Friday, June 10, 2011

What A Computer Keyboard Teaches Us About Resistance To Change

Photo Credit: Diorama Sky
Computers have become an essential part of our lives. From creating documents to paying bills to connecting with friends online, the personal computer has entrenched itself into the everyday lives of billions of people across the globe.

But it hasn't always been this way. When I was in college, hardly any of my peers owned a personal computer. I usually walked over to the computer lab on campus when I had a paper due and, on a few occasions, used the PC of the one guy on my dorm floor who owned one. But I also frequently used my roommates typewriter. I would venture to say that most young people of day have never even seen a typewriter, much less used one.

But before the advent of the personal computer, most of us used typewriters. MentalFloss.com, a website with a wealth of trivia and obscure history facts, recently offered a fascinating history of the typewriter, the creation of the "QWERTY" keyboard and why our insistence of staying with what we're used to may be hindering our progress.

Mental Floss provides the background:

On the QWERTY layout (the modern keyboard layout, based on the first six letters of the top letter row):
"Christopher Sholes was primarily responsible for QWERTY, but it took years of tinkering to arrive at the layout we know today. The first model that Sholes built mimicked a piano keyboard, with the letters placed alphabetically. By the time the machines began to be mass-produced in the 1870s, the QWERTY keyboard was almost identical to the one in front of you."
On whether there is any evidence that the QWERTY layout is the most effective
"Not a shred. In fact, all evidence points to QWERTY being terribly inefficient. The most accessible row of the keyboard is the second, or ‘home’ row. So it would make sense if the most commonly used letters in the English language were there, right? But that’s not how QWERTY rolls. About 70% of words in English can be typed with the letters DHIATENSOR, yet only 4 of those 10 letters fall on QWERTY’s home row. The letter A falls on the home row (the only vowel to do so), but it must be struck with what is for most typists the weakest finger — the left pinky."
On why an inefficient layout was created:
"To slow down fast typists. Sounds ridiculous, right? But that’s the consensus among historians. On earlier arrangements of the keys, ones where the most commonly used letters were more sensibly placed on the home row, typists could get on a real roll, even when using the hunt and peck method. The problem with that? With all the popular letters close together, the keys got jammed. The typist had to stop to un-jam them. What made that worse was that in the earliest models of the typewriter, the keys struck the back of the paper, so the typist was unable to see jams — and the resulting mistakes — until the page was removed from the machine. Slowing the typist down a bit by dispersing the most commonly used letters all over the keyboard was preferable to wasting even more time because of jammed keys."
On why the Dvorak Keyboard, a more efficient layout of the keys, isn't more broadly accepted:
"Same reason we don’t use the metric system. We embrace its inefficiency and prefer it to the pain of switching to something better. By the time the DSK was introduced in 1932, several generations of typists had been using QWERTY. It was by far the most readily available layout, and the one that was taught in most typing schools. So even after technological advances solved the key jamming issue, we kept the relic of the problem – the QWERTY keyboard."
Because we're all used to typing in a certain manner and those of us that are trained typists are comfortable with a keyboard, we are resistant to change. Even when the keyboards that many of us spend hours on each day were specifically designed to slow us down, we still go with the flow.

I can't help but make some connections between the keyboard and Christian ministry.  Like the keyboard that was created ages ago for reasons limited to its time, many methods of ministry continue in widespread use because it is what we are used to and what we've been trained in.  Whether it impacts a new generation of people is really not that important because it's what we know and we go with what we know. 

For example, there are ministries that still distribute messages on tape -- producing cassette tapes and video tapes of sermons -- for a culture that consumes digital forms of media.  There are churches that don't have a website -- when not having a website means to many seekers that you don't even exist. The resistance to new forms of communication and technology will be (and is) the death knell for untold numbers of ministries.

Sure, we can all get our work done with a QWERTY keyboard.  It may not be as efficient as other layouts but we'll eventually get what we think we want.  We're comfortable with the results.  I wonder in what ways we could do ministry differently that would feel awkward and uncomfortable at first but would lead to a greater effectiveness in the mission God has called us to.  I thank God for my peers that are willing to be the Dvoraks of the world!

2 comments:

Stephen Phillip Porter said...

Another great post. I studied and worked in technical writing for a few years; then started working with Pulse Outreach in Minneapolis, which is a college ministry associated with Billy Graham and Louis Palua and prides itself on being technically savvy in evangelism; and now I'm teaching technical writing online and attending a Baptist church in Southern TX that doesn't do much with technology at all, much to the youth leaders' chagrin. So this post hits home in a lot of ways. Thanks.

scottcrocker said...

Thanks for your comments, Stephen. It sounds like your background in technical writing probably have provided you with a number of experiences that prove the point of this post. Thanks for reading!

Scott