Disruption of Locked In Biases

Christopher Sholes was the 52nd man to invent the typewriter. It was his arrangement of the keyboard, the QWERTY keyboard that became the standard. The QWERTY keyboard was designed for telegraph operators transcribing Morse code. It was Remington and Sons, gunsmiths, that made the QWERTY keyboard a commercial success.

August Dvorak wanted to break the dominance of the QWERTY keyboard. He was wounded while serving in the U.S. Army and given a discharge. He re-enlisted and saw duty during World War I. After the war, he earned a Ph.D. and became a professor of statistics.

A typing teacher came to him with a problem that changed his life’s journey. She couldn’t figure out why her students were mistyping words of four or less letters. Dvorak couldn’t type but was familiar with error patterns from his statistical education. What he found was that the words most often mistyped required the greatest finger movement.

He redesigned the typewriter keyboard. He placed the vowels close together and collocated commonly used consonant combinations such as tr and th. The most common words could be typed with minimal finger movement.

The new keyboard proved much faster than the QWERTY one but its acceptance proved difficult. Typists were trained on the QWERTY keyboard and didn’t want to change. To change the typewriters would cost a fortune. To economists, the QWERTY keyboard was something called a locked-in inefficiency.

Technology has now developed the ability to disrupt locked-in inefficiencies. Keyboard layouts can now be switched on electronic devices. Over time the Dvorak keyboard may be the one most preferred as young people no longer have a locked-in bias.

Locked-in biases exist in all areas of society. “We’ve always done it that way” is a common rejoinder to any recommendation for change. The one thing we are now seeing is that disruption is becoming more and more common and locked-in biases are disappearing.

The challenge that society now faces is how to rethink what in the past may have seemed to be unchangeable. That can be an opportunity for those who believe in continuous improvement and a threat to those who have a monopoly based on the status quo.

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“Times of crisis, of disruption or constructive change, are not only predictable, but desirable. They mean growth. Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.”–  Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Author)

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