What goes on in the modern office? Most readers probably know the answer; many of our readers may in fact work in offices. But the question comes up because Dr. Boli’s keyboard started screaming a while ago.

A little background may be necessary. Our story begins with the IBM PC-AT.

Dr. Boli never liked the IBM PC when it was new, and he does not like it any better now that it is an antique. He never liked the DOS operating system. He does not miss the good old days of having to write a little program, in effect, just to move a file, and he is not about to wax rhapsodic over the joys of monospaced green text on a black screen.

But the IBM PC-AT had one advantage that its successors cannot boast: it came with the best computer keyboard in the world, the famous Model M. What made it the best was the “buckling spring” in each keyswitch, which—without going deeply into the mechanics of it—causes a click that you can hear and feel at the exact moment when the contact is made and the signal is sent to the computer. No other keyswitch does that.(1) The purpose of the design is to make typing quick and accurate by making it instinctive.

You can still get a lineal descendant of that keyboard. A group of refugees from IBM bought the design and the tooling and still makes keyboards with buckling springs in a little town in Kentucky called Lexington, where keyboard-making is the main traditional craft of the hardy mountain folk. Dr. Boli does most of his writing on one of these keyboards when he writes directly on a computer, and he will even mention the company’s name: Unicomp, which is exactly the name Dr. Boli would invent if he were writing a comic novel about a group of former IBM employees who founded their own company. Unicomp has updated the plastic housing in its “New Model M” (although you can still get the “Classic” if you’re a purist), but the springs still buckle under those keys.

“Mechanical keyboards” are a big fad right now, and most of them use a different kind of switch. In fact there is a bewildering variety of switches in mechanical keyboards, but the ones that work most like the Model M have switches that click almost at the point of electrical contact. Dr. Boli did some research into these alternatives when his keyboard started screaming.

Dr. Boli is not gentle with keyboards. He learned to type on a mechanical typewriter, and any computer keyboard that cannot take the light but percussive strokes that make a typewriter go will not survive long on his desk. The Model M took years of writing thousands of words a day, but even it finally succumbed and began to scream. That is, it began to repeat the letter E continuously, line after line of “eeeeeeeeeeee,” which is not the sophisticated kind of literature the readers have come to expect from this Magazine. E is Dr. Boli’s favorite letter, the one he uses more often than any other, but he is not quite so stuck on it as all that.

Well, a keyboard that had taken so much percussion with so little complaint was entitled to a nervous breakdown after so many years. Dr. Boli had one of the backup keyboards brought from storage, but it was an inferior rubber-dome keyboard, not fit for a good typist to use for a long time. Here was an opportunity to see what other people said about keyboards, and whether there was anything else worth trying in the great universe of keyboards.

It turns out that the Internet is full of advice about keyboards, and site after site says the same thing: keyboards with audible feedback are best for typing, and you can’t use them in an office. Apparently American offices have all become Trappist monasteries in the past couple of decades, because the sound of typing is considered too offensive to tolerate. It should be pointed out that this is not a typewriter sound, like the sound you young people remember from old movies about newspaper reporters; it is a click, not a smack or a thump or a kaboom. But over and over, the same advice:

“Clicky switches aren’t normally well-suited to office environments…”

“…the clicking sound can be annoying or distracting for co-workers…”

“Orange switches are tactile, but barely make any sound, making them better-suited to office environments…”

“Although you may like the click sound, using a mechanical keyboard with clicky switches at the office or in a library may not be a good idea, as they are loud and may irritate those around you.”

“All Linear switches have quieter keystrokes, which ensure you don’t get called into the HR office often or get rebuked by your co-workers.”

Called into the HR office! Dr. Boli began imagining a job interview. “So can you explain why you left your previous job?” “Well, I was fired for typing. But I won’t do that again.”

Is silence really so universal in the modern office?

Well, here Dr. Boli has to admit that he has wandered into some modern offices—admittedly as a visitor. Modern offices have characteristic sounds. The endless drone of the top-40 station on the loudspeaker. The hiss of the espresso machine. The bellow of the vice president chewing out the temporary administrative assistant. The crash of breaking down silos.

All these are louder than the sound of typing. So what makes typing such an offensive sound?

Dr. Boli will open that question to the audience. He has his own hypothesis. The sound of typing is offensive because anyone who is typing is getting measurable work done, and that is an offense against orthodoxy, which says that time in the office must be spent optimizing performance, differentiating behaviors, focusing on the mission, being vulnerable, demonstrating agility, impacting collective growth, embracing change, and being cultural transformation stewards.(2) The sound of quantifiable work being accomplished is therefore an implied threat to overturn the establishment.

Meanwhile, Dr. Boli is typing this article on an exact replacement for his late Unicomp keyboard, and he has not heard the neighbors complaining yet.



  1. von Hindenburg says:

    I’d submit that people find loud typing distracting because it is a noise that easily drives its way into your consciousness, perhaps especially when you’re trying to concentrate. This is fine when you are listening to your own typing, but when you’re listening to Karen Over-the-Wall, her bursts of staccato noise begin and end and begin again in no discernable rythem to your ear. You can’t tune the noise out as you could a more constant drone.

    I say this as someone who loves my manual typewriter and once set up my computer to make a clickity clack noise when I typed.

    Plus, everyone knows that at least 70% of the furious typing in an office isn’t work. It’s writing angry comments on the Youtube videos and Facebook posts that the algorithm has selected for you to generate maximum angry interaction.

  2. RepubAnon says:

    I expect the concerns regarding loudly clicking keyboards are the invention of someone’s marketing department

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