Friday, June 6

The Retro Tech Allure of Typewriters

In the last days of the old millenium, I still cranked out class requirements in what was probably 12 point pica, from the portable my mother bought me in high school. One classmate was amazed upon receiving her workshop copy. "How retro," she said.

For me though, it was more a necessity than fashion or aesthetic considerations. I couldn't afford computer rentals and printouts all the time. But the lasting impression of seeing "black words on white paper rolling up in front of my gaze," as writer Frederick Forsyth said, is never lost on me, and in my mind, has always been connected with the act of writing. Also, I tend to type really hard, even on computer keyboards, which is bad, but something that I can't help doing.

In the digital world, one expects typewriters to be almost extinct. Although sales have been declining steadily, I was surprised to learn that there's still a steady base of customers for typewriters. Most of them are "old people," who probably can't get the hang of using computers, and the occasional student who opts to spend on one instead of a laptop.

Somewhere in our house sits that old portable, probably gathering dust and a colony of ants. I learned to type on a manual typewriter, with coins on the back of my hands. In the beginning, you could hear metal clanking on the floor all over the typing room. It was the early '90s, and in the high school I attended, which was big on office and commerce skills, typing upwards of 70 words per minute was a minimum requirement.

Then Windows 95 came and computer classes no longer involved booting the system cold from copies of DOS and Wordstar in 5 inch floppies.

But we still had regular typing classes, and every day, we had drills which focused on two things: speed and accuracy. With speed, we busied ourselves with high word turnouts, with accuracy, we went slower and made sure that there were no erasures or typeovers. It seemed like an archaic skill to learn on the brink of the digital revolution and the new millenium. But we learned this along with stenography, salesmanship and bookkeeping. Later on, the school would change the names of these skills to reflect the present/future situation: office management, entrepreneurship, and accounting.

It's old fashioned now, but when it was new, the ability to type really fast and accurate was revolutionary, specially for women. The females first ventured into the work space at the end of the 19th century as typists or secretaries. According to Neil Hallows of the BBC, "[i]t was a limited emancipation. The new employees (often called "type-writers" themselves) were accused of stealing jobs from men, depressing wages and sexually tempting the boss, and their chance of career progression was often nil. But for women to have any job outside the home was revolutionary."

So the women's liberation movement got their big push with typewriters, whose "retro" appeal does not end with seeing words come up on paper. More importantly, in a time when computers are plugged to the internet, productivity becomes more difficult. Specially for writers with deadlines and then faced with websites with little links you clink. Before you know the day has passed and you have watched more videos of lizards eating fruits of the pandan tree than you care to acknowledge.

The distraction afforded by the internet paved the way for software to make your computer seem like a typewriter, or at least, a very early version of the unwired computer with the black screen and green blinking cursor. As one commenter said:
A laptop for a writer is like a typewriter with a TV, stereo and library attached--and thousands upon thousands of channels, songs, articles to choose from: laptops anywhere near wifi are an endless procrastination device, an infernal tool of distraction for undisciplined souls such as myself. Indeed, I've even thought of disabling the internet on my laptop just so I won't be distracted.

Although a laptop's often purchased to be used chiefly as a word processor, one all too easily whiles away the hours on websites like this one--when one should be writing. A typewriter, on the other hand, offers no such distractions. It's just there, it has no cut/paste/erase, no itunes or internet, and one must face the bloody thing on its own terms. There are far fewer excuses with a typewriter. Far, far fewer.
It makes me want to hunt up that old portable. It might be difficult now to hunt for the two tone ribbon (black and red) and some wipeout, but hearing the clacking of keys and seeing words on paper is suddenly alluring and can well prove to be the cure to internet distraction.


No comments: