=======

mindstorms: the qwerty phenomenon

in chapter 1 (Computers and Computer Cultures) of mindstorms, seymour papert identifies the qwerty phenomenon. he says:

But making good choices is not always easy, in part because past choices can often haunt us. There is a tendency for the first usable, but still primitive, product of a new technology to dig itself in. I have called this phenomenon the QWERTY phenomenon.

if i sat down and thought about it, i could probably come up with 100 different places in which i’ve observed this phenomenon. it is absurdly common.

what’s crazy is that it is persistent even in places and among people who deeply believe in experimentation, constant improvement, design thinking, and continuous learning.

now, on its face, just having a term for this phenomenon is incredibly useful. what i feel would be even more useful, though, is the ability to identify when it’s happening. some sort of guide or set of criteria to hold arguments up against would be great.

i mean this even for myself. i’m positive there are places in my life where i have boxed myself into realities that i’m back-justifying. especially when money is involved. sometimes i get lucky and catch myself qwertying and can stop it. it happens most often when i’m trying to explain to someone why i use a certain tool or set of tools. if i can’t answer someone’s probing questions, it’s usually because i made the initial choice out of convenience or immediate need. sometimes it’s simply too costly to keep exploring options in the moment. but over longer timescales, i surely could go back and rethink some of my choices.

anyway, the qwerty phenomenon: good shit. thanks, prof papert.

But making good choices is not always easy, in part because past choices can often haunt us. There is a tendency for the first usable, but still primitive, product of a new technology to dig itself in. I have called this phenomenon the QWERTY phenomenon.

The top row of alphabetic keys of the standard typewriter reads QWERTY. For me this symbolizes the way in which technology can all too often serve not as a force for progress but for keeping things stuck. The QWERTY arrangement has no rational explanation, only a historical one. It was introduced in response to a problem in the early days of the typewriter: The keys used to jam. The idea was to minimize the collision problem by separating those keys that followed one another frequently. Just a few years later, general improvements in the technology removed the jamming problem, but QWERTY stuck. Once adopted, it resulted in many millions of typewriters and a method (indeed a full-blown curriculum) for learning typing. The social cost of change (for example, putting the most used keys togetheron the keyboard) mounted with the vested interest created by the fact that so many fingers now knew how to follow the QWERTY keyboard. QWERTY has stayed on despite the existence of other, more “rational” systems. On the other hand, if you talk to people about the QWERTY arrangement they will justify it by “objective” criteria. They will tell you that it “optimizes this” or it “minimizes that.” Although these justifications have no rational foundation, they illustrate a process, a social process, of myth construction that allows us to build a justification for primitivity into any system…

words / writing / post-processing
279w / 9min / 20min