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Old technologies never die.

August 5, 2013

A British reporter, reporting on handwriting, blithely typed: “… in the United States, which celebrates National Handwriting Day …” I might have celebrated had I known. Of course, it’s sponsored by WIMA, the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association, but nevertheless, I’ll try to remember next January 23rd.

It would be a good occasion to send a card, thus supporting the American greeting card and postal industries. What are people for if not for commerce? If we were all vultures, feeding off the dead, how would civilization move forward?

By the way, I think vultures get a bad rap. Consider a brief scene in the documentary “The Corporation” in which a suited man uses the simile of an eagle to describe his company. He says, “We are not vultures …”

Would that he were. Eagles are predators. Vultures do not kill. They are patient, capable, perhaps even kind. They seem to hang out well together. I believe I’d rather have a cup of tea with a vulture than an eagle. Imagine that eagle eye always looking past you for something. Looking, looking. A vulture would listen, have something interesting to say.

Old technologies never die. They just get adapted, digitized, improved, marginalized, niched, boutiqued, sentimentalized, and steadfastly used. The basic mousetrap remains.

There’s a pen that supposedly will vibrate when you make a mistake: Lernstift. (It’s a project funded through Kickstarter, which you may have seen mentioned in the Mountain Mail recently. Kickstarter is an entrepreneurial fundraising site, and Abby Quillen et al are using it for the publication of a new collection of Ed Quillen’s columns.)

It’s hard to imagine something more annoying than having my pen vibrate when it decides I’ve made a mistake. It takes the most annoying aspects of auto-correct in Microsoft Word and makes them visceral.

The slap of auto-correct sometimes turns helpful with auto-fill. It depends how it’s manifested. Some auto-fills are gently suggestive, others more dictatorial. But the spirit of auto-fill makes using devices like smartphones more reasonable, even as they participate in narrowing the input function toward commerce and tweets.

Which is what we’re talking about: input. Not thought or expression. Not even creation, an overused idea if ever there was one. When reporters are exhausted by the world, they will sometimes wax sentimental about handwriting and typewriters, even if predicting their death.

The word “input” changes things. Think of the implications, one of which is the inputter being depersonalized into an ant-like role of supplying data for commerce. Through our digital profile, we have become commodities. The “i” in iPad is not really about me.

But if you use a digital device, you have to provide input. Designers have struggled for decades to get away from the keyboard—effectively the mousetrap of input. The QWERTY keyboard from typewriter days remains. It is simulated on the screen for input on devices such as the iPad.

People turn their iPads horizontally for a bigger keyboard, or attach an external keyboard for serious input. I tried a projected keyboard—a little laser device projected the image of a keyboard onto the table. Odd, but remarkably accurate.

There’s an app for tablets in which you type with one finger, never lifting the finger from the screen, simply pausing over the desired letters. It works, as do voice recognition options.

Sometimes I think voice recognition software might be better than we are. But listening is a different aspect of input—the other side, so to speak.

And, perhaps you guessed it: There is a National Day of Listening. I wonder if we could do it longer?


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