The good folks at Edge.org organized a symposium, and 164 thinkers contributed suggestions. John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University, wrote that people should be more aware of path dependence. This refers to the notion that often “something that seems normal or inevitable today began with a choice that made sense at a particular time in the past, but survived despite the eclipse of the justification for that choice.”
For instance, typewriters used to jam if people typed too fast, so the manufacturers designed a keyboard that would slow typists. We no longer have typewriters, but we are stuck with the letter arrangements of the qwerty keyboard.
Path dependence explains many linguistic patterns and mental categories, McWhorter continues. Many people worry about the way e-mail seems to degrade writing skills. But there is nothing about e-mail that forbids people from using the literary style of 19th-century letter writers. In the 1960s, language became less formal, and now anybody who uses the old manner is regarded as an eccentric.