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Saturday, 28 February 2015

Typewriters in the News

Thank goodness
for the typewriter
Ben Macintyre is a British author and historian who writes a regular column for The Times of London. His columns range in subject matter from current affairs to historical controversies. This column appeared in The Times (paywall) on Friday and was republished by The Australian in Sydney:
Thanks to the digital age
we’re all losing our memory
The Russian Federal Guard Service, the body given the task of protecting the country’s top officials, recently invested in 20 old-fashioned portable typewriters. These were to be used to ensure that documents of a particularly sensitive nature would not be written electronically and stored digitally, but typed out by hand and then filed away. The message was clear and as old as writing itself: if you want to preserve something, write it on paper and then put it somewhere safe.
The digital age was supposed to render obsolete the traditional ways of preserving the past. Everything written, recorded, filmed or photographed could now be safeguarded forever at the push of a button. No more filing, storage or dusty archives: the present would be captured and the past curated by the machines themselves. Increased computer power and ever-expanding digital storage would ensure infinite memory-retention, an end to forgetting.
The reality has proved very different. Digital memory has proven fragile, evanescent and only too easy to lose. Technology has moved on so fast that the tools used to access stored material have become obsolete: CD-ROMs degrade, tapes crumble, hard disks fall apart; the laser disk and the floppy disk have gone, soon to be followed, no doubt, by the USB and memory card. I have half a novel, written 20 years ago on what was then a cutting edge Amstrad and “saved” on a 3 1/2-inch disk. I will never know how unreadable it really is, because I now have no way to read it [ditto here, also on an Amstrad. RM].
As the Internet pioneer Vint Cerf warned recently, the disappearance of hardware needed to read old media means we are “nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become a digital black hole”. In 1986, the BBC Domesday project set out to record the economic, social and cultural state of Britain on 12-inch videodiscs. Today, those disks cannot be read, unlike the Domesday Book itself, written 1000 years earlier.
The Internet will carry more data this year than was created in the entire 20th century - some 330 petabytes, or enough capacity to transfer every character of every book ever published 20 times over - but our descendants may be unable to read it.
Quite apart from the technical inaccessibility of the past, the assumption of digital permanence has eroded the habit of archival hoarding. Earlier generations wrote letters, diaries, postcards and notes, on paper, stored them, and forgot them. Who archives their emails, let alone texts, tweets, or posts?
We blithely assume that these are being preserved somewhere, when most are simply evaporating into the ether. The old-fashioned photo album has given way to the digital photo-file - as prone to sudden wipe-out and technical obsolescence as every other “saved” electronic artefact. The images of your grandparents may be better preserved than those of your grandchildren.
What looks like never-ending growth on the Internet is really a form of endless decay. The average lifespan of a web page is 44 days. Pages are constantly being updated, overwritten, shifted or left to expire in the process known as “reference rot”. We may lecture our children that anything posted on the net will be there forever, but in fact it’s true of very little on this strange, unstable, ephemeral medium.
A web page link that leads only to a “page not found” message encapsulates the transitory nature of digital data: solid information that has shifted into nothingness, with no clue to where it has gone.
Historians looking back on our time will face a mighty challenge, with a patchy digital record and a culture lulled into believing that the past is being preserved every time the save button is pressed.
Bizarrely, despite the vastly larger flood of daily information, we may end up knowing more about the beginning of the 20th century than we will know about the start of the 21st.
The world is waking up to the danger of collective memory loss. Cerf has called for the creation of “digital vellum”, technology that can take a digital snapshot, at the time of storage, of all the processes needed to read it at later date. The British Library now routinely gathers information from millions of public websites as well as tweets and Facebook entries, to create a constant, rolling record of the digital present. The American Library of Congress is archiving the whole of Twitter.
Immediately after the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France set out to gather the rolling digital story and the web response - media reportage, public reaction, blogs, Twitter, online commentary - to create a genuine digital archive of the moment.
A similar shift in attitude towards digital preservation is needed in the wider culture. Psychological studies show that people who gather evidence of their own lives are happier and more self-confident.
Just as our grandparents hoarded the physical evidence of their worlds, so we should print out the photographs, preserve the emails, write, cut, paste, and print the stories, memories and relics of our own lives and times, and put them all in the attic.
Thankfully, as the Russians know, a machine has already been invented that can solve the problem of digital impermanence: the typewriter.
Throwing the
typewriter at it
American broadband and telecommunications company, a corporate component of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, Verizon Communications is so mad at new net-neutrality rules, they’re throwing the whole typewriter at it. In a press release issued after the US Federal Communications Commission narrowly passed new rules prohibiting broadband providers from throttling legal content or charging for fast lanes, Verizon used a 1930s-style typewriter font to complain about it. Verizon said the rules on broadband Internet “were written in the era of the stream locomotive and the telegraph” and are “badly antiquated”.
Stone the crows!
