You Are Not a Gadget (But You Might Be a Type-writer)
University of New Hampshire
The day after my 44th birthday my dear friend Amy Snow, whom I’ve known since middle-school, brought her college-aged daughter Cameron to a retro-tech event called The Los Angeles Type-In. As described on the event’s promotional flyer, it’s a gathering where “typewriter enthusiasts” of all stripes can play around on each other’s machines and maybe “type a love letter just before Valentine’s Day.” Amy and Cameron stopped to talk to special guests Haiku Guys + Gals who, of course, typed out a personalized poem for each. Amy’s read as follows:
When you are tempered
by flames and transmutation
no winds will break you
Carson’s haiku was about movies, Amy reported. “Mine,” she posted via Instagram, was “about resilience.” Describing the poems as “Our Truths,” she followed her Instagram post with the hashtag #freeHaiku.
To be sure, neither Amy nor I are Luddites. Once upon a time, somewhere in the mid-1980s, we sat through junior-high school lectures in Geometry and Latin and pencil-scratching theorems by Pythagoras or translations of The Aeneid by Virgil, the Roman poet. Today Amy is a high-powered branding and marketing guru. She’s conducted one-on-one sessions with Uber executives and can describe the inside of the Googleplex as well as anyone. I left the late-1990s dot-com boom to pursue a Master’s, then a Ph.D., in media and communication studies. Today I teach classes on ethics and digital culture to undergrads in New Hampshire.
It was yet another in an ongoing dance where, in a rather clumsy collision, the analogue and digital have come together in graceful embrace. In this case, the analogue poet leads the dance, tapping out verse in 5 – 7 – 5 rhythm. Meanwhile, the digital photo announces the dance. The hashtag spreads the message far and wide. Paradoxically, Instagram inspires others to set down the phone and reconnect with the aesthetics of the analogue.
We each embrace the digital, but aim to integrate time-tested humanistic values in the emerging digital economy. In fact, when Amy gave a guest lecture in my Media & Ethics seminar last fall, two pivotal concepts formed the basis of our discussion: authenticity and integrity. These concepts, I suggest, are what’s driving the revival of the typewriter.
Integrity Is a Hearty Soup
Let me switch subjects for a moment. A food analogy may be helpful since, while few people these days use a typewriter, everyone (at least, everyone who is not an AI robot) still needs to eat. Back on the east coast, far from the sunny skies of L.A., we are in the midst of another long cold spell. Often, the most rewarding thing to do is to spend a day cooking a pot of soup. For me, the key to a good hearty soup is to combine ingredients in a way that respects the integrity of each flavor. I might take some portion out and mix them in a blender—but not all. I want to see what’s in there: carrots, celery, potato. If you blend everything together too thoroughly, you lose the distinctness that each ingredient has to offer. A hearty soup is one where your palate can discern one element among others, and each serves its role in balanced relation to the others.
Too often, convergent technologies over-mix, over-blend, until we are left with a soup that our palate cannot enjoy. The ingredients have been processed beyond recognition. In fact, digital convergence—as an ideology, not just a process—presses further: it wants to blend your soup, and your toast, and your coffee—even your spoon and fork—into one all-encompassing mixture.
It might sound good in theory, but it tastes terrible. You might even break a tooth.
Typewriter enthusiasts love their machines, treating them as nearly sacred objects, precisely because they demand—and cultivate—focused attention on the process of writing. Because they are not designed to multitask and are not connected to a network, they do not—in fact cannot—undermine the writer’s attention with crude attempts to blend other tasks into the mix.
Songwriter John Mayer explains that even simple intrusions like Microsoft’s spellchecker can needlessly interrupt an artist’s “mercurial” thought process. Writing well requires a contemplative focus. Even the most creative artists, Mayer says, “have to sit at [an] altar to produce something” (Nichol 2017). In the flow of the creative process, Mayer says, “You have to keep your heart rate down, and focus, and stay in that trance.”
It is precisely the limitations of the machine that make a typewriter a preferred altar for many. For Ton Sison, editor of the blog “i dream lo-tech,” the typewriter is “a speedbump that forces me to focus” (Awehali 2014). Doug Nichol, the filmmaker, notes that while digital technology makes our lives “easier, faster, and less effortful,” we are wise to remember that, sometimes, “making an effort is what gives life satisfaction” (Awehali 2014). In response to friends who tell him a computer might help him write faster, playwright David McCullough says bluntly, “I don’t want to go faster. If anything, I’d prefer to go slower” (Nichol 2017).
The isolation of the creative process, a ritualized respect for its integrity, is the best recipe for taste, and flavor, in the product of one’s writing. Typewriter enthusiasts praise the sensorial aspects of writing on an analogue machine: the tactile sensation of one’s fingers on the keys, the sound of the letter-arms snapping against the ribbon and paper. Such sensations tie the typist to the machine, the body to the location, the flow of thought to a precise moment in time.
