In various places on the Internet, I have shared the story of how I switched from typing using the standard QWERTY layout to using the alternative, more efficient Dvorak layout. However, after using Dvorak for some time, working my typing speed to over 100 WPM, I ultimately chose to switch back to QWERTY (more on my experience here). Why would anyone re-learn how to type twice1?
The main reasons I had for doing this were,
- compatibility with the world at large (I had to help other people use their computers), and
- the gains/advantages I got from switching to an alternative keyboard layout came mainly from improved typing technique rather than a "better layout".
- issues interfacing with software designed for a QWERTY-based windows, such as shortcuts keys in games/graphics applications/etc2.
Great Internet Historian Xah Lee has called my default-embracing ways QWERTY Theory. I like this label because "theory" implies it is not just about keyboards. It is an approach to technology generally which advocates making the best use of commonly available default options, focusing on improving technique rather than exploiting customization.
This article will detail what QWERTY Theory is and isn't and how it can help you make a million bucks. Let's get started!
Thou Shalt Not Covet
QWERTY Theory inherits from a Judeo-Christian moral framework.
You shall not covet your neighbor's house. You shall not covet your neighbor's wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.
We begin with the axiom: the basic tools you have in front of you are good enough. Avert your eyes from the fancy-things others possess and meditate upon how you can do better with what you already have to face whatever issues are in front of you.
- Developing more sustainable typing habits by training new muscle memory to hit default key bindings (e.g. pressing the CTRL key with your thumbs rather than pinkies3)
- Doing physical training using simple or no equipment (e.g. dumbells you already have) rather than signing up for a fancy gym, buying an expensive new machine, etc.
- Practicing more on your $200 guitar instead of looking at ads for a $2000 guitar.
The time may come to upgrade your tools, but for now think about what you can do, envisioning how you can use the tools you have better. QWERTY Theory is about pursuing mastery of the mundane, focusing on building upon rather than inverting tradition.
When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.
—Proverbs 11:2 (NIV)
QWERTY theory is suitable for non-geniuses who want to be productive with existing infrastructure. Chances are, you are not going to be the chosen one who is going to revolutionize computer input devices 4. Therefore, it is important to be able to work effectively with standard setups.
It may at first seem "efficient" to optimize things like keyboard entry speed, but there are many "hidden costs" that come with every deviation from the "vanilla".
Custom configurations of software often amounts to demanding special attention that should be reserved for disabled people who have no other choice but to use speialized setups. QWERTY theory says to not LARP as being an oppressed class because being a nerd is a not a disability 5.
Case Study: Fahrenheit vs Celsius
Advocates of alternative ways of doing things (e.g. typing in Dvorak versus QWERTY) often claim some "scientific" basis for why their way of doing things is superior. Oftentimes, further inspection reveals nonsense.
For instance, consider the claim that "using Celsius is more scientific than using Fahrenheit". Someone hipster living in the United States may go around using Celsius and causing trouble for everyone around them. Is Celsius really better than Fahrenheit?
When looking at whole integer values (e.g. 85 degrees F), Fahrenheit has better resolution than Celsius. This is relevant because sometimes displays will only allow two or three digits, or only show integer temperatures rather than crowd the UI with a decimal. If some numb-skull tells you that Celsius is more "scientific" than Fahrenheit, just tell them that Celsius and Fahrenheit are both linear transformations off Kelvin and that you aren't living at sea level and boiling water there (situation used to determine Celsius' offset from Kelvin).
A better reason to use Celsius over Fahrenheit is because Celsius is a more widely adopted in the world at large; QWERTY Theory! It is not because Celsius "is more scientific" or some bullshit like that. It is to fall into line with convention.
Depending on who/what we want to engage with in the world, the scope in which we evaluate what the QWERTY Theory approved choice is changes. For instance, if you intend to spend your whole life in the United States doing business almost exclusively with fellow Americans, then it makes sense to use Fahrenheit all the time. However, if you are a global traveler, then you must use a more global scope resolution strategy to choose what a good "default" is. It may be more practical to you to mainly use Celsius, converting to Fahrenheit only when necessary, even for someone living in the United States. In this sense, the globalist may want the US to adopt the metric system, celsius, etc. to conform with global standards.
Analogous reasoning can be applied to setting up computing environments. If you just stay on only one or two of your own computers and do your own thing all day (e.g. living in a cabin in the woods), then your scope may be just you and what you do. QWERTY Theory doesn't mean much to you.
However, if you work in tech support or have friends/family members around you who also use computers, then suddenly it matters more that you understand the general computing environments that most people find themselves in. That is to say, it might be a good idea to have a Windows machine even if you prefer to do most stuff on Linux yourself.
Many nerds eventually repent and turn away from their alt-keyboard fetishizing, returning to their QWERTYc roots. In "Porn, Zen, and .vimrc" (Koncevičius ) we see a heartfelt confession of an over-config'er (in this case, someone who dived deeply into customizing the Vim text editor):
...implemented defaults and design was there for a reason. Some of my perceived inconsistencies were products of my limited understanding. I made assumptions about what a particular command should do, when it should be used, and how. But those assumptions were not always warranted.
QWERTY Theory is about embracing the fact that the shapes technologies around us have taken have survived and thrived for reasons we may not immediately understand. Properties may arise that were no individuals' "original design" but are rather products of processes of collaboration.
QWERTY theory protects against the "efficient inefficiency" of assuming you are more clever than all sorts of people in the past because you discovered some quick "hack" to optimize something in your life 6.
QWERTY Theory is seeing that the "illogical" nature of English spelling is necessarily "stupid"; there is no need to rush to optimize English spelling to be more phonetic. Who assumed a more phonetic writing system is better? Perhaps, we should speak more like how we write instead of writing more like we speak?
QWERTY Theory is leveraging existing systems, improving technique, and preparing for full-scale change rather than pre-maturely optimizing unwieldy channels.
From friends on the Xah Lee Discord Server
@XahLeefor your grading this article with a 'C' and your critical feedback
@Emilyfor showing me the
vimconfig article quoted in the conclusion.
@Frenziefor introducing me to the term "efficient inefficiency"
@myrkraverkfor editorial helps
@R34P3Rfor sharing examples of "life-hacker" optimizer types
Text input in many other languages builds off QWERTY by default as well. For instance, I type Japanese and Chinese, which rely on Romanization for input. The 'underlying keyboard' is QWERTY. For Korean keyboards too, if you want to be able to quickly switch to English with one keypress (Windows), this second "layer" will be QWERTY. ↩
Pinkies are smaller, weaker fingers than thumbs. Pressing too many keys too often with pinkies can lead to injury! ↩
If some Apple executive who gets to decide the next Macbook keyboard happens to be reading this, I implore you consult the ergonomic keyboard community about how to improve keyboarding! A decision by Apple—a company involved in both hardware and software—can revolutionize things for decades to come! ↩
Live Action Role Play. A LARPer is someone pretending to be something they're really not. ↩
Stay tuned for upcoming article on "Bugpeople", rejection of tradition, and technophilia. ↩