The QWERTY Phenomenon and the Game of Cricket
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 ...view middle of the document...
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.
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...