The computer in front of you is a marvel of technological ingenuity. The keyboard at your finger tips, however, is evidence of our stupidity and inability to change. The QWERTY keyboard frustrates beginners and literally cripples experts. The alternative — the Simplified Keyboard — is also at your finger tips, installed on your computer’s languages settings, ready for use with some simple modifications of your computer. But don’t look back once you start.
Back in 1872, when the type-writing-machine was “invented”, Shoales and Company laid out the keyboard intentionally to make one type slowly, less the two-fingered typist jam up the hammers on this new fangled contraption. A hundred twenty-three years later, the typewriter is gone, ten finger touch-typing is in, but this contorted layout of the letters on the computer keyboard remains. The standard keyboard layout is immortalized with the name QWERTY, for the six letters on top row of the left hand.
In 1936, efficiency experts, August Dvorak and William Dealey, realized the absurdity of this situation and redesign the layout of the typewriters, but his new layout never really caught on. And yet the adoption of the “Simplified Keyboard” is perhaps the biggest obstacle to widespread computer literacy (i.e. keyboard literacy). And computer literacy is increasingly important in all aspects of our post-industrial society.
Few students in my university know how to touch-type and many are still positively afraid of computers. The keyboard itself accounts for a large part of that dislike of computers. Children now in elementary school and pre-school are beginning a life time of typing on a keyboard layout that will stunt their development and ruin their hands with years of use.
The Dvorak keyboard is elegantly simple: the five vowels — AOEUI — are under the “home” fingers of the left hand and the five most used consonants — DHTNS — are under the “home” fingers of the right hand. With this layout, 70 percent of typing occurs on the “home” keys and is evenly distributed between right and left hands. In terms of the distance that your fingers travel, the Dvorak typist will “let their fingers do the walking” one mile for every sixteen miles that a QWERTY typist travels on an eight hour day of typing. “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” was never so easy as when Dvorak laid it out.
Dvorak, however, found out that it is hard to teach new tricks to “lazy dogs” or even “quick brown foxes.” He had a hard time promoting the new layout. The obstacles to the new keyboard were the costs of replacing machines and retraining typists. (Dvorak also designed one handed keyboard layouts for the disabled.)
Fortunately, the computer keyboard allows us to be of both persuasions, QWERTY and Dvorak, though monogamously so. Simple, inexpensive modifications can make your PC or Mac dual-capable. Stickers are then laid over the existing keyboard with both the Dvorak and QWERTY keyboard visible in different colors and sizes. These can be purchased from Hooleon.com.
No one need retrain, who doesn’t choose to do so. No one, however, should be encouraged to learn QWERTY either. Everybody is happy, especially the children, like my daughters ages eight and ten and their friends, who will not be compelled to conform to this barbaric inscription technology. All of this could be accomplished at little or no additional cost.
Any typist, who is experiencing excessive fatigue or repetitive motion disorders, should consider switching to a Dvorak keyboard immediately. Back in 1988, I kicked the QWERTY habit with only four hours of practice with a typing tutor program and two weeks of my regular word-processing to get back my speed and proficiency.
The big payoff of Dvorak over QWERTY, assuming your keyboard isn’t making you ill, is if you are just learning how to type for the first time. The learning curve for touch-typing on Dvorak is 50 percent faster than QWERTY. Even if all you aspire to is hunt-and-peck typing, Dvorak will serve you far better.
And that’s the clincher for me in our increasingly computer stratified society (technological haves and have-nots), where education, whether it be in elementary school or university, often means dragging students to the keyboard for the first time. Bringing first time typist to a QWERTY keyboard is like teaching infants how to walk with snow shoes on.
Steven Jay Gould (1991), the evolutionary biologist, uses this example of the QWERTY keyboard to argue that what gets fixed in evolution, in nature and in culture, does not necessarily make sense over the course of evolutionary adaptation. Gould is fatalistic about our “indenture to QWERTY.” In evolution, he asks, “why fret over lost optimality.” But you need not be so fatalistic about yourself, your students, and your children. Because the computer allows us humans to be both dinosaurs and mammals on the same keyboard, if not in the same person.
Every keyboard manufactured, every computer sold, every work-station in schools and business should be configured to offer the users the choice between QWERTY and Dvorak. The Dvorak Simplified Keyboard:
- is easier to learn,
- causes in less fatigue,
- results in less errors, and
- offers more speed.
Sometimes, low-tech and low-cost is just right!
A Techno-Philosophical Postscript on the Future of Scripting
The final question that needs to be address, however, is the survival of the keyboard itself in our technological futures. Does the future of computing include a keyboard at all or will our “writing” be in the form of dictation or video. Here we must consider not only the realm of technological capabilities, but also discuss the muddle of linguistic philosophy. Why do we often write, even when we can use the phone? Why is the book “always” better than the movie (even though we enjoy the movie)?
I would argue with Paul Ricoeur (1976) that writing, among other things, is a kind of “iconic augmentation” of an otherwise entropic reality. Writing and reading provide a semiotic simplification which makes reality more intelligible by its ability to focus our thoughts and set free our imaginations. For instance, digitized video and audio can embody imagination, but it is quite another thing to express the concept of “imagination.” The technology of language, especially written-language, is enormously powerful through its capacity to productively organize a meaning-filled life.
Computer-Mediated Dictation may be an option for the technologically privileged in the not too distant future, but probably not in time for the Hal-type interface of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Dictation, however, has always involved creative transcription by secretaries or authors. Even with the possibility of direct oral-transcription by a computer, this technology of inscription will continue to require extensive editing by somebody via some kind of keyboard.
So however exciting the gee-whiz effects of the new hypermedia and virtual reality, the real of work of intelligence, discovery, invention, and meaning will continue to be mediated through the inscription of language. I’d placed my bets on a long-life expectancy of writing and therefore the keyboard too. So I end as I began by cursing that damn QWERTY Keyboard and extolling the virtues of the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard. This low tech, low cost solution to a big time computer problem holds real promise for a technologically accessible, healthy, and efficient society.
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Dvorak, August, et.al. Typewritting Behavior. 1936.
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Brontosaurus. New York: Norton, 1991.
Joyce, Bonnie and Roy Moxley. “Comparing Children’s Typing Skills Using the Dvorak and QWERTY Keyboards on a Microcomputer.” #ED313002.
Ricoeur, Paul. Interpretation Theory: Discourse and the Surplus of Meaning.
Fort Worth, Texas Christian University Press, 1976.