Image: Wikimedia Commons
The computer mouse turned 50 last December, which as far as I can tell makes it one of the longest long cons in recent history. Indeed, that small digital interface piloted by your dominant hand may very well have been the greatest grift ever devised until the dongle hit the scene. It is a decadent device that is superfluous in almost every detail; an emblem of the pure excess that has turned our modern society’s beating heart into a putrid mess of rotting flesh.
Yes, dear reader, the computer mouse is a scam.
I can forgive you for not having realized this terrible truth sooner. Day in and day out, we succumb to our habits and use the computer mouse with reckless abandon. From a young age we are taught to use its deceptively simple, three-button interface as a prerequisite to computing. We are indoctrinated into the Order of the Mouse before we are old enough to question its necessity. We endlessly spin the scroll wheel as if our own lives are without end, knowing full well that this device is bad for our health. We use the mouse to make money for ourselves, even though the creator of the device never saw a penny for his invention.
I, too, was more than willing to drift through each day with a veil over my eyes until one recent afternoon when my computer mouse ran out of batteries. Rather than simply walking to get another pair of AA batteries from the storage room, however, I resolved to never use a mouse again—a solemn vow I kept for exactly one (1) work week.
Over the course of the next five days, I relied solely on my keyboard to navigate the web and my local hard drive. It was a limited form of digital detox, a way of trying to understand the way people used computers before the computer mouse became widely adopted for commercial machines in the 1980s.
If I had to describe the experience of computing without a mouse in a word, I’d say it was fucking fantastic.
The “Mother of All Demos,” in which Douglas Engelbart, the creator of the computer mouse, unveils its potential for the first time in 1968.
It took about a day and a half before I had memorized all the shortcuts that I would be using on a regular basis. All the other important shortcuts I wrote down on a notepad I kept on my desk for reference. I also had to do a little set up for certain applications, such as GMail, which doesn’t have many of its most useful shortcuts turned on by default, such as the ability to select all unread messages or the ability to move between messages with only a single keystroke.
In general, I found the most useful shortcuts to be:
- switch between windows easily (alt+tab)
- switch between web browser tabs (ctrl+tab)
- open and close web browser tabs (ctrl + t and ctrl+w, respectively)
- switch between virtual desktops (win+ctrl+left/right on Windows, ctrl+alt+up/down on Linux)
- open the Run window in Windows (win+r)
Fortunately most shortcuts are the same across the apps (Google Drive/Microsoft Office, Google Chrome/Firefox) and operating systems (Windows and Linux) I use at work. The notable exceptions being manipulating and creating virtual desktops.
By the end of my week without a mouse, many of the shortcuts were already beginning to feel like second nature. I found that they saved me a ton of time, especially on tedious tasks like deleting emails. Indeed, one shortcut evangelist suggests that switching to keyboard shortcuts in Gmail saved him as much as 60 hours per year. If nothing else, it made the experience of using a laptop way less miserable because I didn’t have to touch the touchpad.
I found the experience a little like learning to eat with a fork in your non-dominant hand. This is a lifehack that the Europeans have known forever, but Americans for whatever reason refuse to adopt it. So instead of eating with our fork in our non-dominant hand, we instead choose to deal with the awkward business of switching our fork to our other hand every time we want to use the knife. Likewise, relying on keyboard shortcuts means you don’t have to remove a hand from the keyboard to navigate with a mouse, saving you time and energy.
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Admittedly, not everything was rosy without a mouse. I haunt a number of forums and found it a little tedious to have to ctrl+f whatever item I wanted to “click” on. Similarly, doing anything that involved image editing in Photoshop was basically impossible. I don’t game on my PC, but from what I hear, this would also be quite difficult without a mouse.
All in all, forcing myself to use only my keyboard for a week has been a major improvement in my life. I still use a mouse on occasion for some tasks, but for the most part I navigate the web and my computer using only my keyboard.
In retrospect it felt like I hadn’t really known how to use a computer until I started relying on shortcuts. The irony is that the computer mouse greatly facilitated the adoption of personal computing by making interfacing with the devices more intuitive, but at the same time forced the user to go through more steps that could otherwise be accomplished with a few keystrokes.