Paul A. David’s classic article answers the following question:

“Why does the topmost row of letters on your personal computer keyboard spell out QWERTYUIOP, rather than something else?”

Despite evidence that the more efficient DSK keyboard layout is 20-40% faster.

Screenshot 2018-02-15 at 17.46.04
The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard. Patented in 1936 by August Dvorak and William Dealey.

Yes, the answer starts with a historical accident: early typewriters jammed when people typed too fast, so the QWERTY layout was developed to slow typing down.

The key, though, is that three factors then locked in this equilibrium:

  1. Technical interrelatedness – the hardware and the software depended on each other, so once the hardware was built around QWERTY, so was the software, and this interdependence became really hard to get out of.
  2. Scale economies – once QWERTY became more popular it was cheaper for the decision-makers in companies, in each individual decision they made, just to stick with it.
  3. Irreversibilities due to learning and habituation – it was just plain damn annoying to have to learn to type a different way.

But here’s the really interesting point:

The QWERTY story is almost certainly not an anomaly – it more likely to be a sign that, over and again, in ways both invisible and visible, our economic world is determined by this same combination of (1) historical accident and then (2) factors that lock in that accident. That sprinkles strangeness all over our economic world and it complicates, potentially quite significantly, the task of modelling/explaining the world we see.

Here’s David to end in much more eloquent terms:

“I believe there are many more QWERTY worlds lying out there in the past, on the
very edges of the modern economic analyst’s tidy universe; worlds we do not yet fully
perceive or understand, but whose influence, like that of dark stars, extends nonetheless to shape the visible orbits of our contemporary economic affairs.”

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