The World that Could Have Been

June 13, 2019 Path Dependency Natasha Frost Dvorak Banana

Gros Michel bananas in various stages of ripening on a counterGros Michel bananas in various stages of ripening on a counter

A while back, I read about a banana variety that used to dominate shelves across Europe: The Gros Michel banana was famed for its easy transportability, resilient peel, and–most importantly–its great taste. Unfortunately, this banana was kept in monoculture and therefore quite susceptible to disease–which struck it mercilessly.

(…) in the 1950s, Panama disease, a wilt caused by the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense, wiped out vast tracts of Gros Michel plantations in Central America (…)

Today, the Gros Michel is still grown in a few places in Central America, but in consumer markets it has been all but replaced by the Cavendish variety, a banana whose taste… well it pales in comparison.

In an article on Gastro Obscura, Natasha Frost quotes people who want to try the Gros Michel—or were lucky enough to get a taste:

Online, people speak of it in revered digital tones: I am absolutely dying to try one,” one banana forum user writes, promising to pay an arm and a leg” for them. Another claims they are so delicious that regular Cavendish bananas are disgusting by comparison.

Why am I telling you about a banana you’re missing out on? Not just because monoculture now threatens even our disgusting bananas. No, I’m writing about it because it’s just one more example in a history that kills me: A history of a world that could have been better, were it not for ill-conceived design.

Earlier today I stumbled upon the Wikipedia entry for the Dvorak keyboard, an alternative design for the computer (or typewriter!) keyboard that promises to make typing not just faster, but ultimately better: Invented in the 1930s, the Dvorak layout places the most commonly used letters in one row, reducing the distance fingers have to travel across the keyboard, maximizing the speed of typing, and–apparently–reducing strain on the wrists. Although there are doubts it’s all that great, the Dvorak keyboard has the appeal of not being based on a typewriter cartels layout but rather on a carefully considered and thought-out solution.

Alas, the fate is as clear as that of the Gros Michel:

Although the Dvorak design is the only other keyboard design registered with ANSI and is provided with all major operating systems, attempts to convert universally to the Dvorak design have not succeeded.

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