Illustration: Brennon Leman

Bad Ideas

Experts Say Your Fingers Can Type 24/7, Forever, Until You Die

There is no relief on the horizon

Welcome to Bad Ideas, a column in which we examine the practical limits of technology by considering the things you could do, and then investigating exactly why you shouldn’t. Because you can still learn from mistakes you’ll never make.

OnOn the internet there exists a group of people who really love typing. Not writing or posting, but the raw, mechanical act of typing. They spend hours playing competitive typing games like TypeRacer and Nitro Type in an effort to push the limits of what’s possible on a keyboard.

Some, like Sean Wrona — who brought competitive typing briefly into the mainstream after winning the Ultimate Typing Championship at SXSW 2010 — are sprint typists, trying to type as fast and as accurately as humanly possible in short-timed segments. Wrona pecked out an average of 163 words per minute in his 4-minute championship run, back in 2010.

Endurance typists, on the other hand, are pushing the boundary on something far more unknown — just how long can a human physically type for? In these typing marathons, endurance typists try to maximize the amount of time they spend typing in 24 hours. And some, in order to break records, type far longer than the 24-hour period. One typist, Vielle, who requested we not use their last name to maintain their privacy, typed for a reported 36 hours straight in 2017.

Vielle’s record shows that it is possible for a human to type nonstop for more than a day, but it prompts a question that has no easy or simple answer: Can a human type forever?

The hardest part of marathon typing, say competitors, isn’t pacing efforts or physical pain, but the effort of staying mentally focused. “It certainly will be every bit of hell if you dull through every second and keystroke,” says Vielle, who had just graduated from high school when they broke the marathon record in 2017. To keep from spacing out, Vielle usually watches videos on the side as they type at a “reasonable” pace of 100 words per minute.

While the average person probably cannot type fast enough to induce any sort of noticeable muscle fatigue — maxing out somewhere around 75 to 90 words per minute — sprint typists are known to average upwards of 160 or 180 words per minute.

“Typing doesn’t appear to be that much of a bad boy.”

At these speeds your muscles are likely using enough energy to physically wear you out, explains Peter Wallace Johnson, an ergonomics researcher at the University of Washington.

“There’s certain types of energy that are readily digestible form for your muscles — kind of like liquid sugar,” says Johnson. “That’s a limited supply, so you could probably be limited in how much you could speed type because you’re going to use that very precious and short amount of energy.”

Vielle suggests mashing gibberish on your keyboard as fast as possible. You’ll probably start to feel a burning in your forearms and palms after only a few minutes, to the point where you’ll need to stop.

Johnson doesn’t think nonstop typing could lead to irreparable damage. At least, not in the traditional, repetitive motion injury-sense — though marathon sessions would certainly increase your chances of injury.

“Over the last 30 years what we’ve found out is typing doesn’t appear to be that much of a bad boy,” he says. “What we’ve learned is this low-force dynamic activity is probably not too bad, done in moderation, eight hours a day or so.”

But past eight hours a day, well, we’re not really sure what might happen. Is it possible to type your fingers into oblivion as one popular gif suggests? While modern science has yet to tackle the question of “can you literally type your freaking fingers off?” we can look to existing research on how blunt-force trauma works. Essentially, the only way a blunt-force impact causes the skin to tear is if the material underneath — be that liquid or bone — can no longer be compressed by the force of the impact, at which point it then bursts through the skin.

Typing, unsurprisingly, is not violent enough to cause such trauma to the body. Typing, explains Johnson, is one of the easiest things we can do. One widely-cited 1997 study found that, depending on the keyboard, the average keystroke requires just 3% of our maximum strength. “It’s not a whole heck of a lot of effort,” says Johnson.

Unlike gripping a mouse, which causes a low, constant tension on the muscles and tendons known as “static loading,” typing is characterized by an on-off, on-off motion known as “dynamic loading.” In between keystrokes, our muscles get these brief moments to rest. This, in turn, increases circulation, which removes metabolic byproducts and thus allows us to keep pecking away.

Not only is typing an easy, sustainable motion for our body, it also requires very little energy. While simple activities like walking require a not-insignificant amount of calories, thanks to the size of your leg muscles, the same isn’t true for something like typing. “Your finger muscles are really small relative to the mass of your body, so I don’t think you’re going to run out of energy,” says Johnson. “When you get to really low levels of muscle activity there is kind of no known limits.”

Research around the health impacts of typing all operates on the assumption that we all need to go home, eat, and sleep at the end of the day. To talk about the limits of typing is really to talk about the limits set by basic biological needs. “I think it truly comes down to a cognitive perspective,” says Johnson. “I have a feeling that your nervous system is going to shut you down before your muscles shut you down. “

Based on what we know about how long humans can go without water, food, and sleep (short answer: We really don’t know a lot!) if you did absolutely nothing but type on a keyboard for as long as possible you will either fall asleep, or die. Which is true for just about anything in life. Whether we’re typing or not, eventually we all must die.

I write about technology. Regular contributor to Medium’s OneZero. Seen in Vice, Businessweek, The Outline and others. he/him.

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