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.

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Of course, human evolutionary merit hasn't been the prime driving force behind changes to human writing technology in the past 125 years. In 2014, typewriters may seem slow, quaint, and inefficient, but from about 1890 until the 1980s, the speed, efficiency, and uniformity they provided spurred the displacement of handwriting for most business correspondence, dictation, and composition.

Imagine a rapidly growing industrial society operating without speedy uniform type. Census, tax, accounting, and health-care records — not to mention popular literature and mass media — would all be sorely limited were they constrained by the limitations of handwritten script. Picture the NSA, FBI, CIA, IRS, or some other acronymed agency having to sift through and report on half a billion people's handwritten or typewritten documents. Then consider today's digital reality, of just typing in a keyword or command in order to sort, collate, count, flag, analyze, categorize, or otherwise identify individuals and patterns of behavior on a mass scale.

Our writing has become more legible, but as we've evolved from handwriting to typewriting to computer word-processing, we've also become vastly more legible to people, governments, and companies.

Typewriters don't browse, stream, feed, log or record, or issue distracting alerts, nor do they allow for multitasking, which frequently blends consumption with production — like buying those coveted hiking shoes on REI.com for your weekend getaway just before finishing that important project for work. The proposition of a typewriter is straightforward: Produce or do nothing with it at all.


If you've never written anything on a typewriter, or it's been many years since you have, just try it. You might be surprised by how different it is from working on a computer.

"Computers are more utilitarian, necessary devices I need for work and daily living," said Ton Sison, editor of the "i dream lo-tech" blog, in an email. "I get speed and efficiency when I write on a computer, but more deliberate pacing and a deeper focus when I write on a typewriter. It's never been an either-or for me, but a both-and. But we live in a fast-paced, distracted world; the typewriter is the speed bump that reminds me to focus. And to think. And then, to write."

Richard Polt voiced similar sentiments. "I see different writing tools as appropriate for different purposes. For a personal journal, I prefer handwriting. For a brainstorm or the first draft of a piece of fiction, I find a typewriter ideal. For producing complex text as efficiently as possible, a computer is the best tool, but efficiency isn't always the most important consideration."

I picked up my beloved taupe Olivetti Lettera 22 portable for $3 at a weekend half-off sale last year, and it's by far my best thrift score ever. I did an involuntary leaping jig and squawked in the aisle when it happened. In 1959, the Lettera 22 was named the best industrial design product of the century by the Illinois Institute of Technology, and my esteem and affection for it far exceed any emotions I've felt for an electronic device except my first portable music player, which radically improved the quality of long family outings.

Despite its elegant design and durable functionality, my Lettera occasionally inserted extra spaces between letters (what's called an "escapement" issue), so I began looking for the nearest typewriter repair shop. A few weeks later, I walked into California Typewriter on San Pablo, where I got the escapement "tuned," purchased a replacement ribbon, and then stayed to chat with the friendly, knowledgeable staff. Shortly after that, I pitched this article to the Express, and had ambitions to compose it entirely by hand and typewriter.

I failed.

As a self-diagnosed (but recovering) internet addict hooked on the little dopamine rushes of pings to my email inbox, trips down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, and RSS-feed-fueled reading jags, and who has written almost entirely on computers for many years, I found it excruciatingly difficult to get my thoughts onto paper in an efficient linear fashion, and ended up writing only about a quarter of this story on my typewriter.

My frustration with wasted pieces of paper, cross-outs, and even my own handwriting, which varies depending on mood, speed, type of pen, or sitting position, was enormous. Even on a computer, I can't type as fast as I think, and the widening of that gap with handwriting or typing was maddening, as was not being connected to the internet, where I can quickly check a definition or synonym, or look up a date or piece of background information.

Writing on a typewriter forced me to confront just how computer- and internet-dependent my writing and thinking process has become, and how radically my ability to focus on one single thing for a long period of time has been diminished. And I hadn't even noticed these things were happening.

One unexpected result of these suddenly self-conscious explorations was that I moved my computer-based writing to a tablet with a highly sensitive stylus and pressure-sensitive screen — much like the graphic tablets employed by digital illustrators. I write by hand on it, and can easily outline, annotate, and mark-up documents, which I can also manipulate in various ways using just my fingers. It has an attached keyboard, but my interaction with the text I produce is not solely dependent on it. The web pages I need are ferried to the tablet on a thumb drive; my writing device doesn't "touch" the internet or its potential invasions or distractions.

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