Friday, April 25, 2008

Hegemonic Keyboards (Part II in a never-ending pop-pedagogical series)

Hegemony is a seemingly simple concept that is often difficult to get across to people. Developed most intensely by the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci, it's essentially the "soft" side of the state that comes to the fore in liberal democracies. Instead of simply using brute force to control the mass of people (as was done in previous social formations and is still done in many places today), most capitalists lead through ideology. In the place of repressive force, we instead have schools that emphasize timeliness and obedience to authority, churches that emphasize accepting one's place in life, a media that posits ours as the best nation in the world, etc. Hegemony refers to the notion that through these ideological apparatuses people are not only conditioned to accept the world as it is, but to see it as the only world possible, no mater how irrational or dangerous that world may actually be. Thus, force can be reserved only for the few who don't get it, while the majority would never even think of rebelling.

The standard QWERTY keyboard is a great example. Though it's hard to ascribe to it the same importance as the imperialist capitalist powers that Gramsci was discussing, it's still a great example of hegemony.

Why? Two words, my good friend: CAPS LOCK.

I just used the caps lock button to write that, and it marks the first time in my life I've ever intentionally used it. Think about it yourself -- when is the last time you meant to use the caps lock button? Better yet, how many times in your life have you ever meant to use it? And now contrast that with how many times you've accidentally hit it and been really annoyed. My ratio between accidental strokes of the caps lock key to intentional ones is roughly 1,067,592:1.

Not only is a completely useless button (there are already two shift keys, which fulfill the exact same function), but it also gets some of the most prime real estate on the keyboard. Right next to A, the third most commonly used letter in the English language.

Why? Why put the most useless button next to one of the most commonly used? Why, because the QWERTY keyboard has achieved a hegemonic position amongst keyboards. Even though in many ways its designed is fundamentally flawed (it was actually originally designed to slow the pace of typing, after all), it is rarely questioned. Because of its hegemonic position, most people have a difficult time imagining any other keyboard design.

So there you have it, hegemony explained. And in the process, we've discovered the first priority of the revolution: to abolish the caps lock key.

Incidentally, I just found out that next spring I'll be teaching my very own course for the first that on your calendars


Quaking Aspen said...

wow, you just blew my mind a little bit. :-D

Jon said...

Join the movement:

Woz said...

Awesome...thanks for the heads-up, Jon