I was thinking the other day about keyboards. I ran into an article over at the Tedium blog about a guy who was using a 1980s IBM keyboard for his brand new M1 Macintosh. It’s a bit of a fool’s errand if you ask me, especially since there are so many excellent gaming keyboards out there. But I get it, I’ve done similarly geeky things just to see if I could.
The Sholes keyboard
This is an image of the first keyboard ever to use the now-familiar “QWERTY” keyboard. It was invented by two people, Sholes and Glidden, and marketed as the “Remington No.1” typewriter. The keyboard was designed not to make sense. Remember, these were typewriters full of moving parts. The whole point of this keyboard was to make sure that commonly used letters were as far apart as possible. This would keep keys from sticking together as you type.
Of course none of that makes any sense in the modern world and yet we’re essentially stuck with the QWERTY keyboard. It’s on our phones. It’s on all our devices, and it makes as little sense as ever.
Time to ditch old QWERTY?
If only we could. Every attempt to get rid of the keyboard design we all hate has been met with resistance. By the time we’re adults, we’ve been subjected to QWERTY so often that it’s hard to make a change. In fact, I think if there were going to be a change, it would have to start in the schools, and it would probably take decades to really flesh out. I don’t think we have the guts to do it, though. Remember how we were all going to the metric system? Yeah, that worked out well too.
About a decade ago, when text-to-speech software started to mature, we all briefly thought we’d be dictating everything right into the computer or phone. And it’s true, sometimes we’ll do this, especially if we’re in the car. But for the most part we still type. That’s the funny thing about all these sci-fi advances… they have to really be better. They have to be so much better that we ditch our old habits and develop new ones. That’s why we could turn on the lights or the oven with our voices. That’s why we could get rid of old QWERTY. But we won’t — not until it really makes sense and saves us time.
The other tech baggage we take with us
The QWERTY keyboard is just a symptom. There are so many tech advances that are objectively better, and yet we don’t really embrace them. Instead, we get fancy smartwatches and change their faces to look like old dumbwatches. We keep old keyboard designs and electrical outlets that don’t lock the plugs in place. We like channel numbers on our live TV even though we haven’t turned a physical knob in decades.
It’s all about the memory and the way we learned things. Eventually things do change. It takes generations, though. It takes long enough that enough people have to forget why we started doing a thing in the first place. And for QWERTY, that’s a surprisingly long time.