The Curse of the Typing Pool

As new technology promises voice recognition typing software, and icon based texting, could the traditional QWERTY keyboard finally losing its dominance? Taken for granted, the keyboard has played a central role in the empancipation of women, but also in their entrapment in the “typing pool” of secretarial handmaidens. From the Victorian Lady typist, like Laura Lyons in The Hound of the Baskervilles, to Tess McGill in the 80s film Working Girl, I explored the intimate and ambivalent relationship between women and the QWERTY keyboard for The Guardian (link here) and in a discussion on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour.(listen here)

‚ÄúDid you learn to touch type? Where and why?‚Ä̬†A simple question.¬†But when I ask it I¬†am struck by how¬†many people¬†say they¬†learned in secret.¬†Some former grammar school girls over¬†35,¬†said they were¬†expressly told not to learn. They¬†were supposed to become¬†executives¬†with secretaries.¬†Teaching in schools remains haphazard.¬†Apart from the men who said they learned¬†in the army,¬†many claimed¬†they could¬†‚Äútouch type‚Ä̬†with¬†2 fingers, or had taught themselves under a tea¬†towel. One¬†said he was permanently¬†scarred¬†after¬†being forced to type to Billy Joel‚Äôs Uptown Girl in ICT.¬†How did we end up with such an odd relationship with the instrument at the heart of most modern jobs and communication?¬†Especially one that was a tool of¬†female emancipation?

In Sherlock Holmes’ most famous adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles, a mysterious and exciting new independent woman was captured in print: The Lady Typist. The character Laura Lyons, had been helped to set up a typing business after escaping an unhappy marriage.

The modern typewriter Christopher Sholes invented in his Milwaukee workshop in 1866 was transformed by his associate, James Densmore, who designed the letter arrangement of the QWERTY keyboard. Laid out to prevent keys jamming and improve flow rate, it remains the standard today, seeing off its only serious rival the 1930s Dvorak. Women’s expected accomplishment at piano playing was linked from the start to the typewriter’s ten finger flow.

Historian Anna Davin has pointed out that¬†when the British civil service took over operating telegraph and postal offices¬†in the 1870s, the¬†official in charge, Frank Scudamore,¬†sought out women clerks for their¬†typing¬†speed and dexterity.¬†But crucially¬†Scudamore said the wages:‚Äúwhich will draw male operators from but an inferior class of the community, will draw female operators from a superior class.”¬†Women¬†would spell and type better, raise the tone of the office,¬†then¬†marry and leave without requiring pensions.

So¬†the¬†trap of the¬†overeducated, but low-status secretary was born; the typing pool.¬†The BBC‚Äôs typing pool may have been the entry point for some¬†breakthrough¬†female broadcasters¬†and executives, (Esther Rantzen trained as a clerk, as well as a studio manager) but¬†in Rona Jaffe‚Äôs Mad Men era novel,¬†The Best of Everything, sexual predators prowl its¬†perimeter.¬† In the seminal¬†80s¬†film,¬†Working Girl, the secretaries¬†play with the jargon: ‚ÄúI prefer personal assistant‚ÄĚ, but¬†the¬†only way¬†to be taken seriously is to pretend¬†to be an executive.

Futuretechnology entrepreneur, Elizabeth Varley, the CEO and co-founder of TechHub,¬†didn‚Äôt see the keyboard as a trap. Her mother, a single parent, used to work from home in Melbourne, Australia¬†as a legal secretary, typing up often complex Dictaphone audio tapes:¬†‚ÄúI saw it as a tool of empowerment. And it was a fun thing to play with.‚ÄĚ

A badly designed keyboard could help kill a computer ‚Äď most notably IBM‚Äôs PCJr in 1983¬†¬†IBM‚Äôs first foray into the home computer market. ¬†But¬†at the same time IBM office PC researchers found¬†male executives hostile to¬†the ‚Äúsecretarial‚ÄĚ word processor image of PCs.¬†(The advent of spread sheet software is what made office PCs acceptable to them.)

