Friday, August 1

It wasn't until I had tried in earnest to use a typewriter for the production of an actual document that I really understood all the weird and oddly physical rituals which were presented as higher knowledge in my highschool typing & office drudgery classes. What did all this rigidly mechanical formula have to do with making a useful piece of text?

One way or another, I had already internalized the values and methods of this then-emergent electronic text thing without retaining a trace of historical perspective, let alone a muscle-memory relationship to the older machines that had been physically (if not yet conceptually) supplanted by all those black & white Macintoshes. So of course I was an arrogant little jackass, and assumed that my teachers were profoundly clueless.

(This seems like a reasonable moment to publicly apologize to Archie Lindsay and Sharon Van Cleave for just about every interaction we had between roughly 1993 and early 2001, and to mention that in addition to being unimpressed by my contempt for tab stops and business correspondence, Mrs. Van Cleave also let me hang out in the computer lab ditching Social Studies to mess around with HyperCard.)

Of course, in a way, the typing teachers of the 1990s were profoundly clueless, but their cluelessness — or at least their perspective's rapid drift away from the most salient technical realities of putting strings of words together — was grounded in experience and a highly developed material culture. They had decades of craft on their side. It was hardly their fault that most of the software advertised as suitable for the task at hand was built on the same conceptual gap between typing paper and bitstreams which made it seem like knowing where to put the tab stops for a business as vs. a personal letter was still relevant to the task at hand.

It turns out that representing typewriter-style processes & utility features for laying out text on a page as collections of discrete interface elements in software is mostly a frustrating and limiting approach to the problem, but that's not necessarily an obvious statement. And meanwhile a few hours with a typewriter is profoundly instructive. It doesn't take much to understand why and how all those little techniques and stylistic conventions might have developed, at least in their broad outlines.