Bernard is particularly offended by what can only be called the “stealth indent,” which makes the old-fashioned print advertorial seem innocent by comparison. “I went to a link and read the first three lines,” he says, “and suddenly it reconfigured itself to wrap around an ad that intrudes after I’ve started. Instead of reading something that’s thirty picas wide, now I’m reading something that’s fifteen picas wide. It may be temporary, but they really do capture you that way: the ad comes in as a delay and intrudes, and reorients your reading. It was clever, but also totally annoying.”
Pauses—the places where writers used to insert a single line space to define a section of a longer piece—are anybody’s guess, design-wise. Now that the line space has replaced Tab, what replaces the line space? Belkin uses a row of asterisks. San Francisco Chronicle columnist Jon Carroll uses boldface to open a new section. Even # and + find that they have more work than they used to. The death of Tab could signal a dingbat renaissance, and certainly an outcry from dingbats, demanding a new, more dignified title.
The end of prose as we know it—indented—turns out to be the work of the banking industry. Forty years ago, banks were early adopters of computerized systems that enabled them to build a big customer database. Back then, basic computer language assigned a box for each character or number in a piece of information, making sure to allocate enough boxes to accommodate long names. When a client like Steve Lee came along, there was lots of wasted space. “If they left fifteen boxes for the first name, there would be ten empty boxes for mine,” says Lee, an associate professor of information technology at Colorado Mountain College. Multiply those blanks by a bank’s total number of customers, and there were “lots and lots of empty spaces in the data, taking up room that computers didn’t have back then.”
They needed what Lee calls a “delimiter,” a keystroke that told the computer to close up a field early and jump to the next one. At first, they used characters like commas and semicolons, but as databases expanded to include memo fields, a new challenge arose: to avoid any keystroke that might appear in the memo field. That eliminated every letter of the alphabet, symbols, punctuation marks, even the space bar, which defines the blank between words. Keys cannot multitask because a computer can’t distinguish between a comma that sets off a phrase and a comma that’s a signal to move on.
The only remaining candidates for the job were the Tab key and the Enter key. Enter already had a job starting new lines in the memo field. So people who cared about data and not about paragraphs gave Tab a new assignment, years before the World Wide Web embraced the idea.
It turned out to be a career-saving move, as the tabbed indent was destined to become a casualty of technology. Computers are control freaks, as anyone who has ever mistyped a web address will attest. They simply refuse to acknowledge a random blob of white space at the start of a paragraph; they require more exacting instructions. “It is better for the computer to be explicitly told, ‘This is the beginning of a paragraph’ and ‘This is the end,’” says Robert Morris, emeritus professor of computer science at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. “A computer is completely rule-based about format. It can’t tell what that white space is—and if you put in a Tab to indent something like a long quote, you’re only fine until you have to edit, and the indents go all over the place because you’ve added something.
“The computer’s not as smart as someone sitting at a Mergenthaler Linotype was,” Morris says.
There it is: in the hot-type era, Linotype machines didn’t use Tab keys for indents because human intelligence took care of them. Computers don’t use Tab keys for indents, or bother with paragraph indents at all, because artificial intelligence gets flustered by that kind of white space.