Like generations of women before me I learned on a¬†black, spider-like¬†manual¬†machine¬†in a typing school. (Like a manual car, compared to the lazy¬†‚Äúautomatic‚ÄĚ ease of an electric or PC).¬†With headphones¬†to listen to the audio exercises,¬†the letters embedded themselves into my finger muscle memory, ready for a¬†life time¬†of¬†typing¬†scripts and news copy.¬†But for many women, it was a skill¬†not to express¬†one‚Äôs¬†own thoughts, but to take down and shape those of¬†one‚Äôs¬†boss ‚Äď usually a man. The ‚Äútake a¬†letter, Miss Jones‚ÄĚ culture¬†that dominated office life till the 1990s¬†also¬†shaped a literary culture in which men thought,¬†and women took down and gave discipline and structure to their ideas.¬†¬†How¬†many¬†antiEstablishment¬†writers¬†relied on women who could¬†touch type¬†to make their groovy ideas publishable?

Varley temped¬†when she first moved to England in 1999. By then, she says, executives were doing¬†most of their own emails, but were challenged in expressing themselves in the new visual formats, like the dreaded Power Point. ‚ÄúThis BBC executive would say, I need to communicate my idea, but I don‚Äôt know how to make it look nice.‚ÄĚ She felt there was accorded a certain status to secretaries who were¬† tech savvy.

British tech entrepreneur, Ed Maklouf, arrived at Stanford University in the heart of Silicon Valley in the mid 1990s to study communication and linguistics. “If I had any lingering idea about the supposed secretarial nature of touch typing,” he says, “it disappeared the moment I walked into a room full of coders all attacking the keys like they were in battle.”

With the personal sec a thing of the past for many executives, is the new roll out of voice recognition typing technology, an attempt to recapture¬†the compliant female for the smart phone¬†generation? Apple‚Äôs Siri has a female voice in the US, but a male voice here in the UK. It’s recognition is still pretty crude.¬†And¬†Google‚Äôs Majel, due out this year, is affectionately named after Majel Barrett, the actress who provided the voice of the computer in the original Star Trek TV series.

Maklouf, who¬†is marketing¬†the SIINE¬†‚Äď a¬†symbol based keyboard app for Android phones¬†says¬†they‚Äôre¬†more about helping¬†people with¬†a lack of time, working mothers as much as young singles. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôre now expected to respond immediately to emails, wherever we are,‚ÄĚ he points out.¬†‚ÄúPeople want to be able to¬†reply back¬†from a phone¬†without worrying about being rude or impersonal.” SIINE enables people to programme personal phrases onto keys: “Best wishes” as much as “Whasssssupp”.

Other new technology to try and improve the experience of using keyboards includes  laser-projected keyboards that can be generated onto a hard surface anywhere for instant typing. And Microsoft was 2 years ago experimenting with a touchscreen extension along the top of the QWERTY keyboard, to enable users to scroll through different documents as they worked, without having to open many windows on the master screen.

RSI, notably carpel tunnel syndrome, continues to be reported in much larger numbers by women (Is that because it affects women more, or because they’re better at reporting it than men?)

But until anyone comes up with a genuine alternative to the QWERTY it remains at the heart of our ambivalent relationship with words and work.

Further reading/links

The Early Office Museum¬†— Great online resource on the history of typewriters and other office equipment

Thoroughly Modern Millie — 1967 film parodying the 1920 Stenographer. The Baby Face number features Julie Andrews sitting a shorthand and typing test using a variety of heavy black Edwardian office gadgets.

Historian¬†Anna Davin’s paper¬†City Girls: Young Women, New Employment, and the City¬†1880-1910 is an excellent resource on Victorian women typists. (You can find it on Google)

IBM Archives History of the Personal Computer

The 10 Worst PC Keyboards of all time (PC Magazine)

Lovely Al Jazeera report on Delhi’s manual law court typists¬†

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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