California Typewriter: 100% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. I didn’t know anything got 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. But California Typewriter did. And it’s well-deserved. My reflection, though a bit long, explains some of the reasons why!
My Digital Technology Prequel
85 updates available.
Are you serious?
This never-ending, built from the ground up, cyclical process promises re-invented personal freedom, instant and meaningful social connection with everyone on planet earth, and the democratization of potential and possibility.
Then, why does it feel so much like high concept, self-indulgent slavery that enriches beyond any meaningful measure a tiny number of entitled elites—who know what we look like, where we go when, every time we pass gas, and can accurately shape and predict what we will do next?
Digital emancipation has been one of the most profitable lies ever sold.
The reality is something far less seductive.
Something often ugly.
Something that frequently impoverishes presence in the analogue (real) world.
Something that all too often lays waste to human attention and thereby personal potential.
But, not to worry: I’ll just snap a new profile selfie… Should I update my banner?
No, the movie isn’t about any of that. But that’s what it has me thinking about here a couple of days after seeing it. Your mileage may vary.
This week I went to see the movie California Typewriter. The movie resonated with me. You see, I grew up practicing on an acoustic piano, you know, those big wooden things you never needed to plug in.
You looked at the music, thought about it, heard it in your mind’s ear; then, you pressed the keys and sound came vibrating out of the instrument. The music was about patterns, structured nuance, expressiveness, and ultimately abstract beauty in an analogue, physical world. The execution was about technical proficiency, hard-won skill development, and compositional genius. And you felt its resonance. You actually felt it with your whole body in the real world.
Maybe it was the similarities between playing the piano and pounding away on my grandparent’s old typewriter that made me fall in love with that old Underwood. I liked thinking something and then seeing that thought on the page. I like the physicality of production. I liked hearing the mechanic sounds of my ideas as they smacked themselves onto the page.
Technology that is Human Compliant
I didn’t have to spend any time waiting for my grandparents’ typewriter or my piano to boot up. I didn’t have to worry about whether or not a battery had enough charge to write the ideas in my head or play the music I wanted to express.
And, oh god! 85 updates?! I kid you not. This morning my iPad told me there were 85 updates that developers wanted me to do! How long will that take? The sheer unpleasant shock of it was enough to cause me to completely forget what I had turned it on to accomplish.
I’m tired of working for the technology instead of the technology working for me. I’m tired of “clean” user interfaces that hide the tools I want to use thus interrupting my workflow by forcing me to now pay attention to where the software designer has hidden the tool that was once plainly visible.
But, Oh Yes…
On to the Movie…
The movie begins with the death of a Royal typewriter in the desert along Highway 91 on a road trip out of Los Angeles in 1967. Royal Road Test was born. What a superb way to start and end! “Was it an accident, or was it murder?” The movie breathes life into a dead machine. From the Royal Road Test:
“It was too directly bound to its own anguish to be anything other than a cry of negation; carrying within itself, the seeds of its own destruction.”
I mean, who writes crazy that well, and as a photo essay at that?! The self-published book had 3 printings and is a collectors’ item now. Copies start around $300.
While connected throughout to the story of an actual typewriter repair store in Berkeley, California, (called California Typewriter) the movie features delightful reflections by several well-knowns: David McCullough, Sam Shepard, Darren Wershler, and Mason Williams to name a few. I’ll just discuss a couple others that are shared throughout the film.
Tom Hanks, a lover of typing and a collector of typewriters, mentions the sad fact that no one will ever manufacture a great typewriter again. (The last typewriter factory was in Mumbai and closed in 2011.) He speaks of the impermanence of digital communication saying that if he receives a thank you email from someone, he deletes it after reading it. However, when he receives a typed thank you note, he saves it forever.
The musician, John Mayer, refers to the same idea by calling hard drives filled with so much of his life, “high concept trash1 ” which he will never look at again. He reflects on his efforts to germinate ideas for lyrics in his creative process. He doesn’t want a red squiggly line to demand he correct the spelling of a word. He wants to get his words out, to create, to flow in the moment.
He described his creative process as entering a trance-like state in which he is paving a new road and then immediately driving on it before paving the next section of the road and then driving on that. It’s “in the moment” and can’t get interrupted by his tools without damaging the process. John spoke of not being a slave to the tools but constructing a workflow, a creative process, that incorporates the best tools of the past 100 years to create a sustainable creative workflow. He alluded to how quickly the digital tools change and render previous work inaccessible or incompatible.
Mayer talked about his trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in which he looked at scraps of paper, napkins, notecards that great artists had jotted and edited their work on in previous generations. You could see how they were thinking. You could see their creative process. You were witness to their edits, their mind at work. Digital tools obscure this, making younger generations believe it just appeared in a moment.
The Typewriter As a Tool for Artists
Aside from John and Tom, other artists (playwright and authors) shared their reflections. Then there was…
Silvi Alcivar, a writer in San Francisco, uses her portable typewriter to write poetry on demand. She goes to a location to “set up shop,” and, after talking with a client, she writes a short form poem for them on demand. She speaks of a symbiotic relationship between her, the client, her typewriter, and the words her client needs. Some of the work was profoundly touching.
She spoke of a young 20-something year old man who had attempted to jump to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge only to be stopped and saved by police. No one knew his secret. He needed words, a poem. She felt honored to use her typewriter to produce them for him.
Sculpture by Jeremy Mayer
Jeremy, an artist in Oakland, California, brings life to dead typewriters by using their parts to make the most astonishing sculptures. His work uses no glue, welding or adhesive, only the parts of typewriters. His sculptures, typically of the human form, have caught on with movers and shakers in the tech industry.
He was hired by the last typewriter manufacturer in the world to take the parts of the last 100 typewriters they produced and create a large sculpture for the company in their new lobby as they transformed their business. He created a giant mechanical lotus flower that blossoms in a fountain.
Music by The Boston Typewriter Orchestra
Yeah. I had never heard of them either. But their musical ensemble performs solely on typewriters. They explore the varied percussive sounds of the machines and the resonant bell tones, all of which are “instrument” specific. I was actually quite delighted by their musical machinations2.
The Typewriter As a Symbol of the Rebellion
Author Richard Polt, The Typewriter Revolution, speaks tongue-in-cheek, or does he, about his Typewriter Manifesto and a global movement bringing back the use of the typewriter. From typing sit-ins and type-offs, to Facebook executives who are just fed up with the over-digitalization of their own personal lives, Polt believes the use of the typewriter is returning. I hope he’s right! He’s certainly got a following for his manifesto.
I have suspected for some time that I’m not alone in my efforts to unplug. I’m not all that unique, weird maybe, but not all that unique. As I long for more analogue and less digital, I suspect there are many who also feel this tug. It’s not in the digital industry’s own self interest to do anything but promote how everyone is thriving with their pricy tools. I’m just not that convinced anymore. Those tools have grievously damaged democracy, privacy, and thinking while shrinking attention spans down to nanoseconds.
I highly recommend the movie, California Typewriter. The film’s exploration is more than a nostalgic look at these complex machines of yore. It’s more than a fascinating glimpse into their history3. It’s a reflection on meaningfulness, value, depth, significance, and the analogue world in which we actually breath. It explores the notion of generational durability, permanence, the creative process and the art that results.
I’ll end with a quotation in the film from John Mayer that resonated with me. He was speaking of how every generation wants to create the world in which they live using their own tools. He said: The older I get the more tension I find between what I would like to see happen and what is going to just happen anyway, no matter what.
Yes. That. That indeed.
What do we do with the energy in that tension?