News & Opinion » Feature

Slow Type

The renewed interest in typewriters isn't just a hipster trend. It's also about slowing down, developing focus, and maintaining a measure of digital detachment.



Two women — one young, the other elderly and pushing an upright shopping cart — paused to look in the window of the California Typewriter Company on San Pablo Avenue.

"Typewriters," said the older woman, meaningfully.

"Old," said the younger one, before glancing down at her smartphone.

It's true; typewriters are old. But their invention, rise, and popular decline also paralleled one of the most transformative periods in modern human history. The newest typewriter in the Berkeley store, a sky-blue Olivetti Studio 46 manual built in Brazil in the early 1990s, might have been made before the younger woman was born. Most are decades older, and it's likely that many of these machines were used at some point by a woman entering the workforce for the first time, as a typist or secretary. The oldest typewriter in the store, a Smith Premier No. 2 with what look like wooden keys, was built in the startlingly retro-futuristic year of 1890, when events like the massacre of ghost dancers at Wounded Knee and the formal end of the US-Indian Wars co-existed in time with mass electrification and the appearance of the first computer — a punch card tabulator used for tallying census data.

The nostalgic and historic appeal of typewriters is easy to understand. But what's driving the recent revival of practical interest in them? Who's using typewriters, and why?

Late last year, dozens of typewriter enthusiasts gathered in Berkeley at the California Typewriter Company — California Typewriter for short — to type, swap stories, and show off their prized Underwoods, Olivettis, Royals, Hermes, Adlers, Smith-Coronas, Brothers, and Remingtons, including one machine from the 1930s that had animals instead of letters on its keys. Doug Nichol, a filmmaker working on a documentary about "the typewriter revival," was there, filming. I asked him why people are using typewriters in 2014 — other than for nostalgia's sake.

"I think it's a bit like vinyl, and people taking interest in records," he answered. "You can't beat the sound of an LP, and there is something nice about the ritual of cleaning the record, carefully placing the needle down ... I mean, it's much faster and more convenient to have your music in a digital library or on your computer or phone, but the ritual of listening is not as satisfying. Technology is doing amazing things to make our lives easier, faster, and less effortful, but I think making an effort is what gives life satisfaction, taking the time to enjoy the process of doing something is pleasurable."

Another attendee of the SF Bay Area Type-In was Richard Polt, a philosophy professor at Xavier University in Ohio who also curates the blog Writing Ball and the site The Classic Typewriter Page — the latter of which is probably the oldest repository of typewriter history, lore, and documentation on the internet, having been established in 1995. I asked Polt what he thought was behind the recent rise of interest in typewriters.

"Here in the 'developed' world," he said, "I think it's people seeking out tools that are durable, independent, private, and that focus the mind instead of creating distractions."

This desire to focus our thinking and eliminate distractions is perhaps a recognition of how the mass computer age has dramatically changed the way we think and process information. In roughly a century's time, we've transitioned from writing by hand, pencil-, or pen-on-paper to typewriting, and then to the increasingly ubiquitous amphetamine world of computerized multitasking. The speed, complexity, and efficiency of our writing and communication have increased, but are the actual and potential costs — including bad sleep, memory and mood problems, sexual dysfunction, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, highly toxic e-waste, disposability-by-design, loss of privacy, and an overall diminished ability to engage in linear thinking — worth the advantages?

Typewriters aren't some retro-revolutionary answer to the complex realities of the mass technosphere. Their invention and rapid displacement of handwriting were driven by the same forces driving digital technology today. But they've long since been supplanted by computers, and now exist as both symbols and as still very functional, remarkably durable Industrial Age tools of production, largely distinct from those of the Digital Age.

"Writing has always been dependent on technology; indeed, in a very literal sense, writing is technology," wrote associate professor Anne Mangen, of the University of Stavange, Norway, and neurophysiologist Jean-Luc Velay, of the Université de la Méditerranée, France, in their 2010 report, "Digitizing Literacy," which explored the "haptics" of writing and focused primarily on the differences between handwriting and typing. "From using clay tablets and animal skins via the medieval manuscript and the ancient papyrus roll, to the mechanization of writing with the printing press and the current digitization, writers have always had to handle physical devices and then apply these to some substrate."

Haptics is a field of study that explores the relationship between visual perception and sensorimotor activity. Mangen and Velay's report delved into the implications of switching from writing by hand — a unimanual activity, in which our focus is on the very spot on a page where we're shaping letters we've practiced and memorized — to typing, a bimanual activity, which involves splitting our attention between keyboard and page, and in which "readymade" characters appear on the page with a percussive thrust of a finger.

The transition comes at a cost. Research has demonstrated that people who take notes by hand have far greater retention and ability to describe and relate information they've learned than those who type their notes. It's not that typing or keyboarding are "bad," but that our brains have evolved, not as disembodied processing units, but as part of a unified system of embodied cognition, intricately entwined with sensory perception, motor activity, and kinesthesia — the sense that detects body position and the movement of muscles, tendons, and joints. Writing by hand simply uses more of our coordinated body and brain.