Inflexibility as a feature

Customizability is unequivocally good, because it allows the tool to fit their user better.

But, under a recent Hacker News submission, Pianists for Alternatively Sized Keyboards 🌐 - a movement for the adoption of keyboards of different sizes, due to the naturally different sizes of human hands - people were not only sceptical about the proposed benefits of the change, but some even enthusiastically rallied against the very idea!

The general arguments1 were as follows:

  1. Introduction of different keyboard sizes will make it even harder for someone to play a piano that is not their own.
  2. Due to the amount of already existing pianos, the change will take impractically long.
  3. Besides, it’s not really that big of a problem for expressibility, it’s just something people have to get used to.

Now there’s lots of obvious counter-arguments to this, but I still haven’t made up my mind on the matter, I just find it interesting to ponder.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed this issue (restrictively standardized interfaces) and counter-issues apply just to piano keyboards:

  • I, for example, stopped customizing vim specifically because of argument #1. Once I get used to my personalized vim config, I will stumble and feel awkward at a remote server that doesn’t have my .vimrc.
    • It’s a trade-off between constant, relatively small inefficiency, and an abrupt, large inefficiency.
    • The problem here is quite solvable - automatic dotfile syncing - but it still isn’t trivial, just as carrying your own piano isn’t.
  • I actually realized I ran into a similar issue in thoughts.technological-epiphenomena, except there I completely dismissed the idea of an uncustomizable interface as something inherently undesirable.

At face value, it’s quite ridiculous - I worry about being at a disadvantage in an unexpected situation; so I will handicap myself in all situations instead.

It’s the kind of thinking that might be applicable for situations of say, physical capability: perceived benefit being a nice, flat running track; possible unexpected situation being a muddy hill ⇒ I will instead train in less ideal conditions2. But it feels like this should not really be the case for tool use; after all, this is the analogy PASK uses on their webpage:

A simple analogy illustrates the point. Does it make sense that all men in an athletics race should have to wear the same size shoes? And that female athletes have to run in the same size shoes as the men? And that children have to run in the same size shoes as adults?

Of course, “I worry about not having correctly fitting shoes one day, so I will instead train in oversized shoes” makes significantly less sense.3

I wonder where the difference lies, or rather what are the conditions for customization to lose its benefits.

If I make any progress, I will return to this note ;) (11/23/2020)

  1. Roughly ordered by how valid I personally feel they are. 

  2. I should probably refrain from analogies using activities I am less than appropriately familiar with :/ 

  3. That is, unless one starts training barefoot - a “tool-less” environment that is by definition always available, which would correspond to editing text files with a magnetized needle 🌐 I guess?