Story of Evolution, Evolution of StoriesBryn Mawr College, Spring 2004Second Web PaperOn Serendip

A Game of Cricket: Understanding the QWERTY phenomenon

Su-Lyn Poon

In "Darwin's Dangerous Idea", Dennett describes the QWERTY phenomena in biological and cultural evolution as an example of how "mere historical happenstance... restrict[s] our options" (6:131). Economists add a value judgment to this description, some using QWERTY as an example of market failure and inefficiency. However, the evolution of QWERTY, like cricket, follows rules that are enigmatic at first glance. Economists do not pursue the analogy with evolution and, as a result, do not detect the fundamental change in the system of production that rewrote the rules of efficiency. A historical retracing disentangles the reasons for QWERTY's continued dominance of keyboard systems. The integration of parts in the system of production demanded compatibility: the efficiency of the whole above the efficiency of the individual.

QWERTY: Rise to fame

In the first row of letters on your keyboard, the first six keys spell out a nonsensical string, QWERTY, that gives this layout its name. In the nineteenth century, it was found that if two adjacent keys on a typewriter were struck too quickly in succession, the type bars would jam. The alphabetical arrangement of keys proved to be problematic as it placed many commonly-used letters close together. Spacing these letters apart resulted in the somewhat arbitrary re-arrangement we see today. Given that computers have gotten rid of this mechanical problem, why does QWERTY continue to dominate keyboards around the world? First, a quick history. In the second half of the nineteenth century, typewriters with a variety of key layouts competed for commercial success, and the first to achieve it used QWERTY. Diamond argues, however, that the role the keyboard played in the typewriter's success was incidental rather than instrumental, crediting instead other advantageous components that the machine boasted, such as type bars, an inked ribbon, and a cylindrical paper carriage (2). But as this typewriter became more widely used in offices, more new users chose to train to touch-type using the QWERTY layout. As people climbed on the bandwagon, QWERTY experienced decreasing costs of selection: it became more likely to be picked over other key layouts (1).

The "wrong" answer?

Early dominance meant not only that QWERTY became the standard, but that it stayed that way too. The layout became locked in by the quasi-irreversibility of investments in training touch-typists and in equipment, and by the high costs of conversion (1). In fact, numerous attempts to implement improvements to the layout have met with failure. This has led some economists to describe the QWERTY layout as a case study of the "penalties of taking the lead" (1:336), of premature "standardization on the wrong system" (1:336, emphasis added). The phrasing suggests that there exists a single "right" answer to the question of which system to standardize, and that any deviation from that answer is a mistake. This assessment is open to attack from the evolutionary perspective. Rather than viewing QWERTY as "inefficient", an evolutionary scientist would instead point out that, given the current conditions of competition, it is "efficient enough". As Liebowitz and Margolis point out, QWERTY is at least among the reasonably fit, even if not the fittest that can be imagined (4). Evolution, after all, has no imagination (6): why be all that you can be when mediocrity works just as well? There is also an unwitting tendency to classify these mistakes as "permanent" (surprisingly, a stance also taken by Liebowitz and Margolis, 4). Such a claim reveals a static view of the object of study: once right, always right; once a mistake, always a mistake. But the conditions for adaptive fitness in evolution are constantly changing. Being "right" is not a lifelong appointment. The game itself is subject to change.

Office politics

The QWERTY layout was just one aspect in the evolution of the typewriter, and the typewriter, as it turns out, just one aspect in the evolution of a larger system of production (1). In an environment shaped by human activity, new species of office machines emerged. They survived in niches corresponding to specific office tasks: calculators sped up mathematics, while typewriters sped up writing. Similarly today, desktop computers provide greater processing power, while laptops and handheld PDAs provide mobility (a subtle difference in addressing the desire for speed through a strategy that 'creates' time through flexibility of location). As the system grew, so too did pressure on its components to 'get along'. This need for compatibility (3) meant that components were selected not for efficiency of the isolate, but for efficiency of the whole. As a result, the reasons that had established the components were no longer important in continuing survival. The rules had changed. Selection now favored the formation of associations, which in turn created new pressures for paired components. The nature of competition changed; the nature of fitness changed. The system itself was evolving. (For a parallel but not strictly analogous situation in biological evolution, see Margulis's endosymbiotic theory for the origin of eukaryotes, 7.) More than a battleground for machines, the system became a network of symbioses, a super-organism of closely-interacting components. Today the system of production is driven by an endless variety of computers, interacting with still more computers. It is a system of technically-interrelated components (1), of cranes built upon cranes (6). HotSync, for example, synchronizes the information on PDAs and desktops for water-tight time management. The gears have begun to turn together, making it increasingly difficult to break away from a self-assembling matrix: taking away the crane on the bottom would bring the whole system crashing down.

Why history matters

The bottom line is that QWERTY is no longer a contentious issue, as far as practicalities in the working world are concerned, however much economic theorists may bicker. This conservative outcome results from the pressure to integrate the activities of many individuals in production, and the high costs of doing so. Unless changes offer a substantial benefit that more than cover the cost of conversion, these 'mutations' are far more easily bred out than built into the system. This case study makes clear the importance of path dependence (5), the locking-in of historical accidents and chance elements that affect final outcomes (1). History is itself a selection pressure, as Dennett points out, bounding the context for future evolution and narrowing exploration to an infinite area within an infinite Design Space (6). By looking more closely at the analogy with biological evolution, however, it becomes clear that history matters not just in determining outcomes, but in making sense of the rules of the game. Describing QWERTY as "inefficient" demonstrates an attempt to play cricket with the rules of baseball. The continued existence of QWERTY is to be understood not in terms of its own fitness, but in terms of its integration into a larger system.

References

  1. David, P. A. (1985). "Clio and the Economics of QWERTY." The American Economic Review (Papers and Proceedings of the 97th Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association) 75(2): 332-337.
  2. Diamond, J. (1997). "The Curse of QWERTY." Discover 18(4): 34-42.
  3. Farrell, F., Saloner, G. (1985). "Standardization, Compatibility, and Innovation." The RAND Journal of Economics 16(1): 70-83.
  4. Liebowitz, S. J., and Margolis, S. E. (1990). "The Fable of the Keys." Journal of Law and Economics 33:1-25. Available online.
  5. Liebowitz, S. J., and Margolis, S. E. (1995). "Path Dependence, Lock-in, and History." Journal of Law Economics and Organization 11: 205226. Available online.
  6. Dennet, D. (1995). Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the meanings of life. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.
  7. Margulis, L. (1970). Origin of Eukaryotic Cells. Connecticut: Yale University Press.



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