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RC Example, Passage #1 Path Dependence

The content delves into the concept of path dependence in economics, illustrating how past decisions influence future choices and the persistence of certain practices or products due to inertia, despite the availability of more efficient alternatives.
  • Path dependence is introduced with the basic premise that historical choices impact future decisions, using the QWERTY keyboard as a primary example.
  • The discussion expands on the theory of path independence, highlighting the role of contingent, unpredictable events in setting a course that becomes resistant to change.
  • Economist Douglass North's perspective introduces a dynamic view of path dependence, suggesting multiple contingent events can influence the direction of economic processes, offering a slightly different take on the concept.
  • The QWERTY keyboard example is revisited to discuss its endurance over alternatives like the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, suggesting reasons beyond mere inertia for its continued use.
  • The passage concludes by emphasizing that the QWERTY keyboard serves as an illustrative example to explore the broader concept of path dependence, setting the stage for further analysis in subsequent discussions.
Introduction to Path Dependence
Contingent Events and Path Dependence
Dynamic Processes in Path Dependence

The passage

In economics, the idea of path dependence centers around the basic idea that the past affects the future, and that the continued use of a product or practice, despite newer or more efficient options, can be explained by the preference to continue upon an already established path. The theory of path dependence proposes that timing and sequence matter, that economic processes have multiple possible paths of outcomes rather than one unique path, and that a minor, or fleeting example can have important and irreversible influences on the market allocation of resources. Perhaps the most well-known example of path dependence is the use of the “QWERTY” keyboard, which originated with the early typewriter, but which has endured despite the question whether it is suboptimal and inefficient.

Some researchers, such as James Mahoney, contend that path dependence is specifically linked to "contingent" occurrences—occurrences that cannot be explained on the basis of prior events or historical conditions and thus have an element of the unpredictable, the unintentional, and the truly random. Mahoney explains that path dependence can be thought of as a sequence that starts with this contingent first step that could lead in multiple directions, but once the sequence begins, there is then an accumulated resistance to reverting to one of the other possible directions—once the QWERTY keyboard was in use, it became the standard and other configurations were less likely to be used. Other researchers have argued that these contingent events are necessary to distinguish path dependence from other mechanisms, such as adaptive expectations (in which people base their expectations about what will happen in the future based on what has happened in the past).

Economist Douglass North has put forth that the path should be considered a dynamic process, not limited to a starting contingent event, but a complex branching process with multiple contingent events along the way that provide viable alternatives. As with the example of the QWERTY keyboard, there were opportunities to adapt other designs, such as the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, introduced in the early 1900s with a design that claims to reduce errors and increase efficiency, but which never became popular despite the fact that most modern computer operating systems offer an option allowing the user to switch to the Dvorak layout. Some argue that alternatives such as the Dvorak are not more optimal, as they claim, and that while the original use of the QWERTY keyboard might have been the critical juncture for setting the path, it might not necessarily be limited by contingency.