Not sure why American actor and director Ezra Stone (1917-1994) is in the news, but it's a nice image that was issued last week. Stone had a long career on the stage, in films, radio and television, mostly as a director. His most notable role as an actor was that of the awkwardly mischievous teenager Henry Aldrich in the radio comedy hit, The Aldrich Family, for most of its 14-year run.
The typewriter: symbol
of a more thoughtful way of life
The Los Angeles Times has warmly reviewed Australian author-illustrator Karla Strambini’s 2013 book The Extraordinary Mr Qwerty: In a world of "Frozen" dolls and Lego Minecraft, how can a mere book - one without a movie tie-in - compete for a young child’s attention? Those who hope to best the lure of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle merchandise would do well to select a title with beautiful illustrations, one that offers the chance of a whimsical experience. The Extraordinary Mr Qwerty might qualify.
Melbourne's Strambini
It also reviews The Lonely Typewriter by Peter Ackerman and illustrated by Max Dalton (they first collaborated on 2010’s The Lonely Phone Booth). This book follows a boy named Pablo with a homework deadline and a computer on the blink. He is introduced to his grandmother’s typewriter, a machine with a storied history that involves the Civil Rights movement but is covered in cobwebs. Pablo is bemused by the contraption, accepts the challenge of mastering its use and bangs out a paper. When he turns it in, his teacher can’t help but notice that it was typed. Pablo is quite proud of his new skill: “It doesn’t need a screen or electricity or anything! … We had it stuck up in the attic, but now I’m going to keep it in my room with me.”
The Lonely Typewriter is directed at children ages 6 to 9, but it’s quite possible their parents - or grandparents - will be the ones to linger over its pages. The first illustration in the book is a beautiful diagram of a manual typewriter. It might prompt memories of a pre-digital high school typing class, an era of term papers that actually required a bit of forethought because it was so time-consuming to correct them. A computer allows the words to flow, almost spontaneously. Fixing, changing, revising … over and over … is a given. A typewriter, on the other hand, is a symbol of a more thoughtful - and often more frustrating - way of life.
Is there a moral here? Is there any circumstance in which we would willingly use a typewriter, other than a power outage? Is the end result so much more interesting that we would willingly return to the pre-computer age? You already know the answer to that. A ride in a horse-and-buggy is charming, but it’s unlikely to inspire many of us to ditch the Prius and build a stable. And that’s kind of a pity.
NYC cop shop
typewriter ban?
The New York Post reports: The clackety clack of cops banging out reports behind station-house desks could be gone for good if a lawmaker can get enough votes to ban typewriters in the New York Police Department. Councilman Daniel Dromm (Democrat-Queens) plans to introduce a bill that would phase out police typewriters by 2016. “There’s no a reason a police officer can’t type up a report and put it into a computer,” he said. “I think it’s common sense that we move away from typewriters.” Dromm came up with his ban plan after a constituent complained that cops lost a criminal report she made about being assaulted. The report had been transcribed on a typewriter and only one copy was made. But that’s not the only problem the old machines pose. Instead of being able to fill out a sound permit form online for an outdoor party, people are still forced to visit their local precinct, have it entered on to a form, in triplicate, the old-fashioned way. “Every time I go into a police precinct, I see typewriters,” Dromm said. “I believe they all still use them because they all have the same forms.”
Prison typewriter blues
A prison inmate serving three life sentences for first-degree murder convictions in 1968 has filed a complaint alleging two officials at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Madison Township illegally took his Smith-Corona Office 2000 memory typewriter. He claims the officials took his typewriter by claiming it became contraband when a third party paid a $214 repair bill when it was sent out to be fixed in 2013. There is no regulation that specifically prohibited his sister from directly paying the company that repaired the machine, he stated in his suit. He is seeking compensation for the typewriter and repair costs. And he is claiming $3900 in punitive damages against the prison property room officer and a counsellor who upheld the contraband determination.
Oh, Oliver!
Oh, San Antonio!
"Learn more about the typewriter", said San Antonio, Texas, TV channel KSAT. KSAT would do well to start learning something itself. 
"The typewriter was invented in the 1860s and quickly became a machine many professionals used in offices. The machine works by means of keyboard-operated types striking a ribbon to transfer ink on to a piece a paper. Bye the end of the 1980s, word processors and computers had mostly displaced typewriters, but some can still be found. In India, as of the 2010s,  the typewriter is still prominent."


Richard P said...

You always find some stories that I haven't seen!

The one about digital memory is very good. I'm also interested in the flip side of the issue: even if digital memory becomes as durable as vellum (and maybe especially so), our inner memory, our brain memory, may be weakened as we rely on our external digital aids.

By the way, Xavier U's rare books collection includes a small medieval Bible written on fine vellum. The stuff -- made from the skins of fetal animals -- is unbelievably subtle, thin, strong, and durable.

Taylor Harbin said...

The book of Ecclesiastes talks about "grasping at the wind." I think that's what the Internet is like; you're always under and illusion of reality. Would books like "The Sound and the Fury" or "A Clockwork Orange" have been as powerful if they were originally released as E-books?

The Germans have also bought a lot of tups writers because of the Snowden thing.

Taylor Harbin said...

If the policemen in New York are forced to give up their typewriters, maybe they will sell them to the public instead of scrapping them? There may be a crowd source opportunity here. Imagine having one of those pieces in your collection!