Back in the glory days when Australia had locally made cars, I was lucky enough to be escorted through the Toyota plant in Altona, Victoria. At the end of the tour, I asked the plant manager why the Camry still had a spare tyre. He looked at me as if I had two heads, paused, and said, “Cars have always had spare tyres.” Statistics from roadside assistance providers show that only 11.3 per cent of all call-outs are related to wheels, tyres and flats (and further stats show that most people don’t change their own tyres). Contrast this figure with 40.7 per cent of calls for help were related to a flat battery; 10.5 per cent of calls were after the fuel had run out and 8.4 per cent of people that rang for assistance had locked themselves out of their car. Car manufacturers don’t provide a spare battery or spare fuel or blue packing tape to cover these situations yet they provide a spare tyre.
It started me thinking…What other technology do we have that is only there because it has always been there? In biology the term would be vestigial features – anatomical structures or patterns of behaviour that still exist but have outlived their usefulness.
The first that came to mind was the modern QWERTY keyboard. Through secretarial courses to TAFE to online versions, humans have been learning to touch type since 1888 – learning the layout of a QWERTY keyboard and typing without looking at the keys. In a few rare cases people have been recorded typing over 160 words per minute with this type of keyboard. The problem is that the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow people down. Way back when mechanical typewriters were being used, the long arms that came forward when you pressed on a key would sometimes jam against each other. The keyboard was designed to keep common letter runs on opposite sides of the keyboard and to slow down a typist to reduce the amount of jamming. When modern electronic typewriters were used, it removed the need for such a mechanism and a new keyboard was invented called the DVORAK keyboard which was designed to increase efficiency for an operator. Typists have been clocked at over 210 words per minute with a DVORAK but alas, we continue to use the QWERTY because “we have always used it.”
The next place I saw an obvious example was in the cockpit of most modern airliners (although the A380 seems to have finally started to make a move forward). If you look in most modern cockpits, you will still notice analogue dials, levers and knobs. Most of these are no longer connected physically to a flying system but instead they link to a computerised ‘fly-by-wire’ system that gives the impression of a physical connection. It would seem that old-school pilots expected a certain type of control which meant the following generation learned on the same system as their instructors, and the cockpit layout was passed along the line. The A380 is the first cockpit that has changed the look somewhat and a pilot looks more like a gamer with a joystick than a pilot – but some analogue knobs still persist.
If I go to the world of cars, we think of a traditional car that has an engine at the front of the car. The engine might operate optimally at around 85 degrees Celsius yet inside the combustion chamber the temperature hits over 200 degrees Celsius. Enter the radiator and water cooling and airflow through the front grille. Electric cars don’t have an engine that produces anywhere near the same heat as an internal combustion engine but we still see electric cars with a ‘cooling grille’ despite no need. This is definitely in the category of it has always been so.
Smartphones with 3 letters on each number fall into this same category along with copper rivets to strengthen seams on jeans and the size of our credit cards directly linked to the size of Rolodex cards.
The next time you see a bit of technology never accept the answer that it is this way because it has always been this way. The best innovators in our history have questioned everything and accepted nothing.