I spent last week falling down the dark, LED-adorned, discotheque-esque internet hole of custom mechanical keyboards.
I'd known the hole was there. I live in the world of developers where mechanical keyboards are a unifying community obsession. In a profession marked by immaterial creation, keyboards are one of the few tangible pieces of professional equipment they can fuss over. And fuss they do.
They debate the optimal amount of 'travel distance' a key should move when pressed. They have personal preferences for the type of tactile and audible feedback delivered by each key, a quality controlled by a colour-coded range of "switches." Red switches are 'linear and smooth,' brown switches have a slight bump that 'actuate' with 45g of applied force, and blue switches make an obnoxious clacking noise like a sixties typewriter. They arrange lush coloured keycaps into gorgeous palettes, all with blank keycaps because no real typist needs lettering. They reprogramme the keys and write macros to run on a single keystroke. Sets of RGB LEDs under the boards put on light shows worthy of a 1980's acid rave.
Understandably, navigating this array of options requires plenty of guidance. The internet swells with top 10 lists, best of lists, ultimate guides, complete guides, and updated guides for 2021 leading you through the labyrith of choices to find your Perfect Keyboard Design. Perky microcelebrities have built whole YouTube empires by reviewing the specific audio qualities of each switch type and brand. The 828,000 members of the r/MechanicalKeyboards subreddit curate an extensive wiki to answer common questions.
And all that only covers the introductory level for people buying moderately priced pre-made units. Dedicated keyboarders stock up on their own base plates, key stabilizers, and printed circuit boards to solder everything together in exactly the way they want. It would probably be cheaper to just get the luxury $356 Moonlander Mark I or the $570 Esrille than to DIY it, but that's not the point. Art has little concern for price comparisons.
It's hard to believe that having a glowing rainbow pulse under your fingers is going to help you focus on structuring a user authentication flow, but no one is under the illusion these boards are about productivity.
They are gloriously anti-utilitarian. Developers will certainly rant about how the ergonomic layout of their Ergodox allows them to type 120 words per minute, but the level of flamboyant decoration happening in this space is undeniably about something much grander than efficiency.
These keyboards are expressive extensions of the self in the same way skateboard decks, ball gowns, tattoo sleeves, and instagrammable interior designs are. People have been painting their bodies with chalk and clay since neolithic times. The modern body simply includes mechanical machines.