This week I heard about a 12-year-old girl who wanted a typewriter for Christmas. As it happened, a very old manual typewriter was found, and she sat happily pushing down on those round keys to thunk thunk thunk against the paper, writing with a form of technology that mostly stopped being used before she was born.
I also mostly stopped being used before she was born, so I’m old enough that I’ve seen plenty of typewriters. I typed up novels, a master’s thesis (in both English and Russian, and damn that cursed process), stories, letters, and maybe even poems.
I hated typewriters. Sometimes I needed a spray can of whiteout to cover up the mistakes, and I would often lose sight of where the paper was on the roll, so I’d type down too close to the bottom. If it were up to me now, every typewriter would be at the bottom of the ocean, and I wouldn’t even save any for the museums, except one for a 12-year-old girl who inexplicably wants it.
A typewriter probably seems exotic to her, something from the ancient past, like the way Thomas Jefferson wrote. From this story I got to thinking about how the technology we use to write can affect our attitude toward the words we write. Consider, for instance, the difference in how someone feels about the words when doing a crossword puzzle and writing with a pen instead of a pencil.
For illustration, let’s take the phase “I stand here” and consider how it feels with different ways of recording it. If I write this phrase on parchment, dipping a quill feather pen into a bottle of ink, would it feel different than if I quickly type it on my smart phone and pop it onto Twitter? In the first case, it is slower to write, it will remain private unless I go to a good bit of trouble to publicize it, and there is more time to think about what I’m doing. In the second case, I might write so quickly that I hardly think about it at all, yet ironically, given the possibility of almost no thought, I can instantly post it in front of the entire earth.
Some aspects of writing that change depending on the technology include the expense of creating it, how public or private it will be, the effort involved in writing, the speed of both writing and receiving, and how permanent it will be. These things come together in complicated ways.
Consider other possible ways of writing the phrase “I stand here” and how different it would feel in each case: carved into a stone as compared to typed on a computer screen without hitting the save button, painted at night with a can of spray paint on the side of a train, or carefully painted in three-foot high letters on a wall mural?
Or what if we slowly tapped out a letter to a friend on an ancient typewriter? Would it feel like we had gone to more trouble and devoted more time to do something special for our friend, and that we had thought more carefully about what to say, since we couldn’t easily erase it? Would the same words written on an old manual typewriter mean more than a text on a phone?
I cannot leave this blog entry without holding up a pen in support of freedom of thought and speech—here, throughout the world, and right now especially, in France. Je suis Charlie.