Monthly Archives: April 2011

ode to underwood

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Earlier this week, the last typewriter (manual one that is) was made at a factory in Mumbai, India before it closes its doors for good.  Some typewriters are still being manufactured by other companies.  Headquartered in the U.S., Brother and Swintec still make electric typewriters and ribbons. But Godrej and Boyce, was the last company to make desktop, stand-alone manual typewriters.  There’s still a couple companies in China and Taiwan, according to NPR, that make portable manual typewriters, but their numbers are dwindling.

Surprised that this didn’t happen sooner?  Consider some advantages of the manual typewriter:

No electricity required. The manual typewriter doesn’t need to be plugged in.

No need for a printer.  It’s a self-printing laptop.

You don’t need to worry about identity theft.

You can’t  hit “reply all” by accident.

If you live in a country where the climate and the power grid are not reliable enough to sustain a modern computer, no worries.

The last 200 machines manufactured by Godrej and Boyce were Arabic language typewriters, targeted at developing nations.  Defense contractors and intelligence personal were among the last customers of the Indian typewriter company. They would buy typewriters so that their correspondence was untraceable and unhackable.

On the ether-web, nothing ever really disappears, and yet computer-generated information is also very unstable. The Internet is like the planet Jupiter. Gaseous bursts of seemingly infinite information erupt and cause a stir, but the state of any given file is fluid, subject to sudden death and rebirth.

Take this typewriter story for example.  A UK web masher reported that the “last typewriter factory left in the world” had closed.  Within minutes, list servs, twitterers, and even major news outlets ran postmortems, pronouncing the typewriter dead.  A few hours later, after everyone had thoroughly made  fools of themselves, the traditional press as well as 0nline watchdog groups, stepped in to point out (a bit too smugly) that no, in fact, the typewriter isn’t really dead. There are still many companies making electric typewriters or portable manual typewriters.  All this nostalgia is hypocritical and premature, they cautioned.

To that I say, the frontier was mourned long before the last Native American died. See what I’m getting at?  Native American people and culture are very much alive today, one hundred years after the Wild West turned into Hollywood. The point is not whether it’s technically true that the last typewriter factory in the world has gone out of business, the point is that people were ready to accept that truth. This is a clear case of truthiness. It seemed plausible to us, that this day must inevitably arise– Oh look! Here it is!  Of course this news would be announced on the Internet; that’s how we know it’s truthy.  To me, the fact that we lament the loss of the typewriter is more interesting than the technicalities of whether or not this fading technology has in fact ceased to be.

Did we lament the last horse and buggy?  The last amputation without anesthetic? The last delivery of the pony express?  The last wooden outhouse?  There were probably some late adopters to toilet technology; some people may have mistrusted them or saw no reason to upgrade.  But in general, once towns in the U.S. had adequate plumbing to support them, porcelain toilets were implemented and heralded as an improvement. Collectors and historians will always be fascinated by technology from an older time, but this typewriter nostalgia seems more widespread. Lamenting the death of the typewriter highlights underlying misgivings about where our technology–and the written word– is headed.

Today, the image of a computer is almost inseparable from people’s conception of the word “technology.”  And yet, this news about typewriter, a hundred-year-old technology, was shared and retweeted all across cyberspace. “Really? The last typewriter? No, it can’t be true! That makes me sad. An end of an era.”  Meanwhile, other online mavens quibbled with the details, entirely missing the point that the melancholy, bittersweet reactions to the news of the typewriter’s demise indicate some sense of loss amid our “progress.”

People so often lapse into technological determinism that it’s refreshing to see outpourings of young, old, and middle aged commentators giving the typewriter it’s final defense.  I’ve done my research and know that while the typewriter has changed shape, it is not strictly speaking dead, but I’d still like to add my voice to the mourners with one final plug for going unplugged:

The manual typewriter controls your speed of thought.

Typewriters slow down your thought process to a reflective level perfect for serious writing.  You can’t go back and delete the inaccurate, sexist, stereotypical comment you just made on someone else’s work. You have to think before you type.  In the early 20th century typewriters made communication easier, but they didn’t foster a culture of self-absorbed blogging (Don’t look now, I’m getting meta again!). Typewriters make you sigh into your words. The heavy, satisfying clicks of the keys sound like strokes of a precise hammer. You feel more deliberate when you write on a typewriter, more important. You can record what you have to say faster and more legibly than by handwriting, and yet you also benefit from anticipating the weight and finality of your words.

A type-written word on a page feels like beautiful graffiti; once it’s there, it can’t be moved.  It speaks with authority and long breaths. It exists in a very real, physical way that our tactile nature responds to.  How easily I can change my mind, writing on this blog!  I could post something today, reverse it completely tomorrow, and you my dear readers would have no idea.  I could snooker you all.  Integrity is at a much higher premium in the digital world.

It’s nice to have your own little tesseract across cyberspace to vent and pontificate, but a computer doesn’t keep you honest.  Sometimes it’s better to type your words slowly, one by one,  on paper, leaving time to breathe.

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