How to Look at Keys

© 2017 Elijah Bassett, Ryerson University.

If you speak to people who grew up in certain times or places, you may hear about how, in the good old days, nobody used to lock their doors because everybody knew and trusted each other.  Just as society may have changed in this respect, the form and function of keys has also been in a state of change over time, especially in the past few decades.

For most of their long history, keys have been entirely physical objects, interacting with locks in a purely mechanical way (Vikan).  Although there are several kinds of keys that do not all work the same way, they have all historically been safely situated within the visible, physical world.  Their physicality gave, and gives, a sense of access as something that can be personally owned, and either kept or given to others as the case may be.  For example, if you knew exactly who had a key to your home, you could be secure in the knowledge that nobody else did, and that you were therefore in control of your space.

The photo is a close-up of a key that says "DO NOT DUPLICATE" in capital letters.
(c) Mike. “Key.” Flickr, 18 March 2005, photo. Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic.

Of course, this was never inherently true, since if it is possible to make one key, it is necessarily possible to make more identical ones.  This became more and more the case as time went on, with the 20th century invention of key duplicators, which can now be found in many hardware stores where one can trade money for copies of a key.  Even with this development, however, physical keys are visually distinct from money, despite occasionally being used in similar ways, as with vending machines or pay toilets.  But in the past few decades, this has started to change, and the way we see keys is likely to change with it.

With the advent of key cards, the concept of the key has lost some of its physicality in an age of information networks and invisible signals.  Key cards’ visual and functional similarity to credit cards turns access into a potentially more transactional concept.  We see this especially with cards that indeed do involve automatic payments for access to spaces and services, such as Ontario’s Presto transit cards.  Rather than being a purely physical object that can be fully controlled by its owner as in the days of old, the digital key puts information and power in the hands of the card’s producer and primes its owner to think of access as a commodity when they perform the same actions with keys as they do with their debit card.

Of course, physical keys still exist and are widespread.  But how might things change as more and more doors are held shut by sensors instead of the locks we know now?  More importantly, how might it change the way we see access when it is no longer determined by physical ownership of an object, but by our position in a network of information over which we have little real control?

Works Cited

Elkins, James.  How to Use Your Eyes.   Routledge, 2009,

Mike.  “Key.”  Flickr, 18 March 2005, Used under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic.

Vikan, Gary.  “Keys.” The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium.  Oxford University Press. 2005.  Oxford Reference, Accessed 6 February 2017.

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