday, February 09, 2015

Do on-screen keyboards change the way we write?

Image via Flickr Creative Commons
(Caleb Roenigk) 
Image via Wikimedia under by Creative Commons
by  Matt Buchanan.
 Originally posted to Flickr

On the bus last week, I was standing behind someone typing on a tablet. She was using the on-screen touchpad keyboard. Not that I was spying or anything (honest!), I watched how she typed an accented é: she touched the e “key” for an slightly extended time—less than a second—until a menu of accented characters appeared on the screen above the keypad, then slid her finger to her choice.

Seeing it in action started me thinking: is on-screen typing, as done on touch-screen computers, changing the way we write?

We all learn to write, or print, with a stylus directly marking a surface: pencil on paper, crayon on colouring book, brush on parchment. 

Since the invention of the typewriter in the 1860s, the technology of writing has been a kind of remote control, separating the action of our fingers from the results. Press a key on a typewriter, and the attached type bar strikes the ribbon and impresses it onto the paper. 

Since then, typing technological development has progressively increased the distance between actions and results. To create this post, I am tapping my fingers on a wireless keyboard. I can’t imagine how many digital transformations occur to make the characters I am typing appear on the screen in front of my eyes. It’s only after I hit the Print button that the printer, two metres from the keyboard, puts marks on paper.

But I won’t print this particular essay. I’ll edit and proofread it on-screen, and then post it on this blog, hosted on a server hundreds or thousands of kilometres from this screen and keyboard. Or maybe it’s next door—I have no way of knowing. 

Image via Flickr Creative Commons
(Stan Wiechers)
Closing the gap between action and consequence
Typing on a touch screen brings actions closer to results. There is still a separation, of course, as the keypad is at the bottom of the screen and the words may be at the top, but still, it’s closer than the typewriter allowed.

Standing on the bus in rush hour, I was fascinated by the woman typing on the touch-screen. I wondered: is her writing experience different?

Personally, I don’t like typing on a touch screen. There is no physical or kinetic feedback from a touch screen, unlike with a keyboard, where I can feel the key depress and spring back. 

Also, using the touch pad on my iPad shrinks the display of the writing I’m doing. I like to be able to see the words I’ve written. So I have a Bluetooth keyboard to write with my iPad, re-establishing that remote action of the old-fashioned typewriter.

An area to research
Does bringing the result, the mark on the writing surface, closer to the motion of our fingers make typing on a touch screen closer to writing with a pencil on paper?

And if it does, will that have an effect on the way that we write? Will it affect the words we choose, the way we construct phrases and sentences?

Will we be able to tell a book written on a touch-screen from a book created with a typewriter?

I can imagine someone getting a doctoral degree on this by analyzing documents written with a stylus on paper with those created on a computer using a standard word processor, and others written using a touch screen. And I’d be fascinated to see the results.

What do you think? If you use a touch screen for anything, do you find the writing experience different? Do you like typing on a touch screen?

Do you think that the touch screen changes the way you write?


  1. Anonymous3:56 PM

    I'm not a fan of typing on a touch screen pad but it is way better then typing on my phone. In my case, I type less words when on a touch pad. The latest way I have tried is dictation on my iPad. It types faster than I can type.

    Onisha Ellis

  2. I'm with you, Scott. I like writing on the iPad; I've written two novels on it, but I use a Bluetooth keyboard. I find the on-screen keyboard too distracting, and I miss the tactile feedback. You raise some interesting questions, though.

  3. Anonymous4:25 PM

    I don't like typing on a touch screen. I like the "feel" of the keyboard under my fingers.

  4. Anonymous5:01 PM

    I don't use a touch screen but I will tell you, I ADORE the laptop - I type faster than I speak or handwrite - so I can get my words down as soon as I think of them.

  5. I still use a tank of a laptop, but I'm prolific in text as well. The question of tech changing our patterns and even speech reminds me of this TEDtalk:
    which addresses the fluidity of written communication now that we all have the ability to talk to someone not in the room with us at an almost speed-of-thought pace.

  6. Anonymous5:17 PM

    I prefer the tactile feedback of a keyboard. Perhaps even more so because I play musical instruments. I get no satisfaction from tapping on a touchscreen.

  7. I think anything digital has changed and continues to change the way we write. Eventually it will be voice recognition that is the norm, because our "screens" are virtual and in mid air... unless of course they come up with a virtual keyboard, which I'm sure they will. I think people have to work harder to choose interesting, intelligent vocabulary words in the current age, than was so when we used the original type writer, or certainly when it was with a plume... Because it was difficult to rewrite things then. This, I think, makes our minds lazy, more so than anything else. We can always insert a new word and allow the computer to change it all.... But touch screens... meh... I have used them for lengthy emails, posts, you name it. The technology isn't great yet, so it isn't a preferred method for me as of yet, but it's all great (technology) as far as I'm concerned. I just have to make a point to exercise my brain and learn to choose "brilliant" words!

  8. I don't mind typing on the touch screen for short periods, but anything longer or more detailed I need my computer. I wish I could still manage to write longhand for extended periods, but my hand cramps up after a couple of paragraphs.

  9. I began my writing career on a manual Olivetti typewriter and I was good - almost 75wpm. Later I moved to an IBM Selectric and my typing skills improved (unfortunately, not my writing skills) to over 100wpm. While employed, I developed an on-screen typing program for the court to use since the keyboards used by the public were getting a beating and somebody complained of sanitation issues. I tried to use the on-screen. I didn't like it but that was because of my speed typing. In fact, I have a laptop and since I've moved to an ergonomic keyboard, a regular laptop keyboard is awkward. Sure I can still type on it but the sensor of the "pad" constantly moves the cursor when my thumb drops too close it. Some may like the new on-screen keyboards and what they can do, but for me, my writing skills will continue to use the external ergonomic keyboard as long as possible. PLUS, I enjoy the sound of the clickety-click which they keep muffling.

  10. Interesting post Scott. I much prefer writing on a keyboard. To feel the individual buttons under my fingers. On an on-screen keyboard I tend to make more mistakes and stupid predicitve text often won't let me type what I want to (even when it's a legitimate word) - OK always become OKLAHOMA for example. Very annoying. I do write sometimes on my phone, but try to avoid it if I can.