Rhodri Marsden: Why the caps-lock key is the BANE of the typist


Wednesday 29 December 2010 01:00

Precious keyboard real estate is being needlessly used up by various symbols and functions that most of us have no day-to-day need for, I thought to myself the other day. Although the actual words that emerged from my mouth were: "What is that thing, anyway?" as I gestured towards the § key on a Macintosh keyboard. It's been sitting there, in my peripheral vision, for around 20 years now, and I'd never even pressed it, except during those moments when I press every key out of a) sheer boredom, and b) the forlorn hope that if I do it in the right order then the computer will start dispensing used tenners. (It doesn't.) After typing the § symbol into Google and receiving no joy, I posed the question to the ever-reliable hive mind of Twitter. "I only ever saw that weird fish-hook thing in my Old English textbook," replied a chap called Sean, "so I'd say it means 'intense boredom'." It doesn't mean intense boredom, as it turns out, or fish-hook, but "section". And if I'd spent more time reading academic literature at university instead of pointlessly pursuing a student nurse called Hannah, I'd probably know that. I'd also know the precise function of ±, which shares a key with § and plays an equally hands-off role in my work and leisure activities. So why are they there?

Geeks are less bothered about § and ± as they are the caps lock key. Not only is it something that people generally hit by accident – the computing equivalent of an already badly bruised knee – it's disproportionately large, and sometimes even has a tiny light built into it. It's a hangover from an era when typewriters were colossal objects that could easily break toes when dropped, and to shift a carriage to repeatedly type capital letters required a hefty amount of mechanical power. When IBM brought out their much-loved Model M keyboard back in 1984 with the caps lock intact, that was that; no manufacturer dared remove it, despite campaigns orchestrated by people who should probably have been worrying about more important stuff. A Belgian chap, Pieter Hintjens, started a crusade to get rid of it at Capsoff.org back in 2006, urging supporters to rip them off keyboards and post them to him, where he'd presumably put them to a more noble use. He decried the "whole sub-industry in software programs" that had emerged to either remap them to something more useful (copy, paste, volume up) or disable it altogether (as I ended up doing).

The first laptop to run Google's Chrome operating system, however, finally dispenses with the accursed key, which had become something only really used by angry people arguing on the internet. Instead, the key now says "search". Which is unsurprising, it being Google; if Apple had designed it, it might well have said "buy iPod" or something. But perhaps this will usher in a new era of more progressive keyboard designs; let's banish from prominence archaic keys like "scroll lock", and those arrows pointing up and left, or down and right, and symbols such as ^, which presumably have some mathematical meaning but in teenage communication have come to represent a single raised eyebrow. Ditto the tilde and the pipe, which I use way less often than the hash and the degree symbol. In fact, just let us design our own keyboard layouts, conveniently ignoring the fact that this will plunge us into disorientated confusion whenever we have to use someone else's.


I consider myself a motivated, innovative and highly proactive problem solver. My extensive experience has seen me develop an impressive skill set, coupling entrepreneurial flair with my proven track record as a dynamic team player. There you go. Paste that into your LinkedIn profile and you will have incorporated the 10 most-used clichés on the site, as compiled and revealed last week by LinkedIn's press office. My own profile desperately tries to avoid such things, with my "specialities" listed as "vanquishing overlords, egg boiling, salary arbitration and shouting in disgust at the television", and "honors and aw-ards" mentioning my winning medal in the under-11s piano competition at the 1982 Watford Music Festival. Those with whom I'm linked in a "professional network" on LinkedIn will no doubt see a radical about-turn at the point in the future when I'm desperately seeking work. Whereupon I'll inevitably deploy those two sentences at the top of this paragraph, no matter how inaccurate they might be.

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