While journalists might mourn the demise of a basic element of written thought, computer scientists say we have it all wrong: in the realm of the Internet, the Tab key is king. “From an application standpoint—the Internet, forms, the way data is stored—it’s the most important key,” says Lee. “It used to be a policeman, all about rules. Now it can take you anywhere on the screen and be okay. It’s the tour guide.”

Says Morris: “It’s a promotion, not a demotion.”

Understanding how and why Tab abandoned writers is not quite the same as knowing what to do about it, and all this talk about style hides a darker cascade of concerns about content: the flush-left web design encourages shorter paragraphs because long ones look wrong; short paragraphs lead to shallow writing; shallow writing leads to shallow thinking. Before you can say complexities of the economic crisis, we are suffering from a national attention-deficit disorder. Nobody can think about anything long enough to fix it.

But Jon Carroll, whose 850-word column for The San Francisco Chronicle has appeared five days a week since 1982, is philosophical about the long-term consequences of short-bite style. “I don’t think technology dictates ideas, which is very un-McLuhan of me,” he says. “Maybe people will write in shorter paragraphs, but what the hell—if you made Emerson write in short grafs he’d still be Emerson. Brevity is the soul of everything and the enemy of corporate-speak.”

If that’s not solace enough, there’s always the loyalist reader, who tends to have old-school tastes. M. Scott Havens, the vice-president of digital operations and strategy at The Atlantic, is something of a media diplomat; while he has never worked in traditional print, he proudly subscribes to two newspapers. He expects that people who want long, in-depth coverage will continue to do so, and he finds odd comfort in the fact that there have never been a lot of them. “The influentials—smart, affluent, educated people—are going to carve out time to read the deep think-piece about health-care legislation,” he says. “Curiosity isn’t going to go away.”

Or, as Carroll puts it, “We’ll have as many deep thinkers as we have now. They’re always a tiny minority.”

Gould believes they’re going to want the coverage they’re used to, arranged in the indented paragraphs they’re used to. “The demand’s going to be there, so tech designers with the most foresight are going to make sure to preserve the Tab key.”

If he has any spare time after his day job ends, that is.

 

Karen Stabiner is the author of eight books and the editor of an essay anthology. She is an adjunct professor at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism.