The technology tether


Desolation Sound, BC.

Silk’s Post #50 — Remember the title of the first essay many of us ever wrote? “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” springs to mind. I was lucky to spend six weeks this summer out on our boat, cruising the waters from Puget Sound to Desolation Sound. But one thing I did not do on my summer vacation was stay plugged in. The contrast between being tethered to technology versus being off the grid was truly stunning.

At a personal level, it can be a delicious taste of freedom, assuming you’re able to leave your worries at home. When I used to run a business, it was actually a stressor, since I was always desperate to “touch base” in case I had to deal with some crisis or other (there’s usually at least one a week, even in the best run companies). But as a writer, unplugging is a whole different set of problems and opportunities.

The opportunities:

  • I got a lot of uninterrupted reading time. (Yes, Joe, I finally started the Song of Ice and Fire saga and then cursed myself because I only brought the first one). No TV. No yelling at the TV because of crappy news or crappier commercials. No radio. No phone. No internet. No emailsgame-of-thrones
  • I had lots of free time just to think. Imagine. Make up stories. Invent characters. Standing at the wheel for hours. Floating at an anchorage all day. Lying in the sun. Hiding from the rain.
  • I spent lots of quality time in nature, aka “the real world.” Saw lots of wildlife. Watched the patterns in the water. Smelled the fir trees. Fished. Got banged around occasionally in rough seas.

The problems:

  • Being out of touch can feel like being lost in outer space. I’m used to being able to connect with things and people, aka “the human world.” Hence, my mental “to do” list for stuff I had to catch up on when I got home grew longer and longer.
  • No internet means no google. No research resources for writing. No blogging. No email. No NY Times online crosswords.
  • Limited electricity (we were plugged in to power maybe a 30% of the nights we were away, and underway most days) means limited laptop time.

The dream was: I’ll have all this writing time onboard. Spinning out the words in quiet coves (yeah, until the battery died in the middle of a chapter). Writing in the sun while lounging in the cockpit (sure, if I could have seen the screen in the glare). Plenty of time and inspiration for insightful blog posts (uh huh, if only I could have gotten online). The reality was: my writing output over the summer was pitiful.

It all made me think about how dependent my writing really is on technology. Not just my electronic writing “instrument” – my computer keyboard – but my whole writing process. How I research. How I fact check. How I find inspiration. How I edit by cut & paste. How I connect with the bigger Writing World. Even how I think. In short, my entire writing life is tethered to technology in ways that I don’t even notice until I unplug.

I’ve always thought of writing as the ultimate portable profession. An independent calling that can be done anywhere, anytime. Alone. Just a writer and her thoughts. Oh yeah, and her laptop. And her internet connection. And an electrical outlet.

It wasn’t always like this for writers. I’m old enough to remember what the writing life was like before computers. But not before typewriters. Hell, not even before electric typewriters. And before that is almost unimaginable.

Zounds! How did Shakespeare do it?

quill penLet’s not even go back as far as cave paintings or clay tablets or drawing patterns in sand or hieroglyphics. The very first handwriting is believed to have appeared in Greece some 3,500 years ago, and Cadmus is credited as the inventor of written letters.

But it took another 1,500 years for handwriting in ink on paper to become a common technology, and the quill pen didn’t come along until the 7th century. It was the writing instrument of choice for the next 1,000 years (so that’s how Shakespeare did it). Pencil technology evolved after the discovery of a huge deposit of pure graphite in Cumbria, England in the mid-1500s. The fountain pen was patented in the mid-1800s, and ballpoints didn’t become popular until the 1950s.

1873 typewriter

The typewriter: 1873

Meanwhile, of course, typewriters were automating (and democratizing) the imprinted word and putting technology at the fingertips of writers. Many of the first typing machines appear as fanciful and complicated as the early flying machines. However, the first commercially successful typewriter was produced by Remington in 1873, establishing the QWERTY keyboard that we’ve all come to love so dearly.

The electric typewriter naturally followed, with IBM as an early pioneer in 1935. When IBM introduced their innovative Selectric model in 1961, it became the typewriter of choice for a couple of decades (if you’re a baby boomer, chances are excellent that you’ve pounded out some pages on one of these babies – I used to have one that was tomato red).

And then came electronics, and all hell broke loose.

