Thursday, May 5, 2011

(Caps) Lock-In

The idea of path dependence (or lock-in) is an incredibly useful concept that explains many of the ridiculous technological conventions currently in use by society. Best conceptualized as a sort of historical inertia for technology, path dependence is basically a symptom of incremental progress in innovation. Most technologies improve slowly over time, with peripheral modifications gradually adding up that never change the core ideas. Often this results in inefficient or inferior technologies persisting through time. Rockets are a great example, as is the "three-box" configuration of automobiles (engine compartment, cab, trunk).

Often the only way out of lock-in is to think big: General Motors' Hy-Wire concept car builds all the essential components (engine, fuel storage, system controls, crush zones, etc.) into a six-inch wheeled platform, thus allowing designers to snap on top any number of unconstricted car designs.

Probably the most famous example of lock-in is the qwerty keyboard. Originally designed to accommodate engineering limitations in typewriters, this preposterous technological dinosaur drastically limits the speed and convenience of our typing. A related absurdity is the caps-lock key: how often does the average person use it? (hint: not much) Now compare that with the frequency of accidental activation and the case for its continued existence disappears.

And it's happening: Google's new laptop replaces the caps-lock key with a search button. Many smartphone keyboards have an '@' key, which is a great idea, and I've also heard of a push to create an internet history eraser button. If you start looking, you'll see examples of path dependence everywhere. Let's start innovating from the ground up.

Question: does internet remix culture increase or decrease path-dependence?

1 comment:

  1. Always an interesting topic. Two points:

    1) Path dependence as we know it is essentially a hardware phenomenon. Therefore, as it stands, paths are determined on the production end only. Granted, the industrial producers can react to end-user stimuli, but that is only a collateral means of control. Frankly, I see no reason why end-users' ideas should shape industrial production in modern society any more than they did in past society. If producers are quicker to change "paths" it's probably due to advances in industrial design rather than the remix culture.

    2) However, in the near future technologies will come out that effectively give the power of active hardware modification to the end-user. This turns the equation on its head. For instance, you note a change in caps lock as being revolutionary? Well, look up the "razer switchblade", a concept computer utilizing LCD screens on each individual key that can change on the fly to represent letters, pictures, whatever.
    Imagine also a possible next step: keyboards made out of these things that physically mold to consumer whims:

    Heh, I should patent that idea.
    Anyway, as you see, the "paths" might one day be exclusively in consumer hands. Then and only then will we see what remix culture can really do.