Obsolescence and the irony of common sense

Polly (hi Polly ) asked me whether I really do think that the QWERTY keyboard is obsolete.

Well… tricky. It depends on how you define the word ‘obsolete.’ One definition is ‘no longer in use’ – and clearly the QWERTY layout is still in use (though not by me!), so on that basis you can argue that it isn’t obsolete… yet. Another definition is ‘outmoded’ or ‘out of date.’

Way back in the middle of the 19th Century, the QWERTY layout was thrown together (I hesitate to use the term ‘designed,’ since that word implies careful thought about all the relevant issues) to accommodate mechanical problems with the new-fangled ‘type-writer’ (a machine that nobody can dispute is now truly obsolete). QWERTY is, without a doubt, out of date. Better alternatives, of which the Dvorak layout is the best established, are available. It’s my belief that the main reason that these are not taken up is simply that most people aren’t aware of them.

In the mid-nineteen-nineties when the Innerwebz was just beginning to take off, I got some funny looks when I referred to fax technology as being ‘obsolete.’ The facsimile may still, even today, have a place, but I don’t think that anyone now will deny that as a means of transmitting documents it’s now outmoded. The people handing out the funny looks then were largely unaware of this new-fangled email thingy. As they were still using fax, that technology wasn’t ‘no longer in use’ – but it wasn’t long before they started using email instead.

If many people still use a thing, but only because they don’t know that it’s been superseded, does that make it any the less obsolete?

Perhaps the term ‘obsolescent’ – ‘becoming obsolete’ – is more appropriate, though I wonder whether that word would tend to confuse, but in a different way. Newer technologies are on the horizon; voice recognition is beginning to mature to the point that it may be worthwhile to consider using it for text input. There’s even, strange as it may sound, some progress on direct mind control over computers, though that’s still very much in its infancy. Such tools will eventually render the keyboard itself utterly obsolete, and make any discussion about which is the ‘best’ layout totally irrelevant. I don’t see that happening for several years – more likely decades – yet. In the meantime, it would make sense to me to educate people about alternative keyboard layouts, and, as these alternatives have numerous advantages, to try to encourage their adoption.

Contrary to common belief, King Canute wasn’t a fool who believed that he could hold back the sea: he was a very wise man who sat on the beach (sensibly seated on his presumably comfortable throne) as the tide came in – to prove to his people that he couldn’t hold it back. I find it ironic that so-called ‘common sense’ can show a wise man up as a fool.

About peNdantry

Phlyarologist (part-time) and pendant. Campaigner for action against anthropogenic global warming (AGW) and injustice in all its forms. Humanist, atheist, notoftenpist. Wannabe poet, writer and astronaut.
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11 Responses to Obsolescence and the irony of common sense

  1. Vicky says:

    So Colin, what youare in fact saying is that the method I have used all my life, since about 11 years old when I first started typing on a typewriter should now be thrown away because id causes FATIGUE? At sixty one and a half years old I suffer from fatigue from simply drinking a cup of tea. The very act of getting out of bed is too much of an effort some days and nopw you want me to learn a new method of typing??? I don’t know about you but I know where all my fingers go, without thinking about them and it is arthritus in my joints which has slowed me up and now causes me fatigue, NOT the positiopn of the lettered keys.  What a change of keyboards will do, ultimately, and I can see it happening already, is to alienate an entire generation of kids from keyboards entirely. (Many are only able to use a mouse in any case) We tried it with "new" methods of teaching reading – result several generations of kids unable to read a word. We tried it with a radical new way of teaching maths – same result. It ought to be obvious that most kids today can only write in text script anyway, and that done almost entirely with the left thumb. Have a look at some of the more popular websites, those populated by teenagers and the like and you will see what I mean. Sorry, I shall not add my signature to you petition to change the keybpard. Like so, so many other things that are being messed about with unnecessarily, I think you should leave it alone!
    Yes – rant over. XXVicky XX


  2. Colin says:

    LOL vicky, nice rant. I seem to have touched a nerve.
    No, I’m not asking you to change. You’re clearly very happy with the system you have; I’m not interested in trying to persuade anyone with such deeply-held beliefs to change. I’m more interested in talking with those who have an open mind about the possibilities for the next generation, instead of locking them in to an obsolete standard by ignoring the alternatives.
    For the record, it isn’t ‘a new method of typing’ at all. It’s exactly the same method that you’ve already learnt… only better.
    My petition is not one that demands a change, as you seem to believe: it’s to investigate the truth behind all the confusion that has reigned for the past few decades, with a view to giving youngsters the option to benefit from a better tool in the future.


