Saturday, March 31, 2007

Fable of the Keys

I have just started reading Diane Coyle's The Soulful Science: What Economists Really Do and Why It Matters, and I am already disappointed 60 some pages into the book.

In discussing the latest development in growth theory, Diane mentioned the idea of path dependency as if it is an idea that is widely accepted and non-controversial.

This is simply not true.

The common example used by many to explain the concept of path dependency is related to the keyboard arrangement of your computer(or what used to be typewriter). The arrangement that we have now is called the QWERTY system. Paul David, an economic historian at Standard, published a paper back in the mid-eighties arguing that the QWERTY arrangement is inefficient. The only purpose of that arrangement is to slow typist down in order to avoid the jamming of keys. However, with the passage of time, that jamming problem no longer is relevant. Yet, the QWERTY system persists even though better alternative exists. That alternative system is called Dvorak system. Hence, claimed David, the market fails to shift to a more efficient keyboard arrangement as if it is locked into a particular path of development. That is more or less how the concept of path dependency comes to be known among economists.

The idea is interesting, I have to admit. But is it correct, that is what really matters at the end of the day.

In early 1990s, using historical material recording results on typing contests involving the two keyboard arrangements, two economists (Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis) find out that the claim that Dvorak is a better keyboard arrangemen than QWERTY is simply not substantiated by facts. The title of that paper is aptly called "The Fable of the Keys" and is publised in Journal of Law and Economics. Want to learn about the whole debate, read this book.

Of course, Diane is fully entitled to use David's work in her book. But I expect more even handed treatment. I wish she at least could have mentioned studies which seem to contradict David's claim. She didn't and I am disappointed.

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