What your key-board says about you.

What can key-board layouts tell us about the fundamentals of human nature? All people are willing to do something stupid in order to conform.

I found it very hard to learn the alphabet as a young child. It took me a long time to get those 26 letters in the correct order. Imagine my dismay when I realised that the keys on a keyboard where not laid out in the same order as the alphabet.

Qwerty is better optimised for typing than if the keys were laid out in alphabetic order. So why not dump the alphabet and just get kids to learn the ‘Qwertybet’?  At least that way there would only be one 26 letter long sequence of random letters that we all had to handle?

Three reasons: Switching costs, network effects and coercion. 

There are a large number of people who’s brains would melt if filing cabinets had to be reordered to be in a qwerty layout. Nobody running a library wants that head ache, that cost. Even though it would save everyone the need to learn anything as you could just glance at any computure keyboard to see the order.

The alphabet is a well established system that is so widely used it is stable and not going anywhere. At the point in life were you meet these things you are a child and can be coerced into a school and forced to learn two redundant systems.

There is never a point were the problem becomes so acute that all 6.3 billion people using the roman alphabet are going to get together and agree to drop the alphabet in favour of a Qwerty layout.

Too big to die

So people are willing to tolerate redundancy if something is useful and works. Systems can grow beyond our ability to control them. The alphabet and qwerty are too big to die.

Qwerty is an insult to common sense: It was designed before computing made it possible to look at word and letter frequency properly: More than 3,000 English words utilise QWERTY’s left hand alone, and about 300 the right hand alone. Great if you are left handed,  but for the majority of the human population that is pants.

The Villain

So why don’t we switch to a better system? There are vested interests: That evil keyboard manufacturing lobby with their vast financial resources stop the politicians from imposing the change just so they don’t have to up date there machines. NO! of course that is in’t the reason.

I am a cyclist and I would like the council to narrow the main road near my house and put a bike lane in. No doubt if you ask the CEO of Ford if he wants to reduce the amount of car usage in the uk their answer is ‘no’ but the specific reason I am not getting my bike lane is local  officials don’t want a row on their hands.

It’s the same reason I have never heard of a boss walking in to an office and saying ‘Oh hey guy’s: you will have noticed that all your keyboards are different. I have switched you over to Colemak. Most of your short cuts are unchanged, but now you can type more words using only the home row. In 2-3 months for most of you this will result in a marginal increase in typing speed. So we are all going to get more work done in the long run, but for the first few days, when you type it will feel like you have had a stroke’.

Survival of the fittest

This is called ‘inertia’ it literally means a systems resistance to change. Like a car, when it is moving at 50mph inertia is the force stopping it from slowing down, when you push-start a car, inertia is the force that has to be over come to get the car moving.

The key thing to remember is nature does NOT produce perfect systems. A common, miss understanding is that ‘Survival of the fittest’ means the ‘best’ animals/products win out. The trouble is that fittest actually means ‘most able to reproduce’ not ‘best’ in any global sense. So we have a costly car base transit system even though mass transit might be less polluting. Cars are better able to ‘reproduce’ because they are able to reinvest more of their profits into marketing. In the UK we use a badly optimised keyboard layout and an incredibly unrepresentative first past the post voting system because those systems were adopted first and most importantly ‘work’.

Good enough

You also have to remember that you are looking at a snap shot in time. It is possible that as cities get bigger the cars size will mean that it becomes unfeasible for planners to continue to provide for a transit system based on the personal car. But the tiny, tiny benefits that alternative keyboard layouts offer over Qwerty make it hard for me to imagine a large scale move away from qwerty ever happening. There is too much inertia, the switching cost are too high. It pains me to say it but it is also possible that rather than a malevolent lobby keeping the car supreme it could just be that that system is so stable it is unlikely to change any time soon.

The World can seem like an infuriating and confusing place if you aren’t willing to take a system level view. Its easy to think that shady deals are being made in back rooms, and that is why you are missing out, but I find it reassuring to think that more often than not its just simple incompetence. Qwerty is like a buck toothed stupid reseptionist at an ok hotel. They do the job. It may be possible to find a smarter, prettier person to do the job, but is that necessary?

As soon as you realise that often things aren’t supposed to be ‘perfect’ but just ‘good enough’ the world seems like a less malevolent place. In fact isn’t it a wonderful thing that we live in a world were there are people who toil away to make better keyboard layouts?Somewhere in the world someone is solving a problem you don’t even know you have.

Rather than being frustrated by how stupid my keyboard is, I think it is a wonderful reminder that the world isn’t perfect. Every were I look there is the potential for me to do things better than  they have been done before.

The magic Words

‘I am not suggesting you …… ’ Have to be the most freeing words in my life. That simple phrase makes it possible to live my own life without conforming all the time. Those five little words said to anyone who questions your approach allows you to slip away to freedom and not become embattle explaining your actions.

This crazy layout is a reminder that you don’t have to do things the way other people do them. I rent cars when I need them despite the fact that many, many people think i will ‘need’ to own one at some point. I have switch to colemak because its better, but the great thing is: Its ok to be utterly indifferent to the car ownership status, keyboard layouts, diets and parenting strategies, (to name but a few) of other people because people will do ‘stupid’ stuff again and again and again literally millions of times so long as they get the result they want most of the time and thats fine! All I have to say is: I am not suggesting you do it this way’ and then in the words of Dr House Md ‘The best thing about being an adult is that I can do pretty much what ever I want.’

Every day when you sit down at you computer it can remind you that you don’t have to break the system, you don’t have to change the system or conform to it (unless you want to?)