Sunday, January 10, 2010

The machine that lies in wait

I found myself surprisingly mesmerized by this short clip I encountered on YouTube, entitled The Type Writer. I suspect the aberrant spelling is intentional: it seems to be both about typewriters and what it means to be the writerly type.
Yikes! That writing machine is lying in wait, isn't it? Just waiting, patiently, to what it was so elegantly designed to do. That's one of the biggest appeals of typewriters, and the main reason they remain iconographic of the writing process. They exist for one purpose, and one purpose only: to convert thoughts in head to words on page.

A computer (such as the one I'm writing this one on) is so many things it's nothing in particular. More importantly, so many of those things involve consumption more than creation. That's one of the unsettling characteristics of our current generation of technology: how quickly it reverses purpose. A printing press produces books; it doesn't turn into a book itself. A tape recorder captures a voice; it doesn't start talking itself.

It's a unique challenge we're grappling with. I don't think previous generations had to deal with anything like this--the constant, all-pervasive temptation/distraction of instant inversion. When your grandmother learned to cook, she didn't have to deal with the empty pots on her stove suddenly filling up with food, or with the stove itself turning into a restaurant. If she didn't create the meal, it wasn't going to exist. There was a eloquence to the emptiness before her (and the emptiness in people's stomachs), a need to be filled.

Writing on a networked computer has a number of advantages, but it also has the disadvantage of the fact that it's already populated with an overwhelming number of voices--it's like trying to do your own cooking at a table in a busy restaurant, using tools that fill up at a moment's notice with someone else's cuisine. Yes, I can summon up a blank screen with a blinking cursor. But since that screen can be whisked away and/or retrieved with a single mouseclick, it's not exactly commanding my attention. Nor would filling that page fulfill the purpose of my machine. The computer is impassive to whether I'm creating or consuming.

The typewriter, in contrast, is a mechanism solely for creation. It awaits your words, and will instantly commit them to permanence, to a real, manifested physical thing. It plays for keeps.
Try as you might, you're not going to find the key that will turn that blank page into someone else's entertainment. If you don't fill it, it's going to stay blank. And it's going to stay front and center.

The above clip captures this, that sense of the typewriter as a machine lying in wait. If there's an ominous note to it, that's appropriate as well. A manual typewriter is ominous: heck, you can't even turn the damn thing on or off. It's already ready. Which implicitly poses the question: are you?


deek said...

Great find!

I find that my typewriters do command a sort of respect and challenge my readiness to write.

Little Flower Petals said...

Loved this post, truly. I'd never thought about it before, but the segregation of creation and consumption may be exactly what draws me to typewriters, pen and paper, and the odd little Alphasmart Neo. They wait...and their waiting both haunts and inspires me.

Roy Jacobsen said...

(Sorry to clutter up your comments with this, but I couldn't find your email information.)

Just wanted to let you know that Writing, Clear and Simple has moved from to

You’re receiving this email because you have been kind enough to add a link to Writing, Clear and Simple to your site, and I would be grateful if you would update that link.

Roy Jacobsen
Idea Flow Specialist
Writing, Clear and Simple

Anonymous said...

So, I'm posting to my own blog!

Why? Because if you're wondering what's happened here: I lost my password!

Shouldn't I be able to retrieve it? Yes! But I can't seem to even recall the email address I used to set up this puppy.

So, patience please. I'll figure it out and come roaring back.


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