A writer needs their tools.
What do all these tools have in common? They help us make permanent that thing that makes us human: language. Language marshalled into journals, books, literary fiction, non-fiction, blog posts, lists – but how do all these tools change the way we write and think?
‘Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts.’
In Nicolas Carr’s now [in]famous Atlantic essay, ‘Is Google making us stupid?’ (which has since become an extended essay in the form of a book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains) is, unsurprisingly, a tirade against the internet, and the way it is detrimentally affecting our reading habits, social interaction and concentration spans.
‘Dave, stop. Stop, will you? Stop, Dave. Will you stop, Dave?’ is the opening line, and readers are immediately returned to that suffocating limbo space that is the closing of 2001: A Space Odyssey, reminded of all those things we have to fear from artificial intelligence.
But this post is about our intelligence.
Carr goes on:
I can feel it, too. Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going—so far as I can tell—but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text.
Evgeny Morozov draws a parallel between Carr’s thesis and an 1889 Spectator article cautioning against enthrallment with electricity:
Electricity had led to the telegraph, which in turn saw “a vast diffusion of what is called ‘news,’ the recording of every event, and especially of every crime.”
Foreshadowing Marshall McLuhan by almost a century, the magazine deplored a world that was “for purposes of ‘intelligence’ reduced to a village” in which “a catastrophe caused by a jerry-builder of New York wakes in two hours the sensation of pity throughout the civilised world.” And while “certainly it increases nimbleness of mind… it does this at a price. All men are compelled to think of all things, at the same time, on imperfect information, and with too little interval for reflection.”
In 1882, Friedrich Nietzsche bought a Malling-Hansen writing ball, much like this one:
Nietzsche could no longer work with paper, the white expanse resulting in blinding headaches and he was, in point of fact, going blind (symptoms of advanced syphilis, according to some scholars). There is some debate about how attached Nietzsche was to the machine, and whether he used it for a period of longer than six weeks, but Carr asserts that it literally changed his thought processes and the writing he went on to produce.
According to Carr’s anecdote, a friend of Nietzsche’s wrote that his writing style had changed since he had purchased the machine:
His already terse prose had become even tighter, more telegraphic. “Perhaps you will through this instrument even take to a new idiom,” the friend wrote in a letter, noting that, in his own work, his “‘thoughts’ in music and language often depend on the quality of pen and paper.”
“You are right,” Nietzsche replied, “our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts.” Under the sway of the machine, writes the German media scholar Friedrich A. Kittler, Nietzsche’s prose “changed from arguments to aphorisms, from thoughts to puns, from rhetoric to telegram style.”
Spellbound by the typewriter
Rick Poynor, who writes on design and visual culture, composed a eulogy to his typewritten days, ‘In Memoriam: My Manual Typewriter’:
I did quite a lot of unpublished writing on my Olympia, but by the time I became a journalist in 1984 the PC had arrived. Word processing’s advantages were obvious and I was happy to upgrade. You can’t just brush the keys of a manual typewriter. You really have to hit them. That character has to arc through the air on its metal stalk and thwack the ink on to the paper. Correcting errors is messy and boring. Redrafting is worse. Typing can be an unglamorous slog. I operated PCs and later Macs at work and bought a Compaq portable computer the size of a small suitcase for a ridiculous sum and used its tiny green screen to “keyboard” the text of my first book. For years, I treated computers as little more than glorified typewriters with a memory and a built-in word counter. The point, of course, is that the computer has never been a dedicated writing tool — writing is the least of it — and everyone uses them. They are somehow both more marvellous and more ordinary. That’s why there isn’t a shred of romance in the idea of a writer and his or her personal computer.
Originally the typewriter was conceived of as a device for the vision impaired; writers, after all, had pens. As their design and use evolved, it was assumed that women would mostly operate them: secretaries recording the lofty thoughts of great men. Hence, typewriter both described the machine and the person managing it. Joan Acocella reveals, as an aside in her review of The Iron Whim: A Fragmented History of Typewriting, ‘The flowers printed on the casing of the early models were to make the mechanism seem friendly to the weaker sex.’
