I Am My Keyboard

by | Jan 8, 2011

Around the time that the desktop computer started to become a common business appliance, I noticed something odd. As more industries became computerized, I—as a consumer—was being asked to do more of the work that had been done previously by skilled professionals.

Typing, which became word processing, was once done by secretaries (see Mad Men). Now I had to do it myself, on my word processing software.

Typesetting for books, once done by typesetters, was being done by guys in their dining room on early Apple computers.

Booking flights, once done by travel agents, was faster and cheaper to do on the web, once the airline’s databases were made available.

Where once each task took place in its own world, according to its own rules, using its own material and discussed in its own jargon, now it was all flowing through the computer.

And rather than specialists somewhere doing these things, we had all become computer operators instead of typesetters, secretaries, travel agents. The world was becoming digitized, like one of those scenes from The Matrix but I didn’t realize it.

Away from Reality, Please

To be modern, to take on these tasks, we needed the computer. Everyone wanted one at first. Then, everyone had to have one. Or their boss came in and put one on their desk, and said, here, this is the new way.

  • Typesetters who used to pick up little pieces of metal and arrange them in lines, or who operated big noisy machines that cast lines of type in hot metal slugs, now sat and tapped at keyboards.
  • A friend, who for years had slaved over a big flatbed film editing machine, cutting and splicing thousands of feet of film, bought a Macintosh and sold the flatbed years ago.
  • The car mechanic, who used to listen to the engine, tap various places with his wrench, now operates a computerized diagnostic machine that tells him what’s going on.

The list goes on and on. The checkers at supermarkets used to know all the prices, did you know that? Now, they are scanner operators. London taxi drivers used to study for a year or more to learn the city well enough to pass the license test. I wonder if they slap a GPS on the dash now, and just get on with it.

People who cut fabric for dressmaking operations now feed the information into sophisticated cutters driven by computers and watch as the machine does a far more accurate job than they ever did.

Doctors once used their ears, eyes, hands as well as the knowledge in their heads, to diagnose you. Now, they wheel you onto a tray and shoot you inside a machine that does all the diagnostic imaging, and a technician interprets the images.

Designers, printers, typographers, illustrators came together and pooled their skills and knowledge of design, paper, type, inks, and printing presses, and produced books. Now we upload two files to a server somewhere, and wait for the Fedex to deliver our book.

We have gradually been drawn away from contact with the things of the world. Instead, our experience is mediated by the computer, a device for manipulating, creating and transmitting digital data.

Does it matter if we never touch the pile of cloth, the paper, the type, the abdomen of the patient, if we no longer learn the different sounds the engine makes, the feel and taste of the soil, does that matter?

For all the wonders that digitization has brought to the world, there are things that have been lost, that we are losing right now.

I’ve pulled the long lever on a hulking black iron press, felt the kiss of the inked type against the tooth of the paper. Thousands of pulls, thousands of kisses, and eventually you acquire a “feeling,” the sense of what’s happening where it cannot be seen. Have we lost the need for the gradual accumulation of experiences like that? Or do we just focus on stuff that’s more important now?

I don’t know the answer to that question, I just keep asking it.

What do you think?

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  1. Rosvita Rauch

    Hi Joel,
    interesting post. It’s amazing to me how often speak of the non-digital experience as already a bygone. I moved to Argentina three years ago in order to be able to afford to write, stepping out of teaching at the university level. It’s been a life which most people I think would describe as “rustic” — I boil water in a kettle on a gas stove for my coffee, just to give a measuring stick — but one which has been very satisfying, too, precisely because it is so tangible. I’ve been able to set up my editorial and translation company alongside other things, like returning to horseback riding and weaving. I’m not in any way romanticising a return to a “simpler” life as many times I’ve wished for gas central heating or a better internet connection, but striking a balance between a tangible life and the digital experience has undoubtedly been the key to success this year. As I head now for a few months back North (US/UK) I know that one of the things I will continue to strive for is a balance between the two: an only virtual life feels pale and empty while a wholly tangible one lacks the dynamism and energy of all that is available digitally and online.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Rosvita, your comment was the 8,575th comment I’ve received on this blog and, for me, the most beautiful. Thanks and good luck with the transition.

  2. Reg Gupton


    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I, for one, can say that I don’t want to go back to 100 years ago. Probably not even 20. Too labor intensive. I like getting up in the morning to a warm house where I don’t have to split wood to stay warm and cook.

    My 97 year old died recently. When she was growing up in TN, they raised, grew, or made everything (pretty much) that was in their home. I think she said that they bought some clothes, and maybe a little flour and sugar. Not sure what else.

    That being said, I will often pick up the phone to return an email just to hear a person’s voice.

    And I love Skype so I can both see and talk to some one.

    The thought of losing power has crossed my mind recently when a truck stuck a power pole and took out power for our condo bldg for the better part of two days.

    Headlamps and books go perfectly together as does cooking on my propane camping stove.

    I spend lots of evenings and most weekends with my feet on dirt or in a trout stream, on a bike seat, or on snow walking or snowshoeing. More creativity there and conversations with friends, too.

