Over the course of my adult life, I’ve bought quite a few assorted gizmos meant to make various kitchen tasks easier. Some have been rather silly or worked poorly. But many of them have actually been pretty handy. There was the vegetable spiralizer that made turning zucchini into whisker-fine veggie noodles a breeze. And there was the slap-chop, which does exactly what it sounds like—you slap it and it chops down anything beneath its blades into perfectly diced little pieces. And then there’s the whole bevy of knife sharpeners, honers, and grinders.
The thing is, my experience with all of these gadgets seems to always follow the same pattern—I buy them, I use them, I love them, and I find the perfect home for them within my kitchen cabinets. But here’s where things get dicey (you see what I did there?). It seems that invariably, I find myself reaching for the gadgets less and less. I’ll be meticulously and tearfully slicing up an onion with a simple knife, only to realize halfway through the job that the slap-chop would have been faster and easier. So why didn’t I use it? Eventually, I’ll realize that I haven’t used the once beloved device in over a year and give it away in hopes that a new home will appreciate it better than I did.
I’ve been through this cycle enough times to have begun to analyze it a bit, and here’s what I’ve come up with: It’s all about how I organize my kitchen. It’s a pretty familiar setup, I think. Basic utensils in the topmost, center-most drawer; knives and spatulas in the next most central drawer; everything else organized by decreasing frequency of use in less and less accessible locations. So when I get that shiny new kitchen gizmo, I’m faced with two problems. First is that all the really easy to access places are already taken by tools I know I use regularly. And second is that the devices tend to be a bit on the large side by virtue of their fancy internal workings. Which means that they invariably end up stored in a cabinet that’s either high up or that necessitates getting down on one knee to access.
And then inertia takes over. When I need to cut some peppers, I reach for the knife because it’s in the closest drawer and because muscle memory is already programmed to do it without me even thinking. Sometimes I’ll remember my fancy gadget when I’m halfway done chopping and decide it’s not worth dirtying another dish to switch then. Eventually, I forget the new tool altogether and the cycle continues.
But, you know, the kitchen isn’t the only pace where this happens.
When you’re on a computer and you want to type a character, it’s easy, right? You just tap the correct key on your keyboard. Or occasionally you have to hold shift while pressing another key, but that’s easy. Except, wait, the standard qwerty keyboard doesn’t contain nearly all the characters and glyphs that are possible.
Some of those other possible glyphs and characters are really useful. English is full of loanwords like “resumé”, which is really difficult to type properly because of the accented E. Then there’s punctuation like the em-dash or the proper ellipsis character. Or how about spaces? My typography students are always shocked when I show them no less than six possible types of spaces, which is really only a subset of the most common ones.
But the physical limitations of the keyboard make it impractical to have all possible characters on a key—there just aren’t enough keys. In a language like Chinese, which has logographic writing and over four-thousand written characters, space limitations make keyboard use for the primary writing system untenable, and an alternate system like Pinyin is used instead. But in English and other languages that use variations of the Latin alphabet, the keyboard is just good enough that it becomes easy to satisfice and work only with what is closest to hand, or rather closest to fingertips.
So just as in the kitchen, muscle memory and inertia often make us forget entirely about the better and more accurate tools we have available. “Resumé” becomes “resume” (as in, I will resume using fancy letters later) and “naïve” becomes “naive”; we use a minus sign for an em-dash and may not even know the interrobang even exists (can you believe it‽).
As a side note, this particular sticky wicket is perhaps one of the only ways in which an on-screen keyboard like the ones on our phones are an improvement on physical keyboards. The keys are tiny and autocorrect can be aggressively incorrect, but it’s easy enough to long press on a character and see what alternate and related characters are available.
There’s one other place that comes to mind when I think of all the fantastic tools that don’t get used because they are hard to reach: the world of semantic HTML. The HTML language is all about indicating meaning. We use HTML elements to mark-up (the M in HTML) content as a way to clearly show the role and purpose of that content. And we have a whole cornucopia of elements to give highly granular meanings, like the
abbr element for abbreviations or
ins element to show when new content has been added. And then there are additional attributes like ARIA or microformats that can add even more context or detail to our content.
A coder writing HTML can use these all easily enough if she is knowledgeable about the language (though, sadly, too few coders really are)—all she has to do is type the tags. But most content isn’t posted to the web by folks writing raw HTML. It’s written in WYSIWYG editors in content management systems and blogging platforms and social media posting boxes. And not only are most of the HTML elements not represented in the interface for those tools, but most users are utterly unaware of their existence nor why they are important.
And so the vast majority of HTML on the web is made of of paragraphs, strong tags, and em tags, often with some inline CSS thrown in by the WYSIWYG when the user made some attempt at adding hierarchy or visual order to the content.
So do I have a solution for the problem of the tendency not to use a tool that is out of reach and out of sight? Not at all! I rearrange my office over and over again looking for a way to put the best tool closest to hand. But the closer I put one tool, the farther another one ends up.
The best, I suppose, that we can do is to educate ourselves and remind ourselves what we have to work with. I’m hopeful that one day our computers will be smart enough to offer us the best tool for the moment just as we need it. That is, if we don’t forget that they exist before we can train our computers to do it.