The Ribbon of Valour
Hal Crowther’s essay ‘One Hundred Fears of Solitude’, a blistering critique of digital technology and the internet age, is printed in Granta 111: Going Back. This article, which voices similar concerns about a dawning technological age, was printed in The Independent Weekly of Durham, North Carolina, upon Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1992. Principally an ode to an ageing typewriter, it is also the sound of an increasingly rare voice: a concern that we may not, after all, be trading up when we digitize.
A new year, a new government, a new dispensation. Progress is a myth but change is a constant. No one can escape. Barring some 11th-hour malfunction – technical or emotional – this column written in the waning hours of 1992 will be the last one I ever compose on a typewriter. The computer sits in its box on a chair behind me, under a terrifying stack of user’s manuals, malignant in its superiority and its contempt for the ancient Smith-Corona laboring through its final shift.
This is, for me, a sombre moment. I estimate that I’ve written nearly 3 million words for publication, the lion’s share of it on two manual typewriters – a Royal portable my parents gave me for a college graduation present, and this ugly green Smith-Corona my wife picked up for \$10 at a garage sale.
I learned to type in the ninth grade, reluctantly, in a business class full of aspiring stenographers who refused to laugh at my jokes. An adviser tricked me into this class by offering an even less glamorous alternative, and typing turned out to be the only useful thing I ever learned in high school.
Even with my command of the keyboard, I never got much faster than 40 words per minute. Veteran reporters could double or triple that with the forefinger search-and-peck technique you used to see all the time in the news room. When I was 30 I mangled the little finger on my left hand in a basketball game. While I was wearing a metal splint I switched to the forefinger jab for the left hand, and I’ve been typing that way ever since, half-and-half.
The typewriters they’re selling now are mongrel children of the typewriter and the computer, and they favour the computer side of the family. But even the factories that make these slick New Wave typewriters are shutting down. It’s almost impossible to find anyone to repair the old ones. Those of us who learned and loved these homely machines and made a living with them will form an exclusive group, historically. Though the patent for the first prototypewriter was issued in England in 1714, the first commercial machine in the United States was marketed by Remington in 1874. So brief was the typewriter’s reign that the oldest functioning model, preserved somewhere in the Smithsonian, is about the same age as the oldest functioning American.
The textbooks – or textdisks – of future centuries may contain nothing but a curious footnote: ‘Ernest Hemingway and some of his contemporaries composed their manuscripts on a machine with a keyboard that controlled little movable hammers, which apparently printed directly onto the 20th-century cellulose product known as paper.’
I wasn’t the last holdout of all, though I suspect I may have been the last of my generation in my profession. Silent in the computer showroom, a 47-year-old digital virgin among high-tech commandos speaking the brave new language, I stared at my future laptop as a college freshman might gape at his first blind date. I felt like one of those Japanese soldiers on the Pacific atolls who surrendered twenty years after the war was over. I remembered an illustration in my Latin II textbook, of some grizzled Gaul surrendering to Caesar, to superior Roman technology.
‘You fought bravely, Archaeopteryx. Go in peace. Caesar can afford to be generous. In time you will come to love the Roman gods and the Roman way.’
The new centurions were kind and considerate, patient, concealing their incredulousness at this paleolithic creature who had wandered into their world of databases and diskettes. But the battle was over, for me. ‘I will fight no more forever,’ in the famous words of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. The ancient typewriter had become a point of honor, almost a crank’s crusade. Why did I give in? Would anyone sympathize if I spoke of cold mornings, stubborn keys, arthritic fingers? Maybe not. Let’s just say that there are situations where stubbornness is heroic, and others where it’s tedious. I felt I had become a troglodyte for the sake of troglodytism, and that I was inflicting an unnecessary burden on other people who were just trying to do their jobs and get along.
Still, I can’t help wondering if I’ve compromised my vocation by plugging it into the American mainframe. The advantages, the conveniences of these new machines are obvious. What about the drawbacks? Isn’t a writer likely to be lazy and careless when it’s so easy to delete and revise? You choose every word with infinite care when the alternative is typing the whole page over, or using that toxic ‘white-out’ fluid that will give you a serious headache. I don’t think anyone will argue that American journalism has improved since it was computerized.
Another thing that worries me is that the tendency of all this technology – laptop, desktop, electronic bulletin boards – is to make every writer his own publisher. Eventually there will be more publishers than readers, better than a one-to-one ratio between the sources of information and its consumers. Besides dilution and a loss of focus, there will be a tendency for consumers to eat what they like and ignore what is nourishing. In the electronic media, proliferation and democracy brought us Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh and ‘Studs.’
I’m sure there were defenders of raw meat and dark caves who lodged similar objections against the discovery of fire. The future is electronic; typewriters will never stage a comeback. But triumphant surfers should be warned that it doesn’t matter what share of the information market they control, or how many billion units of information they can summon at the touch of the key marked ‘Enter.’ They’ll be judged by the quality of what they produce and preserve. When I think of our bygone era, I can picture the monks of the Dark Ages, with cramped fingers copying the wisdom of the ancients by candlelight. For a century men and women sat in front of these clumsy typewriters, fighting every impediment from eyestrain to tuberculosis, and created literature that will remain long after the machines that typed it have vanished from human memory.
The jury is out on their successors.
Read also…‘Semiprecious’, by Henrietta Rose-Innes – the second in a web-exclusive series, ‘Homecoming’, for our new issue, ‘Going Back’.