The Speculist: A Post-QWERTY World


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A Post-QWERTY World

GeekPress links to an interesting story about the frustration that Dvorak keyboard enthusiasts feel about having their preferred keyboard layout left out of most smart phones. Here's an interesting tidbit:

When American inventor Christopher Sholes developed the first modern typewriter in the 1860s, the keyboard layout was in alphabetical order. That was problematic: When two neighboring keys were pressed in rapid succession, the machine jammed. Mr. Sholes later rearranged the layout, placing the most commonly used keys away from each other. Like that, "qwerty" was born. The name comes from the first six keys on the upper left row of letters on the keyboard.

Now many of this have heard or read this before, but it bears repeating: the keyboard you are using was deliberately designed to be difficult to use. It was designed to make typing slow.

Probably the second or third implementation of typewriter technology overcame the key-sticking problem that originally led Sholes to take such drastic action. But by then the damage was done. QWERTY was established, and it has managed to hang in through the age of the IBM Selectric to the introduction of the personal computer and all the way to the iPhone.

Will we ever abandon QWERTY? That's a tough question. It's a well-established standard. And however effective a replacement standard (Dvorak or some other) might be, nobody wants to have to learn how to type on a keyboard with a different layout. We face a similar problem in the US with the metric system. The metric system is more logical, easier to learn, and much more widely accepted than the English system. But switching over would be a huge pain in the butt.

Now we could start teaching kids to use a new keyboard standard -- without burdening those of us who know the old way -- but that would require maintaining two standards. Our computers would support that just fine; unfortunately, we currently lack on-the-fly key relabeling. So in a two-standard world, keyboards would either be labeled confusingly with more than one letter on each key, or people would always be running the risk of having to use the wrong kind of keyboard. (Which of the two standards would a public kiosk use? What if you need to borrow your spouse's laptop?)

So I don't know. We might not get rid of QWERTY until we get rid of -- or massively reduce dependence on -- keyboards by way of the Conversational User Interface.

But all this QWERTY talk makes me wonder if there aren't a number of other QWERTies out there -- artifacts of a bygone era that provide clearly sub-optimal solutions, but that we keep around because of the enormous inertia associated with them. QWERTY is kind of a pure example because it was deliberately designed to be slow. The English measurement system was not designed to be quirky and confusing -- the folks who came up with it were doing the best they could -- and it only seems quirky and confusing when compared to a subsequent, more logical system.

Still, I think it's fair to say that the English measurement system is a QWERTY. And speaking of English QWERTies, how about English spelling? As many critics have pointed out over the years, our current spelling conventions are hardly the most efficient and logical way of expressing the language in writing:

Why does the English language have so many words that are difficult to spell? The main reason is that English has 1,100 different ways to spell its 44 separate sounds, more than any other language. Some of the results of this are:

Words that have the same sounds but are spelled differently,

Words that contain letters that have nothing to do with the way the words are pronounced,

Words that contain silent letters; that is, letters that must be included when you write the words even though they are not pronounced,

Spelling rules that have lists of exceptions - words that do not follow the rules and thus must be memorized separately.

But for all those problems, spelling would be a difficult problem to solve. Do you think a Dvorak keyboard looks strange? Do you find talk of liters and meters and degrees Celsius confusing? Well, that stuff is a piece of cake compared to the kinds of changes we would have to make in order to clean up English spelling.

Standards of various kinds are not the only QWERTies out there. There are other deeply embedded social norms that have achieved QWERTY-hood or that are well on their way to becoming QWERTies. How about the idea that everybody needs a land-line phone connection in his or her home? There is a growing group of folks who have decided that that's a QWERTY -- and they get by just fine with their mobile connection. Or how about the idea that having a job means showing up at an office (or other workplace) every day? As telecommuting presents itself as an increasingly viable option for more and more jobs, mandating employee presence at "the office" every day -- at least for certain occupations -- begins to look more and more QWERTY-like.

Our future of post-scarcity promises to turn our entire view of "employment" -- at least insofar as we have defined it as a prerequisite to earning a living -- into a QWERTY. It seems likely to me that there are a number of QWERTies lurking in our current educational and health care infrastructure.

Moreover, speaking of infrastructure, how many QWERTies are embedded in the technologies we rely on every day? How many QWERTies are there in your car, your telephone, your computer, your refrigerator?

And take it a step further -- what QWERTies are built right into the human machinery? I can think of at least one whopping QWERTY that we evolved ourselves into and that we would do well to be rid of. There must be others.

