We all have a unique narrative arc regarding our digital evolution. I would even venture to suggest that much like our fingerprints, no two narratives look exactly alike. As one who began her journey in the late 60s and 70s, my perspective will reflect the time in history for which certain things, such as television sets, were securely in the ground – a ubiquitous part of our daily existence. This ground is better understood in the context of what Marshall McLuhan termed the figure-ground phenomena (as cited in Ohler, 2010, p.17). Eventually, we get to the point in our existence where certain items or ideas move below our level of awareness – they are there, but we just do not notice them. The figure, however, has our attention. We are aware of new, emerging things and ideas within our environment. This is certainly the case were technology is concerned. The World Book Encyclopedia reported that by 1960, nearly 60 million television sets were in 90 percent of American homes. By time I was starting junior high school in the late 70s, microwave ovens were firmly in the figure as an emerging innovation still unaffordable for most households – a novelty. To place my journey in perspective, I will follow the evolution of the typewriter and its keyboard, which has remained virtually unchanged. The evolution of the typewriter, word processor and eventually, the personal computer, no matter how advanced, all maintained the keyboard I grew up with and learned to use.
According to Wikipedia, the first commercially available typewriter was created in the late 1860s. Christopher L. Sholes and Carlos Glidden, recognizing that previous version presenting problems with keys jamming, developed the “QWERTY” system as a way of arranging letters on the keyboard (Encyclopedia.com). As I type this article, I look down, and sure enough, that is exactly what I see on my Apple MacBook Pro Laptop. Those of us born in the mid 1960s certainly remember typewriters as part of the ground although far fewer were in homes as compared with television sets. Many of our mothers were master typist and their skills often earned them positions as secretaries. It is no surprise that many of the early ads featured women in this role and men, if they were used in such ads, were depicted as the boss. Later ads would feature men, mostly in scientific roles. A 1980s ad featuring William Shatner certainly appealed to us via his iconic role as Capt. James T. Kirk of the Star Trek series (see below).
It was not until the late 70s that my mother brought home our first typewriter. It was
an IBM Selectric. You remember, the ones with the ball. These were new and exciting and in the figure as the latest technology. They were electric, could undo mistakes, and were the coolest method for communicating in writing for my household. My mother took it out of the box and sat it on the table. She plugged it in, loaded a single sheet of paper, and demonstrated its abilities as my sisters, my brother and I watched in amazement. Thus began my journey with learning the QWERTY system and the technological advances that would enter my existence as part of the figure and ultimately, moving quietly into the ground.
Although I never became the elite typist my mother was, I did learn to use the typewriter keyboard as most kids did – via a typewriting class in high school. It would not be until my early years in college that I would experience the next big thing in written communication. I bought, for a very reasonable price, a Smith-Corona Word Processor. On that tiny view screen I could now see the words before they were applied to the actual paper. The keyboard had maintained the QWERTY system so there was not much of a learning curve for using this device. Also of note, is that this device, unlike the typewriter, did not rely on one letter at a time being typed unto a sheet of paper. So why maintain the QWERTY system? My guess would be that this system was already so ingrained in the ground, that changing it would create more issues than it would solve. My joy in having use of this device would be short lived as the personal computer was becoming more affordable, and it was becoming more difficult to find the cartridges I needed for my word processor.
My mother was the first in our family to buy a personal computer. Many of us used them at work, but they remained beyond our financial means for ownership. It was about this time that I remember TV ads for America Online (AOL) and media attention about the information super highway (aka the Interet/World Wide Web) garnering a great deal of attention. It was certainly on my mind, and as I sit here typing in May of 2015, I cannot help but contemplate the future of technology. Will we still be using the most popular letter organizational system, whether on computers, tablets or mobile phones, the QWERTY system? As Ohler (2010, p.18) posited, "If there is one requirement for being a committed, effective digital citizen, is the ability to see technology as figure against the greater ground of life and be able to focus on what we see so that we can understand its impacts on ourselves, our communities, and the environment." Our digital lives will continue to evolve. How and in what ways, one can only imagine. No matter what comes into the figure tomorrow, as media psychologist, we must be ready to upgrade our digital literacy and share our knowledge with the up and coming generation. Future research could address methods for educating each new generation as they are born into a digital environment that for them will be ground. Is it possible, as my mother used to say, to help them see the forest for the trees?
Ohler, J. (2010). Digital Community, Digital Citizen. Thousand Oaks, CA. Crown Press.
"Television." The World Book Encyclopedia. Chicago: World Book Inc., 2003: 119.