Machine

March 28, 2021 ☞ Word of the day

A machine is an assemblage of parts that move together to make something happen. I’m trying to make this post happen. The machine I’m using is called a Macbook Pro, but know this is an amateur effort.

Apple doesn’t call it a machine, of course. They prefer book. A notebook. You know, a $5,000 CNC-machined writing pad. A Macbook has exactly two things in common with a notebook: its ability to fold open and its inability to swim. But a notebook isn’t a machine. It’s a canvas. A machine has parts. Individually each part is insignificant; in concert they do things you cannot do.

In this case, turn words into electrons and fire them into outer space. (I think that’s how the web works.) That is what computers do.

I use another machine to produce these words: a typewriter. Unlike my designed in California panini of glass and metal, I can see how this machine’s parts move. If my Macbook makes noise something’s wrong. My typewriter does nothing but make noise. It’s the quiet that makes you uneasy. Each hammer-slapped letter against the platen is a slow clap cheering you on. Spap! Spap! Ding! When the hammers applaud, that’s the sound of being in flow.

Our family got a typewriter when I was 10 years old. My mom was re-entering the workforce, so my dad lugged home a powder blue IBM Selectric the size of a three-year-old child. Our house had never seen a machine like this. So business. So international. Instead of delicate hammers, a letter-covered sphere bopped words to the paper like a twisting fist.

IBM SelectricIBM Selectric

Then we upgraded to a Panasonic. The new model had correction tape to erase mistakes. It let you center text and type in bold. Innovation! I must be the only person in my family who read the instructions cover to cover.

As I kid I liked to play office. Probably because we had one, down in the basement. My dad’s desk held treasures: a leather satchel full of mechanical drafting tools, a T-square, a stapler, old drawings from his college days. A shrine to a person I’d never meet. By the time my sister and I were born, my dad worked at a bank. He didn’t draw anymore. Sometimes the folks who rear you are different from the ones who make you. Two people don’t just become parents, they become a parenting machine.

The typewriter was a way of life for centuries. Think about that. Our cellular phones transform every two years and render the previous models laughable and antique. When people talk about timeless design, never look to the tech industry. My current writing machine is an Olympia SM9 which still looks modern and elegant and is a delight to use. My old iPod won’t even turn on anymore.

Olympia SM9Olympia SM9

A typewriter and computer make writing happen differently.

Writing on a computer is like reading in a casino. It’s certainly possible. Once upon a time your PC noticed you were writing a letter and offered to help. Modern machines are more subtle in their distraction. A computer corrects your spelling and grammar before you have finished your thought. It lets you futz with typefaces and styles before you have made a point. It lets you publish your opinions to the planet, before you have made any sense. Imagine if every Tweet had to start on paper; we’d have a different world indeed.

A typewriter draws words out of you. It’s a kind of extrusion, pulling ideas out letter by letter in a delicate garland of thought. The process is as physical as it is intellectual and every finger punch is rewarded with a snap of fresh ink on paper. And there’s no backspace. The typewriter captures all mistakes but urges you forward anyway. It is a forgiving machine, because forgiveness is the essence of the creative process. So is patience. That is why the typewriter never prompts you. It waits and it works, unless it is out of ink.

And best of all, it does not use machine learning to figure out what I am trying to say. That’s my job. That is why I sat down to write in the first place.