Revenge of the Typists
My high school, since moved (the original converted into a seniors residence), was one of those heavily renovated in the late 1960s. Chief among the renovations were the “vocational” areas — the school was fitted with a wood shop, a metal shop, and a home economics area that would rival Martha Stewart’s ranch in the diversity of appliances and resources.
When you started your five years of high school (for in Ontario high school went from grade 9 to grade 13, a practice that comes to an end this year), you were quickly forced to choose between an “academic” stream and a “vocational” stream.
If you went “academic,” then you were in for 5 years, and took classes designed to bolster your university acceptance, but of little practical value otherwise. If you went “vocational,” then you stayed only for 4 years, and took classes that would lead towards either community college or a trade.
Not only did this system result in very marked social stratification, but it both denied vocational students an opportunity to change their minds and go to university (at least without a Herculean effort to bootstrap themselves back into the academic world) and denied academic students an opportunity to gain anything resembling practical skills.
One of those practical skills was typing.
At the east end of the school, above the metal shop and beside the art room, was the typing room. In that room, each desk was outfitted with a typewriter (manual or electric, I cannot recall). And that’s where you went for typing class.
While computers were present at the school from the beginning of my time there (in grade 9 there was a single Commodore PET that you could, among other things, play space invaders on), they were very clearly an academic pursuit, and the world of computers and the world of typing were two very different worlds, with no crossover.
The result of this is that unless you were in the vocational stream, and took typing, or were a geek (like me) and learned to type by sheer persistence, you didn’t learn how to type.
Indeed my own typing, which I can do quickly and with some efficiency, suffers from a “home brew” approach to learning, and I couldn’t find the “home keys” if I tried, and I go about 50% slower than the theoretical maximum because there’s a lot of “made a mistake, backspace, correct” built into my loop.
I came to think about all this today because I got a note from a friend of mine, let’s call him “Phil.” Phil is a well-paid professional living in Charlottetown. And Phil can’t type. I know this, because the longest email I’ve ever received from Phil is “I will call you later to discuss this.” Originally I thought Phil was just brusque, but that didn’t sync with his otherwise voluble nature. Then I realized that, given his age and career path, Phil would never have had any cause to learn to type.
I began to think of all of the successful post-40 year old professionals that I know, and I realized that none of them can type. Which explains why my email messages to them are long and detailed, and their responses are curt (another explanation is, of course, that I never know when to shut up, but that’s another story).
And so we have an entire class of people, the people who are at least nominally “in charge” of the world, who are disenfranchised from participating actively in the digital dialog about the future because they lack a simple manual skill.
It is the revenge of the typists, the final irony of the edu-stratification that was supposed to lead some to the promised land and leave others to open the mail and get the coffee.