The AK-47: an open source assault rifle? Andrew Leonard also mentions the QWERTY keyboard, which really has a remarkable story behind it. It just popped up in my reading of Guns, Germs, and Steel (highly recommended, and I’m sure to have more to say about it later):
Unbelievable as it may now sound, that keyboard layout was designed in 1873 as a feat of anti-engineering. It employs a whole series of perverse tricks designed to force typists to type as slowly as possible, such as scattering the commonest letters over all keyboard rows and concentrating them on the left side (where right-handed people have to use their weaker hand). The reason behind all of those seemingly counterproductive features is that the typewriters of 1873 jammed if adjacent keys were struck in quick succession, so that manufacturers had to slow down typists. When improvement in typewriters eliminated the problem of jamming, trials in 1932 with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent. But QWERTY keyboards were solidly entrenched by then. The vested interests of hundreds of millions of QWERTY typists, typing teachers, typewriter and computer salespeople, and manufacturers have crushed all moves toward keyboard efficiency for over 60 years.
The secret lives of taken-for-granted technologies is fascinating by itself, but there are also some political lessons hiding in there. Leonard mentions the benefits of the open-source business model, but more generally we can see that markets, the invisible hand notwithstanding, are really a conglomeration of interest groups formed in many ways by the quirks of history. Even if we assume efficiency and growth are the most important goals of society, which I don’t, corporations and other capital enterprises may be working for interests that are totally inefficient.
It doesn’t even require a monopoly, the typical boogeyman of unfettered capitalism. As we see from the above examples, entrenched cultural practices may be enough to impede all sorts of clear technological improvements. Another great example is mass transit, of which us Okies and other midwesterners are largely deprived. The failure to establish a light rail corridor from Norman, Oklahoma to Wichita, Kansas has a long and sad history, but one excuse given by opponents is that it would not be profitable. Yet as long as no convenient, inexpensive option is available, and the hidden costs of driving everywhere are suppressed, then people will remain uninterested (the link goes to the Times of India, but with a few exceptions his examples apply just as well here).
It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, all too eagerly propagated by the highway construction and the automobile industries, as well as the politicians they pay for. To break the cycle, we need both innovation and regulation, to make visible the hidden costs and tilt the economics in a more socially beneficial direction.
The world is running fine on QWERTY keyboards, inefficient as they may be, but in other areas the entrenched interests are steering us (pun intended) towards disaster.