Conventions

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The QWERTY keyboard layout—which is almost certainly what you’re using if you’re typing on an English-language keyboard—has seen many different permutations over the years, but was initially developed to help prevent type-bar jams in typewriters.

This was accomplished, in part, by separating commonly sequential characters, like S and T, and T and H, so that when struck in rapid succession, the arms that swing up to mark paper with ink wouldn’t get tangled with each other, requiring a pause in use to fix those arms.

The QWERTY setup is not the only logical way to set up a keyboard’s keys. Some experts and enthusiasts prefer the Dvorak keyboard, designed in the 1930s to be more ergonomic and speedy compared to the already-dominant QWERTY, while others prefer the Colemak model, which is similar to the QWERTY, except that the most commonly used letters are relegated to the home-row: the central row beginning with ASDF on the traditional QWERTY layout.

There is evidence that the Dvorak and Colemak, and even some of the lesser-known and more sparsely used options, like the ergonomics-focused Maltron models—along with the completely distinct Stenotype input method, which relies on playing chords on far fewer keys to produce characters on the page—allow for minutely to vastly higher typing speeds: the average professional-grade typing speed on a QWERTY keyboard is around 50-90 words per minute, for instance, while a stenographer must be able to type at between 180 and 225 words per minute, minimum, just to get a job in their field.

The difficulty in accurately testing the relative strengths and weaknesses between typing-focused input methods, though, mostly stems from what are often called “switching costs”: the negative consequences of changing from one dynamic to another, especially if the initial dynamic is common and the new one is not.

There are strong network effects at play when a particular way of doing things, or a particular product design or brand, dominates a given space.

In the case of keyboards, it’s difficult to shift from QWERTY to Dvorak because most typing courses teach touch-typing on QWERTY keyboards, most keyboards sold in stores are QWERTY-based, and most keyboard layouts we encounter throughout the entirety of our lives are QWERTY keyboards—or the local variant, if we’re talking about non-English language models.

Most countries have their own, local or semi-local QWERTY stand-in, whether you’re using a Swiss QWERTZ, a French or Belgian AZERTY, or the Russian JCUKEN, though in some cases the utility and commonality of the neighboring culture’s keyboard will overwhelm the benefits or network effects of yours. The HCESAR layout, for instance, was created by governmental decree in Portugal in the 1930s. By the 1970s, though, the AZERTY layout that was borrowed from neighboring European countries had almost completely taken over, before itself being replaced by the increasingly common and well-supported QWERTY layout.

Switching costs create frictions anywhere you find established conventions, traditions, and rituals.

Consider, for instance, that the alphabets we use as components of our local languages are, themselves, just conventions. There’s no immutable reason we must arrange these letters as they are, and there’s no reason we need to have letters at all. At some point in history, it was determined by some groups of people that this was a logical way to break up sounds for the purposes of writing down encoded meaning (words), and we mostly stuck with the systems our ancestors developed, or adopted those that were either enforced upon us or donated to us by other, nearby cultures, along the way.

That there are other methods of breaking up words and encoding meaning—using different languages, but also different methods of writing those languages using letters and pictographs, logograms and tactile writing methods—demonstrates that none of these methods are the only possible or correct way of doing so. They’re all different approaches to achieving similar ends, and there are infinite other possibilities, should we choose to innovate them into existence. At least some of those other, potential options, I suspect, would have many advantages over the slow-iterating, historical baggage-laden permutations that we utilize, today.

But can you imagine the amount of friction we would encounter if we tried to convert the world to an entirely new language system, or even just an entirely new writing system?

It would be chaos. Though it is something some cultures have managed before, mostly after conquest, and mostly intergenerationally: the winners of the war take over and force the local to adopt their conquerer’s customs, but most of those customs, including their language, only really stuck after a generation or two had passed. Which was long enough for those who knew the old methods by rote to die off, and long enough for the infrastructure that supported the old system to be replaced by a new set of infrastructure: the cultural equivalent of new keyboards in the stores and in all the typing training software.

Many conventions remain unchallenged or undefeated, then, not because they are objectively the best versions of what they are, but because they are baked into the status quo. They are normal, and consequently, they are incredibly difficult to notice, much less dislodge and replace.

This doesn’t imply that these conventions aren’t valuable in their own right, but it does imply that it might be prudent to at least be aware of which components of our social, physical, and psychological world we take for granted, at times assuming they’re as fundamental as gravity when in fact they’re more like the QWERTY keyboard: pretty good, but just one viable option among many. An option that can, and maybe should be reassessed and challenged from time to time.


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