The history of the typewriter, it turns out, is infinitely fascinating. Not least because with hindsight, we can map how it influenced thinking and construction. Certainly it changed the approach to writing and thinking about writing, and, by extension, possibly shaped writing itself. Acocella says:
[I]n the age of the typewriter—the twentieth century, more or less—there was a mythology that what was typewritten was true, that the machine somehow caused writers to bare their souls. This is a central idea of “The Iron Whim,” and it calls forth some of Wershler-Henry’s most atmospheric prose: “The typewriter has become the symbol of a non-existent sepia-toned era when people typed passionately late into the night under the flickering light of a single naked bulb, sleeves rolled up, suspenders hanging down, lighting each new cigarette off the smouldering butt of the last, occasionally taking a pull from the bottle of bourbon in the bottom drawer of the filing cabinet.”
Mark Twain was one of the first to brave the new world of the typewriter, producing one of the first completely typed manuscripts, Life on the Mississippi. There was also Henry James (who employed a stenographer, apparently making his later work more complex), William S Burroughs, Jack Kerouac (who could type 100 words a minute and wrote On the road in ‘a single single-spaced paragraph a hundred and twenty feet in length’) and Paul Auster, rumoured to be haunted by his typewriter. (Strange that all these examples are men.)
The physical act of writing has been changed by the transition to the computer, and again to the laptop. Producing text on a typewriter involved more physical effort, our fingers inscribing words through force, whereas typing on a computer requires less vigour.
These aren’t the only discernible differences, as Acocella illustrates:
Which brings us to the white page. Mallarmé spoke of the uncertainty with which we face a clean sheet of paper and try, in vain, to record our thoughts on it with some precision. As long as we were feeding paper into a typewriter, this anxiety was still present to our minds, and was revealed in the pointillism of Wite-Out, or even in the dapple of letters that were darker, pressed in confidence, as opposed to the lighter ones, pressed more hesitantly. A page produced on a manual typewriter was like a record of the torture of thought. With the P.C., the situation is altogether different. The screen, a kind of indeterminate space, does not seem violable in the same way as the page. And, because what we write on it is so effortlessly and undetectably erasable, the final text buries the evidence of our struggle, asserting that what we said was what we thought all along. Wershler-Henry suggests that the P.C.—with some help from Derrida and Baudrillard—ushered us into a world in which the difference between true and false is no longer cause for doubt or grief; falsity is taken for granted. I don’t know if he was thinking about the spurious perfection of the computer-generated page, but it would be a useful example.
That laptop is changing you
Australian writer and philosopher Damon Young hosts a series on his blog darkly wise, rudely great called ‘The Write Tools’, in which authors and artists discuss their preferred tools. It’s fascinating to reflect on what tools an author requires to create, and how this then influences their approach and thinking of their writing and creative production.
Despite the riches I’ve frittered away on pens, paper, typewriters, computers and the occasional found object (the inverse to frittering), I can’t honestly detect any change or improvement in my writing as a direct result of the machine or instrument used.
But the question begs: how differently do we think – and think about writing – now that we write on PCs, laptops and iPads? Redrafting and editing (deleting and inserting as we go) are functions that were once labour-intensive and time-consuming in the writing world. What has changed about our writings now that we don’t have to physically cut and paste our texts? What is being lost, or not said, or edited out of existence before writers know whether it belongs?
And the interminability of those white pages! Some days there are up to twenty Word files open on my computer, quarter filled, or home to one, lonely word and I am overwhelmed by their dominance. Yes, we also used to have notes in the eras of the quill and the typewriter so perhaps this is the contemporary form of note taking, but these notes are rarely indelible. At the end of the working day I close the file and do not save.
If Nietzsche was right, and ‘our writing tools are also working on our thoughts’, does this mean modernist literature is the result of the typewriter, rather than the industrial revolution? And if so, does it follow that the digital age is a result of the internet, rather than mass literacy? If the internet and the computer and the iPhone are now writing tools, how are we thinking in ways that Nietzsche would have been unable to conceptualise?
It is not only writers whose thinking and creating is at the mercy of the machines or instruments they use. Take, for instance, ‘The Typewriter Concerto’:
PS It has been brought to my attention that Mark Colvin has an article well worth reading about Carr’s essay and book and how the internet is changing us up at Drum.