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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In a 2011 book that explores not just computer word processing, but the internet in general, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, author Nicholas Carr wrote about a broad shift from what he calls the "linear mind" to one that seeks and constructs information in "short, disjointed, often overlapping bursts — the faster the better." 

"For the last five centuries, ever since Gutenberg's printing press made book reading a populist pursuit, the linear, literary mind has been at the centre of art, science and society," Carr wrote.

But is our tech-accelerated migration from linear to multilinear thought really a bad thing in and of itself? Or are computers just closing the gap with the unrivaled speed and complexity of human cognition?

In a recent Nautilus magazine article, "The Pleasure and Pain of Speed," Tom Vanderbilt posed these questions: "Is our ever-quickening life ... an uncontrolled juggernaut, driven by a self-reinforcing cycle of commerce and innovation, and forcing us to cope with a new social and psychological condition? Or is it, instead, a reflection of our intrinsic desire for speed, a transformation of the external world into the rapid-fire stream of events that is closest to the way our consciousness perceives reality to begin with?"

In the piece, Vanderbilt also referenced a 2006 Stanford University study cited by Clive Thompson in his book Smarter Than You Think:

"As we have shifted from manual typewriters to electric to, finally, digital tools, [Thompson] ... cites the research of Stanford University literary scholar Andrea Lunsford, who has examined freshmen entrance essays from 1917 until the present. While grammatical error rates have stayed the same, the length and complexity of the essays have dramatically increased. 'It's not that the kids of 1917 were stupider,' says Thompson. 'It's just that their tools were getting in the way of their thought.'"

Thompson also refers to "transcriptional fluency," which is basically how fast our writing is compared to our thought process. "When the speed at which you're having your thoughts and utterances can't be matched by the speed at which you write, you might have an idea or way of saying something that never comes back, which is important."

Although the positive and negative impacts of some aspects of computer technology are debatable, other aspects of computer use are not.


Most people are aware of computer-related eye-fatigue and repetitive-stress injuries (though "scrivener's palsy" was a serious affliction when copies of manuscripts were written out by hand and neurological disorders involving hand cramping and loss of control were common among typists.) But fewer know of the huge influence artificial light — especially the concentrated light of our illuminated monitors and displays — has on our biological clocks, even though scientific research on these effects dates back nearly two decades.

A 1996 study, for example, by Dr. Charles Czeisler, professor of Sleep Studies at Harvard Medical School, reported that even modest exposure to artificial lighting at night altered subjects' circadian rhythms, and shifted people's sleep cycles by several hours. Circadian physiology, the system by which organisms synch up with natural cycles of night and day, holds sway across every branch of the biological tree, influencing animals, plants, fungi, and even some bacteria.

Illuminated monitors are firing light directly into our eyes, and the light in the blue part of the spectrum, which most closely mimics sunlight, is particularly disruptive. A 2011 paper delivered by researchers at the Centre for Chronobiology at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, reported that the impact of LED lights, with their shorter (blue) wavelengths, had significant effects on the production of melatonin, a key regulator of circadian physiology, which also affects cognitive performance, alertness, mood, memory, cardiovascular health, aspects of sexual function, and even the body's ability to resist several kinds of cancer.

Many other studies conducted by respected institutions corroborate these findings. A 1998 article in Science magazine even reported that these light disruptions aren't limited to what our eyes are exposed to, and indirectly suggested that we're more like plants than we realize: the application of light to the back of subjects' knees was enough to alter their circadian clocks. It seems we are sensitive to an entire array of light-based time setters, but still don't understand fully how many of these work, or how much we're affected by artificial light and a technosphere dominated by information systems designed to blast light into our eyes and faces.

For all of the speed/efficiency/uniformity-über-alles focus of the evolution of our writing technology, one suboptimal feature has remained constant since gun manufacturer Remington introduced it in some of the first typewriters brought to market in the late 1800s: the QWERTY (or Universal) keyboard. This keyboard layout — which separates common letter pairs — was invented to prevent a typewriter's mechanical typebars from jamming. This means a typist's fingers travel farther than necessary, and that a day of heavy typing might involve extra miles of needless finger travel.

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