Losing track of technology

William Faulkner's Underwood Universal Portabl...
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Two intersecting trends have caught my eye of late. In fact, one is un-doing the work of the other.  Today’s news of the closing of the last factory in the world to make typewriters prompts me to comment on these trends, and to juxtapose them.

I am not writing out of nostalgia for the heavy Royal manual typewriter that dominated the summer of my 13th year.  I had argued with my mother about what to take in the enrichment summer school program. I wanted to take Creative Writing. She wanted me to take Typing I and II – with college in mind but also to give me a marketable skill should I need it.  We compromised: I took both.

Obsolete Skills

Thirty of us spent the morning pounding on cumbersome Royal and Underwood typewriters – IBM Selectrics with their interchangeable typeballs were still far in the future.  We struggled to align the paper so our practice sentences didn’t tilt up or down the page. Every error was corrected by inserting a sliver of CorrecType paper and re-typing the error, then typing over.  Our teacher frowned if we did this too much: the errors were pretty obvious. Soon we found ourselves learning to center a headline on a page, set manual tabs, and pass the required speed tests.  At the time, I thought it a high price to pay for the privilege of learning creative writing in the afternoon.

By the time I went to college a few years later, small electric typewriters were commonplace, and Eaton’s corrasable bond paper had been invented – we could erase our mistakes. Too many errors, though, and the page would need to be retyped. A good outline was more important then than now: without cut-and-paste, the decision to rearrange the text meant typing it over again.

I’ve thought about some of those now-useless skills. No one counts backward half the characters in a line to center it: they click the Center icon and the computer does it automatically.  It didn’t seem so important.

The end of the typing machine

As oil and electricity prices soar, and we are all urged to find ways to cut back on our use of energy, I’ve wondered if we might not want to revive some of our non-electric technology. Our messages might be more succinct if we had to pound them out on paper instead of zipping them out over the electrons; our thoughts might be better ordered if cut-and-paste did not let us rehash them.  Those thoughts truly might be nostalgia.  When the factories close, though, we begin the slow process of losing the embodied knowledge for building those devices.  The drawings and plans might be maintained – although perhaps not forever – but all the details about the quirks of a particular design, the way a particular metal has to be treated – these will be lost with workers who cease to make the typewriters.

Recovering lost techniques – seeds, farms, and gardens

Heirloom vegetables and varieties are hotly sought after commodities these days.  There is growing awareness that our monocrop (often mono-variety) form of agriculture leaves us vulnerable to crop failure.  An aggressive new strain of wheat rust is devastating crops in Asia and Africa, where reliance on a single crop was imported from the West.  Old varieties of food crops that matured at different times and were suited to different soils and settings have given way to high-yield varieties that mature all at the same time; the soil and setting have been adjusted to their preferences.  Except for a few seed banks, the old varieties and their genetic diversity are gone.  Those who do plant the old varieties are having to learn anew the special properties of each: the farmers who knew have passed from the scene.

A similar trend is seen in gardening, where pesticides and fertilizers are giving way to integrated pest control and plant rotations that add nutrients to the soil.  This is very old technology, discovered by trial and error and passed down from generation to generation – until it was deemed old fashioned and set aside. Now it is being regained at great expense of time and scientific labor.  Would that the knowledge had been banked along with the seeds!

Technology bank

The skills of an excellent typist have long been obsolete – few now would have the ability, for instance, to turn out PhD dissertations in physics and mathematics, with all their equations, on a manual typewriter.  We don’t foresee with clarity the need to do that: but do we really know what the world will be like 50 years from now?

I hope a museum somewhere has safely stored away a typing textbook, a few spool ribbons, and one or two of those nice manual Underwoods. We might need them one day.


  1. There’s something scary about getting too far away from the basics of any skill. Elementary school kids are doing math with calculators in hand; machinists run computer-operated lathes but don’t know how to work the older manual versions… The list goes on. More and more we’re dependent on the network of wires that run overhead and underground–and what would happen to any of us if something horrific happened and none of that was available? My husband says he feels pretty good about being married to a woman who can hunt, fish and find her way in the woods, because if we ever suffered the loss of our technology, he wouldn’t have to starve. We laugh, but there’s some truth to that.

    88notes, my husband is a musician, so I know what you’re saying! The scary thing is that people PREFER the tech versions. I’ve actually seen teens walking down the street texting the person walking next to them!

    • I’m also aware of a not-so-subtle elitism that can creep in. There is only one shoe repair shop left in the city of Duluth. The advent of synthetic shoes that are glued together, along with the declining prestige of journeyman crafts, makes it an unappealing career path. Yet when the recession hit, business in that shop began to boom. As I was dropping off some shoes, I wondered where the next generation of shoe repair would come from – let alone people who could make a pair of shoes from scratch. A little investigation revealed that there are no shoe repair training programs. I guess it’s a career that is beneath us in more ways than one – even though it’s a steady and honest income.

  2. Interesting post, thanks for writing. There are also a lot of similarities in other industries such as music and live entertainment. Today, if a composer wants an orchestra or any kind of band, they don’t hire people, they buy software. If a club wants entertainment, they hire a DJ. All that’s left are the major venues (studio and live) and those are reserved for the famous and well established artists. Learning an acoustic instrument is not practical anymore other than for personal enjoyment and I hope they all don’t end up in museums next to typewriters.

    • Thank you for an interesting reply. I hadn’t thought about music – we still chant our prayers with organ accompaniment – but I instantly recognized the pattern you name.

      Overall, the people in the most “advanced” nations are being de-skilled by the same inventions that earned them the name “advanced.”

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