adopting new technology -- 3/16/22

Today's selection -- from Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared M. Diamond. Not all new technology is adopted, even if it is more efficient and useful. For example, a keyboard that would facilitate faster typing was never embraced by society:

"Once an inventor has discovered a use for a new technology, the next step is to persuade society to adopt it. Merely having a bigger, faster, more powerful device for doing something is no guarantee of ready accep­tance. Innumerable such technologies were either not adopted at all or adopted only after prolonged resistance. Notorious examples include the U.S. Congress's rejection of funds to develop a supersonic transport in 1971, the world's continued rejection of an efficiently designed typewriter keyboard, and Britain's long reluctance to adopt electric lighting. What is it that promotes an invention's acceptance by a society?

"Let's begin by comparing the acceptability of different inventions within the same society. It turns out that at least four factors influence acceptance.

"The first and most obvious factor is relative economic advantage compared with existing technology. While wheels are very useful in modern industrial societies, that has not been so in some other societies Ancient Native Mexicans invented wheeled vehicles with axles for use as toys, but not for transport. That seems incredible to us, until we reflect that ancient Mexicans lacked domestic animals to hitch to their wheeled vehicles, which therefore offered no advantage over human porters.

"A second consideration is social value and prestige, which can override economic benefit (or lack thereof). Millions of people today buy designer jeans for double the price of equally durable generic jeans -- because the social cachet of the designer label counts for more than the extra cost. Similarly, Japan continues to use its horrendously cumbersome kanji writ­ing system in preference to efficient alphabets or Japan's own efficient kana syllabary -- because the prestige attached to kanji is so great.

"Still another factor is compatibility with vested interests. This book, like probably every other typed document you have ever read, was typed with a QWERTY keyboard, named for the left-most six letters in its upper row. 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 improve­ments 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 Dvorak keyboard, a faster and more ergonomic alternative to the QWERTY layout.

"While the story of the QWERTY keyboard may sound funny, many similar cases have involved much heavier economic consequences. Why does Japan now dominate the world market for transistorized electronic consumer products, to a degree that damages the United States's balance of payments with Japan, even though transistors were invented and pat­ented in the United States? Because Sony bought transistor licensing rights from Western Electric at a time when the American electronics consumer industry was churning out vacuum tube models and reluctant to compete with its own products. Why were British cities still using gas street lighting into the 1920s, long after U.S. and German cities had converted to electric street lighting? Because British municipal governments had invested heav­ily in gas lighting and placed regulatory obstacles in the way of the compet­ing electric light companies.

"The remaining consideration affecting acceptance of new technologies is the ease with which their advantages can be observed. In A.D. 1340, when firearms had not yet reached most of Europe, England's earl of Derby and earl of Salisbury happened to be present in Spain at the battle of Tarifa, where Arabs used cannons against the Spaniards. Impressed by what they saw, the earls introduced cannons to the English army, which adopted them enthusiastically and already used them against French sol­diers at the battle of Crecy six years later."


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author:

Jared M. Diamond

title:

Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

publisher:

W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

date:

Copyright 2005, 2003, 1997 by Jared Diamond

pages:

247-249
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