History Technology

QWERTY vs Dvorak vs Colemak, and Tangents

I remember trying to learn how to type using QWERTY. It was back in elementary school, and one of my classmate’s dad was volunteering to teach us kiddos how to type. He would wheel over a big cart of chunky Mac’s, and we were each assigned to a numbered computer. It was super exciting stuff; back then, getting access to a laptop in school was a pretty big deal.

Obviously, the keyboard layout that we learned was the QWERTY layout. We were all turtles at first, but after drilling, training, and repetition, it stuck. And, as we all probably can observe, to this day we’re still using the same skills we learned back then.

Now personally, I’m pretty interested in ergonomics, human computer interaction, cognitive science (the learning process, memory formation), education, identifying social constructs and inefficiencies. When I learned that the QWERTY layout was flat out inefficient compared to Dvorak and Colemak, I had to do more research. Why is the whole world (or at least the USA, since I can’t vouch the layouts of keyboards for different languages) so entrenched in QWERTY when it is obviously inferior compared to other layouts? What would it take to shift a new generation onto a different, but better, keyboard layout? Why is it, when research, mathematics, and our other higher cognitive faculties could easily be put into use to design everything better, that we are stuck with inferior, antiquated systems that pollute the quality of our life, without us even realizing?

The last one, to me, is one of the greatest secret sins of life; that we accept what is given to us, but not what is necessarily good for us. It pains me to know that, the reason why I use QWERTY is because I didn’t have a choice. Back in elementary school, I didn’t know what personal investments were. The concept of 10 years into the future was unimaginable to me.

And this brings us to another major topic, which I will go into more depth in a later article. Our education system, quite frankly, sucks. But if we as a society decided to redesign it from the ground up based off the collective wisdom we have gained from a growing body of scientific research, we could improve the lives of almost everybody on the planet. If we we would talk about investment not in terms of making money, but in terms of advancing the collective human civilization and improving the quality of innumerable lives, education would be the single investment that would guarantee the highest returns.

And now, let’s zoom back into this whole idea of QWERTY vs Dvorak vs Colemak. The realist, the pragmatist inside me says: what’s the point? You’ve already (hopefully) mastered the QWERTY keyboard. Why waste hours of your time relearning what you already know? Pick something else to learn. Prioritize.

But the idealist, the dreamer inside me says: why should I be defined by a choice that was forced upon me? Why should I continue living life inefficiently, in- optimally, meekly?

My reasoning, logical side says: learning anything takes time and recurring practice. But there are some processes that can be implemented automatically and practiced near subconsciously. For example, anyone can train themselves to become ambidextrous with willful practice— at first. If you can make it a habit to brush your teeth, flip the switch, grab doors, etc. with the opposite hand, every time you do such an action, you are reinforcing the thing you are trying to learn whilst at the same time making it more and more automatic. The cycle of automaticity and reinforcement fuels itself. If I can take advantage of this cycle, I could potentially parallelize learning many new skills and knowledge domains at the same time.

Furthermore, learning new things is an investment that will pay off in the long term. If I’m still alive in |x| number of hours, and I spend |y| number of hours learning and practicing a new skill, then I have |x-y| hours to fully enjoy that new skill I’ve learnt and mastered. I’m willing to bet that |x-y| would be a decent amount of time (I hope).

So going back to the main point. I’m going to learn Colemak. And I’ll be approaching future goals with key insights I’ve experienced and observed:

Simple is better. Moderation is best. Don’t overcomplicate things. There are examples where simple fails: quitting cold turkey, new year resolutions, ill planning and judgement. There are examples where complexity fails: bloated softwares, gridlocked governments, structural inefficiencies. In order to succeed, you can prescribe yourself to no absolutes. Rather, you must be constantly diagnosing the state of the condition (environmental, mental, physical, etc.) and choosing the best courses of action using your higher faculties as tools of judgement.

Also, another insight: sometimes the best way to learn is by doing. Especially when it comes to learning a new editor (Vim/Emacs), shortcuts, and other activities and skills that require base-level brain processing.

So the plan for now?

Get a Colemak keyboard cover. When it’s on, it’s Colemak only. When it’s off, it’s QWERTY time. We’ll see how this goes!

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