Through its aggressive splicing-together of once-separate tasks, digital convergence often violates the integrity of each. If my phone is also a camera, and my laptop is also a typewriter and a television, I am neither a good conversation partner nor a thoughtful photographer. More to the point: If my work e-mail follows me home, into the sacred space of my family, I am neither a good employee nor a good parent. In bringing too many things together, radically and imprudently, convergence has the ironic effect of making coherence difficult and the experience of disintegration more likely.
Along these lines, philosophy professor Richard Polt argues that interest in typewriters is about “people seeking out tools that are durable, independent, private, and that focus the mind instead of creating distractions” (Awehali 2014). No wonder, then, that the ultimate statement of typewriter fetishism comes in the form of the so-called Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto—a document that, while written on a whim, became a viral phenomenon around the globe.
In a defiant tone, the Manifesto frames the embrace of the typewriter as a moral imperative. It makes implicit claims about technology and integrity: “We strike a blow for self-reliance, privacy, and coherence, against dependency, surveillance, and disintegration” (Awehali 2014, italics added).
We want the various aspects of our lives to fit together coherently. But we want to savor each ingredient for its unique flavor.
Integrity is a hearty soup.
What Is the Sound of a Thousand Type-writers?
The Typewriter Insurgency is part of a broader movement to recapture a sense of authenticity and integrity in the emerging digital economy. Just blocks from the Los Angeles Type-In, you can walk into Pop Obscure Records and browse through hundreds of vinyl records under the gaze of vinyl-era music icons like Debbie Harry, Jim Morrison, and Johnny Rotten, whose poster-images cover the walls. Like their type-writing counterparts, vinyl enthusiasts enjoy the physicality of playing a vinyl record. It, too, is a tactile experience—a ritual of authenticity in a landscape of virtuality and simulation. Writing for Variety, reporter Owen Gleiberman (2017) connects the dots: “Vinyl made a comeback, and so did slow food and long beards. Why not the typewriter?”
Of course, there is a sublime irony to the central story in California Typewriter. As we watch the film, the Oakland-based typewriter repair shop (after which the film is named) appears destined for bankruptcy. The doors will surely close if the owners fail to drum up business. There are plenty of typewriter enthusiasts scattered around the country, but how can one small family-owned shop cater to them all?
Social media, anyone?
By the end of the movie, California Typewriter (the repair shop) was thriving. What saved their business? A WordPress blog. A Twitter feed. E-mail. These are the same networks that allow vinyl enthusiasts to find each other, or fans of do-it-yourself butter-churning, or micro-brewers. Through digital promotion, California Typewriter publicized a highly successful gathering in 2013 (Awehali 2014).
And so, while the film celebrates the analogue, it also celebrates prudent use of the digital to amplify analogue virtues. Used in this way, the digital celebrates embodiment and calls on others to embrace and share their own embodied rituals—to become artists or, in this case, to become “typewriters.”
Indeed, as we learn early in the film, the term “typewriter” originally referred not to the machine, but to its operator. Job ads for “typewriters” were common. (Hereafter I’ll use the hyphenated term type-writer to refer to human users.)
Today, of course, being a type-writer means something different. As suggested by the Insurgency Manifesto, it is an act of defiance. A form of resistance. A political and moral statement.
But how do we translate type-writing, as a personal practice, into type-writing as a humane philosophy that can at least supplement, if not replace, Silicon Valley’s techno-utopian ideology? What is the sound of an entire culture of authentic human flourishing? What is the sound of a thousand type-writers?
The personal concerns driven by convergence (e.g., the problem of how to integrate our personal and professional lives, as noted above) are echoed a thousand times over on the collective scale of today’s digital economy.
To the extent that convergence catalyzes surveillance and non-consensual transparency of personal data, it cannot be said to catalyze integrity in any meaningful sense. As Rich Potter and I argue in our recent article about Facebook, healthy self-development involves not total transparency (as Mark Zuckerberg would have us believe) but defensive maneuvers of concealment which protect us against impingement from outside threats—virtual or otherwise (see Healey and Potter 2017, p. 8). The ability of users to assert control over their own data, their own thoughts, their own ideas and conversations, is fundamental to the integrity of digitally-mediated democracies. As political science professor Aurelian Craiutu argues, “liberty and prosperity in any state depend on the existence of a wise balance between groups and classes in society, as well as on a wise architecture of power that includes balance/separation of powers” (Craiutu 2017).
Like the songwriter John Mayer, I don’t want the whole web converging on my thoughts. But from a broader perspective, type-writing is not just a strategy for avoiding distraction. It is a political practice—one which asserts the power of the individual over and against the gatekeeping power of coders, platform developers, and advertisers.