    Life for me is a blend of technology and not.

  3. Mayowa


    I just wanted to say what a lovely post this is. I don’t know if experience is a zero sum equation but the fact that we lose something the more digital our lives become is indisputable.


    • Joel Friedlander

      Hi Mayowa, great to see you, and thanks for that. I wonder what price we pay to adapt ourselves—pretty analog creatures, really—to the demands of our own digital creations.

  4. Joan Chamberlain

    Joel, You’re right about the feeling you (or me) gets when touching the tool or machine that directly creates something. It’s comfort for the familiar and gives us satisfaction, especially if we do it well. There’s an additional feeling of accomplishment when we see our finished product and yet another feeling of pleasure if someone else likes what we offer. We’ve transferred all of this “hand” work to our minds; our companion/machine is now our computer. It demands fast thinking and even faster decision-making in most business cases. Part of me misses the “old days.” Best, Joan Chamberlain P.S. I always appreicate your introspective pieces.

  5. Mary Tod

    Hi Joel – just returned from a long walk (and its touch with reality). I really empathize with your thoughts about how life works these days. Another dimension that strikes me is the loss of people contact that has evolved in our workplaces where more and more work is done remotely from an employee’s home office, via telephone conference call or even video conference calls. Think of how we ‘connect’ with folks issuing invitations via email rather than enjoying the sound of someone’s voice. Using Facebook or other tools to replace getting together. I used to enjoy wandering down the office hallways in order to chat with folks every day and keep a pulse on how my team was doing. I doubt there’s much of that anymore although I am no longer in that corporate world.

    I wonder what we’ve lost?

    • Joel Friedlander

      Although I’m a fugitive from corporate life, I did enjoy the camaraderie of the office. I don’t know all the things we’ve lost, but asking the question jogs me out of the habitual path.

  6. Lynne Spreen

    To follow along with Jeff’s thought, I awoke a couple of mornings ago to pitch-blackness, and realized the power was out. I tried to imagine what I would do for the next few hours while I waited for the power to come back on, but every single thing, from having a cup of coffee to simply reading by lamplight, would be impossible. But as I lay there, thinking, it was a nice change from what I call “The Jumble” – that morning scramble before work, where I jump from email to news to blogs, randomly, quickly, hair on fire, hurry, clock ticking, got to get just this last thing read….

    • Joel Friedlander

      Lynne, I can feel the shock of waking up in a different world than the one you went to sleep in. And that’s a very evocative phrase, I know that morning feeling of “The Jumble” pretty well. Like having an illness that’s not life-threatening but still forces you into a more passive mode, “losing power” can open ways of inquiring into ourselves we would never had pursued in “normal” times. Thanks for that.

  7. Jeff Bennington

    Hi Joel,
    I sometimes wonder how pathetic of a society we could become if we, for some odd turn of events, lost the electrc grid. Where we once needed to know the touch, the sound, the feel of actual work, we could revert back to that time and be in big trouble due to the loss of skill as you noted above. Not that I’m into the doomsday mentality, I’m just saying, we’d be in a world of hurt if we didn’t have these blasted computers. On the flip side; I think the human race as a whole can be very resilient. In the meantime, I’m really enjoying the computer and the potential it has for the individual (as in me – a writer) to blossom, where appearance or education or contacts of an individual provided leverage. Now, anyone, short, large, or high school drop out, who has a nitch, can become successful via the internet, without all the superficial garb that limits the individual. The computer and technology has the power to equalize and I like that. Thanks for your valuable blog and if you get a chance, I’d like a link or a contact to get detailed information regarding your book/ebook formating service. Thanks and have a great weekend.
    Jeff Bennington
    Author of The Rumblin’ & Killing the Giants

    • Joel Friedlander

      For instance, this incredible, powerful, intimate and social activity of blogging we owe completely to the digital life—that’s an advance too, isn’t it? I don’t think I want to go backwards, but taking a glance back sometimes can remind me of things I had forgotten to think about. Thanks for your inquiry, Jeff, I’ll answer your inquiry privately.

  8. Ivo Quartiroli

    I appreciate your technical articles and even more the reflective ones.

    Social connections, finance, work, research, news, dating, sexual arousal, entertainment, shopping are just some of the activities that have moved massively to the Net. Those areas of our lives require different inner qualities of our souls as well as different external settings (houses, offices, laboratories, outdoors, beds).

    But when we are in front of a screen, we activete only a limited set of our inner skills, mostly the ones who call for speed, efficiency, rationality, while our bodies are neglected.

    This is what I call “The Digitization of Reality”, a chapter of my upcoming (self-published) book. The digitization of reality is nothing less but the obvious consequence of centuries of separation between body and mind, where the mind is regarded as the only path to knowledge.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Ivo, your book sounds interesting.

      …where the mind is regarded as the only path to knowledge…

      And the only source of personal identity as well. Something may be missing, yes? Thanks for your comment.



  1. Tweets that mention I Am My Keyboard, meditating on life in the digital age — The Book Designer -- Topsy.com - [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lee Purcell. Lee Purcell said: RT @JFbookman: I Am My Keyboard: Digitization…

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