Sunday, June 23, 2024

How QWERTY keyboards show the English dominance of tech

Computer scienceHow QWERTY keyboards show the English dominance of tech

Last week, MIT Technology Review published an excerpt from a new book, The Chinese Computer, which talks about how this problem was solved in China. After generations of work to sort Chinese characters, modify computer parts, and create keyboard apps that automatically predict the next character, it is finally possible for any Chinese speaker to use a QWERTY keyboard. 

But the book doesn’t stop there. It ends with a bigger question about what this all means: Why is it necessary for speakers of non-Latin languages to adapt modern technologies for their uses, and what do their efforts contribute to computing technologies?

I talked to the book’s author, Tom Mullaney, a professor of history at Stanford University. We ended up geeking out over keyboards, computers, the English-centric design that underlies everything about computing, and even how keyboards affect emerging technologies like virtual reality. Here are some of his most fascinating answers, lightly edited for clarity and brevity. 

Mullaney’s book covers many experiments across multiple decades that ultimately made typing Chinese possible and efficient on a QWERTY keyboard, but a similar process has played out all around the world. Many countries with non-Latin languages had to work out how they could use a Western computer to input and process their own languages.

Mullaney: In the Chinese case—but also in Japanese, Korean, and many other non-Western writing systems—this wasn’t done for fun. It was done out of brute necessity because the dominant model of keyboard-based computing, born and raised in the English-speaking world, is not compatible with Chinese. It doesn’t work because the keyboard doesn’t have the necessary real estate. And the question became: I have a few dozen keys but 100,000 characters. How do I map one onto the other? 

Simply put, half of the population on Earth uses the QWERTY keyboard in ways the QWERTY keyboard was never intended to be used, creating a radically different way of interacting with computers.

The root of all of these problems is that computers were designed with English as the default language. So the way English works is just the way computers work today.

M: Every writing system on the planet throughout history is modular, meaning it’s built out of smaller pieces. But computing carefully, brilliantly, and understandably worked on one very specific kind of modularity: modularity as it functions in English. 

And then everybody else had to fit themselves into that modularity. Arabic letters connect, so you have to fix [the computer for it]; In South Asian scripts, the combination of a consonant and a vowel changes the shape of the letter overall—that’s not how modularity works in English. 

The English modularity is so fundamental in computing that non-Latin speakers are still grappling with the impacts today despite decades of hard work to change things.

Mullaney shared a complaint that Arabic speakers made in 2022 about Adobe InDesign, the most popular publishing design software. As recently as two years ago, pasting a string of Arabic text into the software could cause the text to become messed up, misplacing its diacritic marks, which are crucial for indicating phonetic features of the text. It turns out you need to install a Middle East version of the software and apply some deliberate workarounds to avoid the problem.

M: Latin alphabetic dominance is still alive and well; it has not been overthrown. And there’s a troubling question as to whether it can ever be overthrown. Some turn was made, some path taken that advantaged certain writing systems at a deep structural level and disadvantaged others. 

That deeply rooted English-centric design is why mainstream input methods never deviate too far from the keyboards that we all know and love/hate. In the English-speaking world, there have been numerous attempts to reimagine the way text input works. Technologies such as the T9 phone keyboard or the Palm Pilot handwriting alphabet briefly achieved some adoption. But they never stick for long because most developers snap back to QWERTY keyboards at the first opportunity.

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