What I find so astonishing is that all the works of classical antiquity – The Iliad and The Odyssey, Aesop’s Fables, the classic Greek dramas, the scholarly Latin works and much else that forms the foundation of our literary tradition – were all written in the pre-ink and paper era. Mostly on waxed tablets with a stylus. Forget cut & paste. In fact, I wonder what sort of editing these works underwent at all. This writing method means truly committing your thoughts to history, probably in first draft stage (although perhaps after telling the stories orally many, many times). I’m no classics scholar, I’m just guessing.

Skimming over the Dark Ages, when much of the enduring literature, such as the epic Beowulf, relied on oral tradition, we come to the thousand-year quill era. This produced not only the works of The Bard (an industry unto himself), but virtually all the modern classic literature we had to read in school. Have you ever tried to write with a quill? I did once, when I was learning calligraphy. It’s damn tricky work. A writer committing words to paper with a quill is going to be loath to make many changes, I assure you.

Then think of all the subsequent hand-writers through the 19th and even 20th centuries. Scribbling, crossing out, shuffling pages, sticking newly conceived paragraphs in margins sideways. Then rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. By hand. Doesn’t it make you feel like an absolute wuss – making changes and moving things around at will with our magical computer tools?

The pre-electric typists didn’t have it much easier. Remember those hard, gritty typewriter erasers? The ones that ate holes in the foolscap? I still have a dandy of an old, old Remington, with the round keys covered in plastic and rimmed with chrome. It weighs about 70 pounds, and it takes extremely strong fingers to mash the keys hard enough to strike the hammers on the paper. This is athletic typing. And don’t even think about pounding out a story when someone is trying to sleep in the next room. My romantic old manual typewriter makes me think of a Jazz Age writer in a garret in Paris, sweating through a summer night in a strap undershirt, smoking a Galouises, making literature for the new century, ripping a yellow pulp page off the carriage and tossing it on the floor, pacing and cursing. His last page of paper. He searches the pocket of his trousers for enough francs. He won’t be able to get another ream until morning.

I learned on an electric. Tame stuff in comparison. The first step away from physical writing, where the hands had to work hard. When I had to research something, I had to open a book (or several), or go see someone, or make a phone call, or get up and go to a library. Back then, before photocopiers, extra copies meant carbon paper. Errors meant erasing the original, then peeling back the carbon and erasing the copy too. It didn’t pay to be sloppy. Or thoughtless. When I was writing a story, or a column, or a radio commercial, I considered every word before I hit the keys. I sat and thought out a sentence before I committed it to paper. There might be a second draft, but there were damn few thirds. Writing for a living meant not wasting precious time erasing multiple copies.

mac-classicMy first computer in 1983 was a bulky, expensive, persnickety IBM PC clone, unaffectionately nicknamed Fang. It was used to manage the subscription list for a nature magazine that I acquired in a moment of insanity and published for three years. I didn’t write on Fang (I was still typing on the tomato at that time). I finally got my own friendly little Macintosh Classic with the 9 inch screen in 1990 and never looked back. Plug in, turn on, chill out. The excitement of joining this weird, over-the-rainbow, futuristic geek culture that I understood absolutely nothing about was titillating. Empowering.

And now? In a few short decades, democratization has become virtually total thanks to the hurtling technology that drives the writing industry and all other forms of communication. Everyone can be a writer. The writing life is a completely different experience from past eras. Vastly easier in many ways. Certainly speedier by a stupendous factor. Well, what isn’t? But I can’t help wondering whether what writers have gained in spontaneity, easy access to knowledge and productivity has come at a cost.

We’re all plugged in. And we’re all in a hurry.

When I couldn’t tether myself to the world during my vacation, I got a little more plugged in to my own brain instead. And this is what came of it.

Sunset in Henry Bay, Denman Island, BC

Sunset in Henry Bay, Denman Island, BC

Note to readers: My apologies for missing my post last week and being late with this week’s. Now that I’m tethered again, I’ll be back on sked. Thanks for sticking with us!

4 thoughts on “The technology tether

  1. I actually learned to type on my mother’s old manual typewriter when I was in grade school. Which, come to think of it, was awfully young to be typing… Times have changed so much, but sometimes I think it would be fun to punch the keys on that old manual again. I’m sure my mother still has it!

  2. I must be considerably older than both of you. The typewriter was the writing tool in use when i was in college and law school. I don’t ever want to go back to pre-computer technology. Once I went Mac, I’m never going back. ;-D

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