Friday, November 26, 2010

Typecast: Relentless reinvention

I'm probably being too harsh here, idealizing the days of typewriter innovation as a time when products stood still long enough that you could take a good, hard look at them. Arguably, we've had 45 years to examine the Hermes 3000 and conclude that it's fantastic, while the iPhone is still only about four years old (and has gone through a new version every single year).

I think that there might be some genuinely great life-improving innovations out there that I would love to discover (it's 2010, after all), but between keeping up with the constant flood of new slightly-modified gadgets and trying to get back the 6539 hours I spent configuring Windows Vista to operate at an acceptable speed (it never happened, so I gave up and went over to OSX), I am just left numb from it all and want to never open another shrink-wrapped blister package of unmet expectations.

As a palate cleanser, here are some pretty pictures of typewriters:

Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone!


  1. I love this post. For a long time - from my teens to my 30's I had an early-adopter yen for the new without the resources to participate, so I was left out. That allowed me to see the pattern you mention that so few of them satisfy for any length of time, so now that I could occasionally afford it I opt out in favor of typewriters and slide rules.
    p.s. best thing about your post - first correct use of "myriad" I've seen in about two years. Thanks for doing that.

  2. Nice post - definitely picking up on a big factor in modern society and gadgetry. Especially with mobile phones - why do they need to be reinvented every year, with extra functions and uncessary features and blah blah - and all I use it for is phoning and texting. And the good, really basic Nokias that do that are already 5 years old and daggy as hell. Plus, it's all an iterative design process - the iPhone and iPad and even the Kindle are good examples - rather than starting with something that works and functions well, they throw out the prototype and let the people do the R&D (Mac types especially ;-)) and then iterate the fine tuning and you have to replace and upgrade it and the OS every year or so. This is insane and all about the bottom line and wasting resources.

    Increasingly - and in line with typewriters - I love highly functional products that do maybe one thing only - but do it very well - and reliably. It's not nostalgia for a luddite thing that is interesting to me (although there is that), it's a yearning for simply good & functional technology that won't need upgrading of some kind. It's independent technology, freestanding and just as likely to work in 20 years' time.

    I think early adopters are cool and all that - but ultimately, who or what are they serving? The Steve Jobs Profit Margin?

    Also, while I think of it, I came across a line in Burroughs' Naked Lunch the other day which I thought was nicely prophetic (for 1958): 'Modern man externalises himself in the form of gadgets.'

    You are not your gadget, as Lanier says.


  3. What gets to me is that I am not sure who the market for the reinventions is supposed to be - the same early-adopters who bought the last version just twelve months ago? What is the point of that? The old devices are still perfectly functional, aren't they? It is such a waste and frankly an insult to our intelligence that we are constantly being sold the latest and greatest, fueled by a mad rush to get the "old" on eBay before it is too late. Madness.

    It is very satisfying to check out of the whole system and rediscover an old but perfectly functional technology like typewriters.

  4. It took Apple saying that my iBook from 2004/5 would no longer be supported in software updates to turn me to typewriters.

  5. Ryan - I had one of those! I'm probably the sort of customer Apple loves because I spilled water into it in '06 and killed it :(. This prompted a brief foray into Windows as I was looking for a cheaper laptop, but that was awful. These days, I have a MacBook from '08, but given the long drawn-out process of purchasing a replacement battery from the Apple store this summer, I have no doubt that if this one fails in the next couple of years, I'll be up the creek.

    Long live typewriters.

  6. Around 1978 I got a Casio LCD digital watch. I was fascinated: those numbers seemed to float inside the glass, and magically change every second. You could program an alarm, use it as a stopwatch ... it was very exciting to a kid.

    That started a fascination with the digital world that has never completely died. But after 32 years of upgrades, I have passed the point where my computers do everything I actually want them to do. Now it all just looks like a frantic race to get the "latest" thing -- a race where we think we are driving the process, but in fact we're just jumping when hardware and software manufacturers crack their whips. I use my typewriters more and more.

    ((Having said that ... I wouldn't mind an iPad for Christmas ...))


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