Richard Polt has an interesting post about the assumption of paper in speculative fiction from the past:
Apparently, a mere 40 years ago it still didn’t occur to some science fiction novelists that paper would become a second-class citizen to glass screens studded with millions of tiny pixels.
Note that the word “paper” does not actually appear in any of these passages. That’s the way it is with things we take for granted: they’re as invisible as the air we breathe.
I expect that our own speculative futures will look just as ridiculous 40 years from now. What developments are we failing to imagine?
(This reminds me of Donald Rumsfeld’s “unknown unknowns” briefing, which actually establishes a helpful framework for analysis, and Chuck Klosterman’s great book But What If We’re Wrong?, which interrogates the assumptions we’ve turned into self-evident conclusions.)
The question of paper’s place in a digital society popped into my life today at a doctor’s office. I had to fill out an intake form as usual, but with a twist: it was the first time the form was digital. It was on a PhreesiaPad, a touchscreen encased by a clunky orange plastic shell that made it look like a kid’s toy. The opening screen said “Paper Is So 20th Century”.
Paper’s fearsome competitor.
I assume these devices help speed up information processing in clinics and contribute to the all-encompassing
idol goal of Efficiency in businesses. But if I had to bet on whether the PhreesiaPad or paper will still be around in 10 years, even 5 years, it’s paper all the way. I’ll be surprised if all those cheaply made tablets and their ilk make it to next year before getting disrupted into obsolescence by the Next Big Thing.
Paper is so 20th century. And 19th. And 18th. And 17th. And 16th. And 15th. And so on for a long, long time. So long that you can count paper’s age in millennia. Silicon Valley startups and speculative fiction authors have a lot of intriguing ideas about what the future will look like, but until they figure out how to close in on paper’s 2,000-year head start I won’t be worried about its fate.
Tom Hanks, the most famous typewriter enthusiast in the world, couldn’t be a better ambassador for the field. Whether in a podcast or film or newspaper, he tells the Good News with his trademark charming gravitas. Though I’m sure longtime collectors wince at the thought of prices rising with such high-profile boosterism, it’s ultimately good for people and for typewriters—if only to save some from key-choppers or the dumpster.
A little over a year ago was when I first read Richard Polt’s The Typewriter Revolution, which set me off into this new world. I’m typing this draft on a Smith Corona Electra 12, the first typewriter I bought after enlisting in The Revolution. ($5 at Goodwill, still the lowest I’ve had to pay.) The Electra set me off into a typewriter mania, and my collection quickly burgeoned. Every antique mall and thrift shop was a potential holder of The Next One. I joined the Antique Typewriter Collectors Facebook group, read up on repair and maintenance, enlisted loved ones in searching for typewriters, annoyed friends and coworkers talking about my new hobby, and even took the plunge on an eBay purchase.
But once I hit my apartment’s MTC (Maximum Typewriter Capacity), I knew I had to temper my passions and come to balance. Once I realized I didn’t have to buy every decent typewriter I saw—that I had developed discernment (and a price limit) for what I really wanted—the ardor subsided and I’ve been able to appreciate what I have, while always keeping an eye open for a deal. All throughout, my wife has remained supportive (especially after I got her a pretty yellow Kmart 100), and continues to indulge me every time I describe my latest repair success or grumble about a particularly vexing dysfunction.
I wasn’t the tinkering kind of kid. I liked Legos and building forts, but lacked the mind for creative engineering that I saw in others. Even today I’m not a car guy and can only do basic home repairs. But I’ve really enjoyed learning typewriters. I’ve gradually gained the confidence to dig around inside them and learn how their innards work. Unlike computers, they are complicated but still able to be discerned. Though stunning works of art, they aren’t meant to sit in glass like an heirloom; they demand to be used and figured out.
When I casually grabbed The Typewriter Revolution off the library shelf, I couldn’t have guessed it would lead me into a new world of discovery and joy I enter every time I uncase a typewriter and roll some paper around the platen. But after a year of that, I’m still ready for more.
I discovered, located at my local library, checked out, and read Richard Polt’s The Typewriter’s Revolution within about two days. And wouldn’t you know it, now all I want to do is use my typewriter.
Reading this beautiful book—nay, merely getting a few pages in—inspired me to uncover the IBM Selectric I that I inherited from my grandma when she moved into a different place and get the ink flowing again. Despite the incessant hum that accompanies electrics, I love the whole process of using it, and the basic thrill of having a piece of paper stamped with the words of my doing without the overlording influence of the Internet and that blasted distraction machine we call a laptop. I can’t wait to write more on it, and to retrieve the other typewriters from my parents’ storage and see if they can’t be brought back to life and service.
Usually when we see a typewriter in action these days, it’s at the hands of a young Occupy Wherever libertine or an elderly, quite possibly curmudgeonly, traditionalist: people who don’t accede, intentionally or otherwise, to the Information Regime (as Polt’s Typewriter Insurgency Manifesto calls it). My chief connotation with them were my grandma’s missives on birthday and Christmas cards, discussing the weather and congratulating me on recent academic achievements. “Take care and keep in touch,” they would always end. Perhaps she was on to something. Taking care of ourselves and our instruments, keeping in touch with them and each other; these are the principles inherent in the Manifesto, which affirms “the real over representation, the physical over digital, the durable over the unsustainable, the self-sufficient over the efficient.”
It’s easy and tempting to scoff at these “insurgents” for not giving in to the Regime, or for doing it so ostentatiously, until you actually consider why typewriters remain useful tools and toys. The possibility that I might find some practical application for these not-dead-yet mechanical wonders, and do so without ostentation, thrills me. Here’s to the ongoing Revolution.