Let's discuss.


touchscreens can bring about the QWERTY end-game. the iphone could easily switch between the two layouts, and a forthcoming tablet or OLED keyboard or whatever could (more) easily make the switch.

The QWERTY history is emotionally satisfying but dubious; try the April 1990 Journal of Law and Economics -- THE FABLE OF THE KEYS or Reason Magazine's 1996 Typing Errors: The standard typewriter keyboard is Exhibit A in the hottest new case against markets. But the evidence has been cooked. I suspect that there some real "QWERTies" in your sense, but also false ones, and QWERTY itself may be among the latter. Perhaps a discussion should cover both.

I am typing in Dvorak right now at blinding speeds!

Tom --

The articles you link to raise questions about whether Dvorak is faster, but I don't see any refutation of the fact that Sholes deliberately spaced the keys farther apart as a means of avoiding the sticking problem.

Both authors seem to be primarily concerned with defending the free market from a charge of sticking the public with sub-optimal technology. My view is that superior solutions win out in the long term; however, technological superiority isn't the only criterion people look at when making a purchasing decision. Having worked in the software business for more than 20 years, I can tell you that -- irrespective of what economists might argue -- market dominance is at best an occasional indicator of technological elegance or capability.

Considering how much we've learned about ergonomics over the past few decades, it seems highly unlikely to me that QWERTY, Dvorak, or any keyboard layout from the 19th or first half of the 20th century is truly the optimal design.

I'm a programmer myself (and former comp-sci academic) and I'd certainly agree with your central claim that "market dominance is at best an occasional indicator...". Indeed, in the early 90s "" was my desktop PC, set up for dual-boot with DOS just as this Ubuntu laptop will still boot Vista if I need to test something. So I'm not about to argue that dominance proves superiority.
Still, the "Fable of the Keys" does a bit more than just indicate that the modern evidence for Dvorak superiority is weak-to-negligible, despite the clear fact that some people like it a lot. The article claims that QWERTY was not the result of a simple design decision ("deliberately designed to be slow", in your phrasing), but rather was the overall accepted victor of a lot of public contests against multiple keyboard designs. (Which did not include Dvorak, of course.) They claim:

These contests provided ample opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of alternative keyboard arrangements. That Qwerty survived significant challenges early in the history of typewriting demonstrates that it is at least among the reasonably fit, even if not the fittest that can be imagined.
Yes, QWERTY keys were placed in part to solve a problem of key-clash that no longer exists. The argument that this placement is actually a significant slowdown for average typists is not one for which I can find good support, and it does seem to have been selected for pretty good competitive reasons at the time. Now, it may still be one of the QWERTies you want to replace if there's something sufficiently better out there, but I wouldn't say that's been established already. Similarly with other candidate QWERTies; I'm personally happy with Centigrade, having grown up in Latin America, and this very morning I was telling a contractor that he didn't need to return the Canadian (made in China, I believe) geothermal-system thermostats that work in Centigrade but not when switched over to Fahrenheit. C is okay...but F is okay too, if you're not doing physics, and I don't think that learning F is one of the many major problems of our educational system. I suspect that the switching costs you're concerned with are usually fairly small, and that (as with VHS/Beta, where I personally had both for a while) the claim that "X is just overwhelmingly better, and doesn't get used because of lock-in" is one that needs careful justification each time. Sometimes that justification will work; I don't know how often.
Well, maybe someday I'll be able to get past editing in vi, which my fingers learned when I was a new asst prof in 1980. But I dunno. These newfangled systems like I really have the time? :-)

"Or how about the idea that having a job means showing up at an office (or other workplace) every day? As telecommuting presents itself as an increasingly viable option for more and more jobs, mandating employee presence at "the office" every day -- at least for certain occupations -- begins to look more and more QWERTY-like."

Telecommuting is an obvious adaptation in the information society in which we now live. Information workers manipulate data. If they can do so away from a centralized workspace, they will begin doing so. Physically commuting to a job arose during the Industrial Revolution when factories needed lots of warm bodies working there, manipulating matter.

"Our future of post-scarcity promises to turn our entire view of "employment" -- at least insofar as we have defined it as a prerequisite to earning a living -- into a QWERTY."

Which is one of the points I tried to make during our show on abundance. Why do we (and futurists and SF writers) assume economics will go on as usual as the productivity of our machines accelerates?

I still think this is lazy thinking on the part of a lot of usually forward looking people.

