Paradigm Shifts 2: Paradigm ShiftER

Last time, I presented reasons why it would be economically infeasible for the US to switch to the metric system. This time, I’d like to talk about a change that could relatively easily be brought about soon. A change that would barely cost a thing, but could improve efficiency dramatically in many jobs and in every day life for many people. A change of this type would be very handy. Puns aside though, what I’m talking about is this: DVORAK SIMPLIFIED KEYBOARD (again lots from Wikipedia) image Look down at your keyboard. Chances are very good that if you bought your keyboard in an English speaking country, you’re using the QWERTY keyboard layout. You’ll also probably know (or else you’ll learn from me) that the letter “E” is the most common in the English language. You might wonder then, why it’s not in the “home row” (the row of keys in the middle of the keyboard that would be right under your fingers if you’re typing in the standard way). You might also wonder why other common letters like “T” were exiled to the top row while less common letters like “J” and “K” sit right under your fingertips as they rest idle. You may then think about how slow it is to type words like “December” which require you to use the same finger for consecutive letters. You may even get to thinking that a lot of words require using the same hand for consecutive letters, but it would be much nicer to alternate hands as you type. The reasons for the slow speed of QWERTY are not entirely clear. There are stories floating around about the inventor of the typewriter deliberately laying out the keyboard this way to keep typing speeds down so that the mechanical keys wouldn’t jam. The authenticity of these stories are disputed, but you’d be hard pressed to argue that QWERTY is the most efficient layout there could be. One competitor for the title that has stood out is called Dvorak, named after its creator. Some statistics from Wikipedia (sources given there):

  • the Dvorak layout uses about 63% of the finger motion required by QWERTY
  • the vast majority of the Dvorak layout’s key strokes (70%) are done in the home row” whereas QWERTY “has only 32% of the strokes done in the home row”
  • The QWERTY layout has more than 3,000 words that are typed on the left hand alone and about 300 words that are typed on the right hand alone”, but “with the Dvorak layout, only a few words can be typed on the left hand and not one syllable can be typed with the right hand alone, much less a word.”
  • On QWERTY keyboards, 56% of the typing strokes are done by the left hand. As the left hand is weaker for the majority of people, the Dvorak keyboard puts the more often used keys on the right hand side, thereby having 56% of the typing strokes done by the right hand.”
  • Because the Dvorak layout requires less finger motion from the typist compared to QWERTY, many users with repetitive strain injuries have reported that switching from QWERTY to Dvorak alleviated or even eliminated their repetitive strain injury.”
  • The fastest English language typist in the world, according to The Guinness Book of World Records” achieved “a peak speed of 212 wpm” using Dvorak

Okay, so maybe by now you see that Dvorak can be more efficient. So why hasn’t it been implemented yet? Well, back in the typewriter era, it was one layout or the other, and people picked QWERTY. Look at Wikipedia for a summary. But now, assuming you’re not using a typewriter or a 386 or something equivalently ancient, it’s actually quite easy to switch back and forth between QWERTY and Dvorak. Check out your control panel if you’re on a PC (or the equivalent on a mac or linux or what have you) and I bet you’ll find the setting for changing the keyboard layout pretty easily, and I bet that Dvorak will be one of the layouts you can choose. So it’s easy enough to switch all the devices to the new system, with pretty much no cost. The problem is of course that hardly anybody can type with Dvorak. Everybody is used to QWERTY! And I’m sure there are people out there who are happy to try to learn Dvorak, but I’m not one of them. I’m used to QWERTY and I’m pretty sure if I tried to switch, I’d get confused and completely jumble the two systems. I just can’t see the slight increase in my typing speed being worth the hassle. Maybe some can, but I’m sure that many feel the same way I do, especially those who, like me, don’t do a lot of transcribing or the like, and so rarely need to type very fast. The key? (sorry, no more puns, I promise) Get ‘em while they’re young. That’s right, all the young typists out there can be trained on Dvorak instead of QWERTY. If they never learn QWERTY, they’ll never be confused. And they can use the same keyboards as everyone else. All that we’d have to do is make it easier to switch the keyboard layout (put something a little closer than the control panel, maybe right on the keyboard), and print two sets of characters on the keyboard when they are made (note that I’ve neglected cell phones and other devices that also have keyboards, but they can be updated in the same way). It would be as easy as that to implement the change. Give it maybe 5-10 years to phase in keyboards and operating systems with the easy-switch built in (in this case, it’s nice that computers have such short life spans), then have schools start teaching kids to use Dvorak in typing classes. In a generation, hardly anyone will even remember QWERTY except as a weird hiccup along the way to efficiency.

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By Sam