Monday, April 05, 2021

Are Typewriters Alive?

1961 Hermes 3000
Are Typewriters Alive?
Are Typewriters Alive?

This essay came alive to me in unexpected ways as I was sitting in front of the Hermes 3000 under the shade of the umbrella at my patio table, on a warm spring day. It started as a thought I had while I lay in bed several nights previous, which was that it seemed as if typewriters had the power to impart their own effect on the writing process, even to modulate the writer's voice. In a flight of fancy I asked myself if this might even be construed as a form of intelligence on the part of the machine, all the while simultaneously knowing they to be a complex assemblage of bits of metal parts, and that these thoughts were mere nonsense. Yet, following the chain of thought further, I asked myself if perhaps they possessed some primitive consciousness, in the way that people in the early 1970s began to think of plants as possessing a consciousness of their surroundings, as documented in Tompkins' and Bird's The Secret Life of Plants.

It's most likely the effect being observed with typewriters involves the process of how tools modulate the work of the artisan, yet it seemed sufficient to follow this fanciful thought further. If typewriters do possess a primitive form of consciousness -- or, like a virus that harnesses the reproductive process of living cells to procreate, the machines' harness the physical and emotional abilities of the writer -- do they do so individually, or is there some collective consciousness that might explain the slow but steady resurgence of interest in the typewriter? Are they reviving themselves, by harnessing the enthusiasm of writers and aficionados; or is their revival intrinsic and inevitable, a natural expectation in the evolution of human technology, with its ebb and flow in repetitive cycles?

All of this is mere fancy, and at most metaphoric of observations writers make about how they interact with their tools. These thoughts are a mental model and nothing more, that happen to explain some phenomena we observe as we create new work with these tools. Like most models, they are imperfect and subject to change. In the way that the Aether Theory served as a model for how space works, and even as it still seems to explain some observational phenomena today, we now know of better models; so too is the theory of living typewriters a mere mental construct, which we can choose to hold close or discard, depending on the breadth of our imagination.

Of course, ask any typewriter aficionado and they are certain to agree that, yes, some typewriters seem to be alive, seem to impart that something special into their creative process. I will leave it to you to decide if that constitutes some form of consciousness. I know where I stand.



Blogger Kent Peterson said...

I concur with the thoughts expressed in this essay and so does my Hermes Rocket. I'll have check in with the others to see what they have to say.

5:28 AM  
Blogger Bill M said...

I've enjoyed your post and video.

I often have similar thoughts as I sit to type, especially in front of certain typewriters.
I find sitting to write using a favored typewriter is relaxing. Relaxing is not always what I find when putting pencil or pen to paper if I am tense or stressed. Typing is relaxing. I can type legibly, but writing when tense produces scribbles and more misspelled words than when I type.

7:05 AM  
Anonymous Bill G said...

While I prefer the visceral nature of a manual typewriter, I actually feel that my "writing voice" is the same whether I'm using a typewriter or a computer. In my case, while I have my favored typewriters, my writing voice definitely isn't dependent upon any one machine. However, just as there are some typewriters that I enjoy using the most, there have been some that I just didn't click with. Those I no longer own. I'm not into tools that don't work for me.

By comparison, if I'm writing by hand then it's possible that my writing voice could be changed to some degree simply because it is a far slower process for me and I sometimes can't keep up with my thoughts, which becomes more of a problem as I grow older.

12:57 AM  
Blogger DonN said...

As I am now writing about 1000 words a day, more or less, I have been testing out many of my collection of typewriters for various reasons. First because it seems the right thing to do since I have collected them, but second and perhaps more interestingly, to see if my writing goes better with one or another, creativity-wise. While I love some machines for one reason, I dislike other things about them. For example, I love the Lettera 32, but the tiny space bar annoys me. I love the Triumph Gabrielle, but that shift is very long and it throws me off. I love the H3K but I can't go as fast on it as on some others. The SM9 is great too, but it doesn't work for me nearly as well as many others. It's all a mystery considering that when you look at the basic mechanism under the shell, they are all more or less the same thing! All in all it's hard to do better than the Olympia Traveller, for me that is. I just speed along on those and the machine never gets in the way.

4:12 PM  
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