I've been going through my old Analogs, collected during the Eighties. They're embarrassing. Interstellar societies depicted centuries from now with exactly the same political and economic problems we have now.

Writers kept doing this even after Drexler's Engines of Creation exploded idea grenades all over the science fiction world. I know Drexler had an immediate impact because Editor Stan Schmidt practically screamed (in print) to his readers to GO OUT AND BUY ENGINES OF CREATION.

I guess it took a genius like Kurzweil to point out what to us now is obvious. The QWERTY of linear technological advancement is nonsense. Accelerating technology has ruined more old SF stories for me than the breakup of the Soviet Union did.

Economics since the stone age has developed in order to enable people to deal with scarcities in reasonably effective ways. When scarcities vanish, won't economics vanish also?

"It seems likely to me that there are a number of QWERTies lurking in our current educational and health care infrastructure."

QWERTY as a metaphor for path dependency is an excellent way for us to think about concepts we take for granted, that we depend on, to order our thinking about the ways of the world.

I'd love to listen to a show in which our hosts and panelists pop a number of QWERTY balloons, QWERTYs that get in the way of us thinking clearly about accelerating technology and the Singularity.

economics will never vanish, but it may change considerably. I read about post-scarcity as if the laws of physics are going to change such that magic will prevail. There is still a limited amount of energy in our universe and its distribution is not exactly convenient. If it were, I would not have to plug my cell phone in every 2-3 days. We will still be competing for energy even if we're not competing for material 'goods.' Services will still be priced according to what consumers are willing to pay (in energy credit/exchange)
Our expectation of instant gratification may be measured in milliseconds rather than minutes, but this follows the acceleration curve asymptotically approaching zero as innovation drives cleverer ways to want more and better. If that ever stops, we really will be dead.

I think auto tires are a QWERTY. There were safer foam filled ones that don't blow-out, and last longer developed a long time ago. Where are they?

Energy is the closest thing we have in the universe to "unlimited." Keep in mind the meaning of Einstein's famous equation E = mc2.

Nanotech will make it much more easy for us to tap that energy in numerous forms. Just think how many times better and more efficient nanotech photovoltaics will be than those awful little flimsies in use now.

It's true that as our time sense speeds up, we will expect more and more. But (I believe) our accelerating technology will outrace even our most extravagant wants and desires.

Imagine nanotech tires always forming and re-forming as they meet and deal with differing road conditions. Cool, eh?

One of the things most overlooked by the decriers of the Qwerty keyboard is that the design was not based solely on moving away keys that stuck. It is also based on the reduction of the need for individual fingers to have to type multiple letters consecutively for a trained touch typist. With the commonality of certain letters in the English language, by scattering the most common letters across a keyboard, it allows for much quicker typing through division of labor in the fingers.

Most "Qwerty" techs survive not based solely on their supremacy in a single area, but in the ability to meet a wider subset of needs that may not be at all obvious. Take the example of Tires. Foam filled ones are indeed safer, less prone to blowouts etc, but if you have ever been to a autoshop and watched the methods of changing a tire on a rim, the simplicity of the procedure reveals levels of secondary conditions that foam tires fail to fulfill. If they were as simple and easy to replace they would likely have already replaced the current pneumatic versions.

Before simply dismissing a "Qwerty" technology, it is worth considering the secondary needs it fulfills beyond just it's obvious uses.

Another Querty that was a good idea at the time, but is not such a good one now: the institution of marriage.

"It took us centuries to get from the printing press to the telephone, decades to get from the telephone to the personal computer, and only a few years to get from the personal computer to the Internet."

He's captured the essence of the idea of accelerating technology. Amazing, especially for a politician.

I appreciate the simplicity of the metric system and I would love to switch to using it (maybe should just do it on my own) however I love the Fahrenheit temperature scale because it is humanistic in design. It lays out on a scale of 0 to ~100 the common temperatures an average human will generally encounter in their day to day life.

Anyone who argues for using Celsius because it is 'scientific' should be using Kelvin instead. ;)

"Why does the English language have so many words that are difficult to spell? The main reason is that English has 1,100 different ways to spell its 44 separate sounds, more than any other language"

The problems with the English language stem from the way it came into existence. English is more a melting-pot of languages. It is part Anglo, part Saxon, part Roman, part Hunn, etc. etc.
I am grateful that I learned it growing up. I would really hate to have had to learn it after I grew up with a sensible language (just about any other).

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