  3. Chatty says:

    As you know, you convinced me of the advantages of the Dvorak keyboard (and my Eskimo friend loves their new fridge btw).

    I haven’t had more than a cursory try of the layout due to the USB compatability problems that have now been resolved BUT the keyboard is so much more comfortable and the letters ARE in a more logical order.
    I will be starting to use it properly in February; if we can convince a growing generation that by starting with Dvorak from an early age they will decrease their chances of RSI dramatically in older life, then it has to be a good thing, in the same way that we know that smoking kills and that shoving little boys up chimneys isn’t what we want from our world anymore.

    I hear what Vicky is saying about not wanting to change at the age of 61.5 BUT a growing generation of older people are now buying PCs who have had NO or little training on Qwerty.. my dad is 82 and does well on his PC.. and seems to me that it would make sense for those who haven’t used QWERTY to consider the Dvorak layout to decrease the stress and general wear and tear on their already precious joints.
    The youth of today (in the main more ‘technology acceptable’) deserve a chance to have an improved quality of life when they are older.. Rome wasn’t built in a day and raising awareness of the Dvorak advantages (less RSI, greatly increased speed input) is the first step.

    A government investigation (actually for something very worthwhile for a change) is what is being asked for; the advantages will speak for themselves.

    Ooh I am all fired up now, time to go plug in the Dvorak and have another practice…


  4. Vicky says:

    Aright then……. convince me the Dvorak is a better keyboard than the Qwerty. I cant say I’ve encountered one as yet but if I do I shall definitely try it for size…………..
    How does the layut differ anyway? I was under the impression that the Qwert board was based on the nearness of the frequently used letters?    XVX


    • pendantry says:

      My response to you, Vicky, was on the very next blog post; for convenience, here’s a link to it. The link’s a bit late, even though the response wasn’t (I’m adding it mainly for the benefit of anyone else who might pass this way who might be interested).

      PS I hope all is well in your world!


  5. Pingback: Remember Canute! | Wibble

  6. Your link only does that awful Windows thing although I gather macs can do it too. I’m pretty fast and accurate, but I’ll look it up and see what I think. (I touch type pretty fast). Sounds like change for changes sake. Not sure about RSI being due to keyboard layout, rather, poor positioning of hands and wrists. QWERTY is fast and easy, and looking at the layout I don’t actually see any difference in potential use of fingers. Don’t forget the stretch of QWERTY gives some dexterity when typing rather than sticking to one line. When I had a broken hand/wrist/elbow/finger/ who knows what because I didn’t go to the hospital, typing on QWERTY brought it back.

    So, basically, like Vicky, I don’t agree :)


    • pendantry says:

      I don’t know what you mean by the ‘awful Windows thing’, so I can’t help you there.

      It’s not a question of ‘change for change’s sake’; it’s more about the pursuit of true progress (as opposed to this constant change in the pursuit of profit to which our society is in thrall). My response to Vicky explains further.

      The RSI question is open, I agree: not enough research has been done on this. I can only speak from my own experience: I made the switch to the Dvorak layout in September 2007 (I reported my own experiences of making the switch blow by blow on this very blog) and I can report that it is far, far more comfortable touch-typing on the Dvorak layout than it had been using my previous hunt-and-peck technique on QWERTY. Now, since I never learnt to touch-type on QWERTY, I can’t comment on how that might compare; I’d need access to an alternate universe for that. I don’t suppose you have a spare time machine handy? :)


  7. The link only gave options for looking at Dvorak if you had a PC and Windows software. I don’t.
    I’m not sure it is the pursuit of progress at all, rather if it aint broke don’t fix it.
    I think the issue here is that many people have started to use keyboards without learning to touchtype, in my case on an old manual tripewriter (taught myself with a book, hardly difficult).
    In one of my newspaper offices, one of the reporters couldn’t touch type and tended to use two fingers on each hand at the most and had to look at the keys to type.
    So I think like should be compared with like. Someone who has learned to touchtype with Qwerty should learn to do the same with Dvorak and then compare their views, which would be subjective anyway, even if you looked at speed and accuracy, there are so many other factors to take into consideration.
    Rather than a time machine, perhaps we should clone each other. And then we would each be able to touch type on both.


    • pendantry says:

      You’re right about the issue: and it’s not just ‘many’, it’s most people who never learn to touch-type. From where I sit, if you can touch-type; fine. If you can’t, you should learn, and if you’re going to learn, you might as well do so using a layout that was designed with the human in mind, not for the benefit of an obsolete machine (the type-writer).


  8. Pingback: Adventures with a dumbphone, Part Four | Wibble

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