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|reflect on the history and future of science & society. By P. Gomez-Romero|
Our technological evolution at your fingertips
Who controls our technological evolution?. At first sight we could think that we live in a society with a rational development of technology. For instance, all in a car seems to be in place and made to the human scale and needs. Also the ergonomic design of our houses and cities. And contrary to biological evolution, which has to manage with whatever is at hand, our social evolution can indeed be made to go backwards or change in any given way. Thus, the streets in a city can be changed with some effort to a more desirable configuration. And of course if an industrial design is defective or just perfectible, the almighty laws of the market will take care of replacing or improving it.
It's true that our cultural and technological evolution rests on different basis than the well known biological evolution, which in turn is clearly different from chemical evolution (see metaevolution). But it's also true that this social evolution shares some features with biological evolution. A characteristic balance between chance and necessity plays an important role in both of them.
if we analyze in some detail certain examples of technological evolution
we could be surprised. There are objects already part of our everyday life
which seem very normal to us but which raise intriguing questions when
we look at them in some depth.
who has suffered typewriting training can rightly guess that the arbitrary
positioning of keys on our so called QWERTY keyboards is not optimal. An
objective analysis will confirm their guessing : With the exception of
A, all vowels are located on the upper row, far away from the rest position
of the main (middle) row. And letter A itself being located at the leftmost
key of the middle row must be hit with our weakest pinky finger. In modern
keyboards this might be a minor problem, but in those old mechanical machines
that feature must have been torture for typing hands.
The origin of QWERTY could be an archetypal example of historical and technological evolution. Those who used or knew those old mechanical typewriters will undoubtedly remember their defects. One of the most typical was the jamming of two or more typebars caused by too rapid typing. Thus, in those old times, during the initial stages of development of the different machines, maximum speed was not equal to maximum efficiency. Furthermore, the first QWERTY prototype, a machine invented by C. L. Sholes in 1860, did not have the paper visible in front of the typist but hidden beneath the machine itself, held by a flat carriage. With this design the risk of ruining a whole typing session due to a non-detected jam was especially high and made even more important to make every effort to get a design which would minimize clashes. QWERTY resulted in fact from trial and error modifications of an originally alphabetical arrangement in order to minimize those clashing and jamming events. To accomplish this goal the keys were actually dispersed to avoid fast typing! (Note that the sequence DFGHJKL found on the middle row is an important fragment of thew alphabet with the vowels E and I removed). A compromise between speed and efficiency in a dull design tailor-made for the first QWERTY machine
the other hand, if that design was really so bad how could we explain that
QWERTY could survive after the introduction of the roller-platen and frontal
typing and eventually predominate over other more rational and efficient
keyboard arrangements in machines less prone to jam?
P.S. Many similar episodes could be tracked down through history. Among the most recent we might remember competing video systems (VHS vs. beta videos, today obsolete) or the Mac vs. PC antagonism. Finally, the proliferation of new standards in the world of computing and internet, standards which try to prevail by the force of users who can download them "for free" from the web, could be the closest, most recent example. Watch out, The QWERTY syndrome is probably at work right now not far from you.
A somewhat expanded account of this fascinating episode of technological evolution can be found in the book by S.J. Gould "Bully for Brontosaurus. Reflections in Natural History" W.W. Norton & Company. New York 1991. The original, more technical account corresponds to an article from Paul A. David "Understanding the Economics of QWERTY: The Necessity of History" (Economic History and the Modern Economist, W.N. Parker (Ed.) Basil Blackwell, New York, 1986, pp. 30-49)
Dr. Pedro Gomez-Romero (b. Almansa, Spain) (B.S., M.S. Univ. Valencia, Spain) (PhD Chemistry, Georgetown University, USA) is a scientist at the Materials Science Institute of Barcelona, (CSIC), Spain, where he works in the field of solid state chemistry, materials for rechargeable lithium batteries and related topics. Member of the American Asociation for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society and the Electrochemical Society. email@example.com
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Last modified: Feb.1, 2001
©Pedro Gómez-Romero, 2001