Tellingly, the type-writer event Amy attended was hosted by As We Dwell, a coworking space in L.A. which encourages collaboration between small business owners, independent professionals, and entrepreneurs. Indeed, technical convergence is accompanied by economic convergence as a small number of powerful companies (Amazon, Facebook, Google) transform an otherwise competitive marketplace into a near-oligopoly. The integrity of the marketplace depends on initiatives like As We Dwell, without which the unique contributions of non-profits and small-scale businesses may get blended beyond recognition into a corporate soup.
Sarah Jung, a founder of As We Dwell, sees her coworking space as part of a broader movement that “promotes authentic and intentional community building” (quoted in “Meet Sarah Jung,” 2017). This movement’s goal reaches beyond the local scene in L.A. In fact, As We Dwell contributes a portion of its rent revenues to Justice Rising International, a non-profit which provides “quality education to children at risk,” especially in war-torn countries (www.justicerising.org).
The pursuit of a more sustainable digital economy has become a central concern for many former-Silicon Valley employees. Some of the original, pioneering employees from companies like Facebook, Google, and Apple have issued similar calls for a restoration of balance. Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, recently announced the formation of a new coalition called the Center for Humane Technology (CHT) (Lapowsky 2018). Among other concerns, the coalition focuses on the link between technology, addiction, and depression, with a special concern for the protection of children. But also tears in our social fabric (Bowles 2018). Harris’s group highlights important legislative initiatives, including policies that fund research on technology’s impact on children and laws requiring the explicit identification of online bots.
The lesson of California Typewriter and the Los Angeles Type-In is that we need not sit back and wait for such initiatives to bear long-term fruit. We can implement practices, or rituals, in our daily lives that recover the sense of realness and coherence we crave. And, perhaps paradoxically, we can harness the power of digital networks to enhance the visibility of such practices, helping them—and the broader philosophy to which they point—to catch on.
That philosophy goes by various names. CHT calls it “humane design” which, according to its website, “starts by understanding our most vulnerable human instincts so we can design compassionately to protect them from being abused” (www.humanetech.com). Jaron Lanier, also a tech pioneer, issued a call for such humane design eight years ago.
In his quirky but deeply insightful book You Are Not a Gadget (2010), Lanier argued that, as we face the rising tide of digital data, we humans should insist on remaining, well, human. This means protecting ourselves against the pressure to think the way social media platforms want us to think. In the face of smart machines and artificial intelligence, we should struggle to remain authentically human—analogue beings in a digital world. An early pioneer of virtual reality and still an active computer scientist (working most recently for Microsoft Research), Lanier is no enemy of tech. But his book was a prophetic plea for balance in an imbalanced digital economy. It’s heartening that former code engineer and corporate executives have finally begun to heed his call.
You may not be a gadget, but you might be a type-writer. That is to say, you might be someone who—like John Mayer, David McCullough, or any of the attendees at the Los Angeles Type-In—wants to carve out a niche of sacred space free from digital intrusions. But more than that, you might want to change the course of digital development so it is something more than a distraction—so it amplifies, rather than undermines, our most essential human virtues.
Amy’s type-written haiku, you may recall, was about resilience:
When you are tempered
by flames and transmutation
no winds will break you
The simple, low-tech practices people have adopted—enjoying the warmth of a vinyl record or the finger-tip curve of a typewriter key—may have begun to temper the too-fragile digital Self. The pressing question now is how to translate such personal practices into public policy. CHT, and other organizations like it, have begun to ask that very question.
What is the sound of a thousand type-writers? Slowly, from local shops to very heart of Silicon Valley, we are beginning to hear a tap-tap rhythm. It may not be the clear answer we need. But it is, for sure, a hopeful sound.
Awehali, Brian. (May 7, 2014). “Slow Type.” East Bay Express. https://www.eastbayexpress.com/oakland/slow-type/Content?oid=3913741
Bowles, Nellie. (February 4, 2018). “Early Facebook and Google Employees Form Coalition to Fight What They Built.” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/04/technology/early-facebook-google-employees-fight-tech.html
Craiutu, Aurelian. (July 17, 2017). “Moderation May Be the Most Challenging and Rewarding Virtue.” Aeon. https://aeon.co/ideas/moderation-may-be-the-most-challenging-and-rewarding-virtue
Healey, Kevin, and Potter, Richard. (2017). “Coding the Privileged Self: Facebook and the Ethics of Psychoanalysis ‘Outside the Clinic.’” Journal of Television and New Media. pp. 1-17. https://doi.org/10.1177/1527476417745152
Lapowsky, Issie. (February 8, 2018). “Ethical Tech Will Require a Grassroots Revolution.” Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/center-for-humane-technology-tech-addiction/
“Meet Sarah Jung of Faithful Artisans in Downtown Los
Angeles.” (February 6, 2017). VoyageLA.
Nichol, Doug (director). (2017). California Typewriter. American Buffalo Pictures.