Thursday, May 22, 2014

Typewritten Thinking?

Thinking Slowly by Matt Gemmell claims
’m a fan of analogue tools. I depend on them. I incorporate them into my creative process no matter what I’m doing. When I’m thinking about the architecture of a piece of software, I use a whiteboard (and index cards attached to the board with magnets) long before I launch Xcode. ... And then there’s writing, of course. I mostly do that on an assortment of electronic devices – some new, like my 2013 MacBook Air, and some old, like my gorgeous PowerBook 150 from 1994 – but right now I’m using something a bit more vintage: a typewriter.
Nothing wrong with that, I suppose ... a bit pretentious, perhaps ... and almost completely incomprehensible to someone who had to write his dissertation and first papers with a typewriter—only to have to pay almost $1000.00 to have the final versions typed up by a professional typist, but to each his or her own.

Gemmell claims more, however: "I use them [analogue tools] to slow myself down. To introduce just enough friction that I’m compelled to pause. We don’t pause enough anymore. We don’t give ourselves time to think." And this is deeply weird. A typewriter gives him (and would give us, he seems to claim) "time to think." And how is this supposed to work?
Strike a key too gently, and the letter will be faint or invisible. Strike the wrong key, and you’ll have to remove the paper, paint over the error with correction fluid, let it dry, reinsert the paper and roll it to the correct line, position the carriage, and try again. It’s onerous, and even when you get it right, it’s physically difficult.
Give it some time, and the typewriter will be just as automatic as the computer keyboard—I am tempted to say. Have you ever seen a typist hammer away at a dissertation of which she/he understood little or nothing? No, probably not, come to think of it.

But it gets worse:
These older, simpler tools, with all of their baggage and inefficiencies, compel us to front-load the thinking process. They necessitate a certain concentration and cognitive abstraction. They force us to measure twice. Error-correction becomes a vaguely burdensome eventuality, as it should be, rather than an omnipresent part of the creative process. The slower pace of authorship throttles the hands, allowing the mind some extra breathing room and thus more effective oversight.
In other words, "the older, simpler tools, with all their baggage and inefficiencies," distract from the task at hand, that is thinking what we want or need to think about. Rather they force the inexperienced user to think about how to accomplish putting thoughts on paper. Thinking about how in this way is just as bad in writing as it is in pole vaulting.

In any case, there is no magical connection between a typewriter and writing. And Gemmell's post is in many ways a sign of a particular form of thoughtlessness.[1]

1. There is still more that is wrong. I will mention only one: "We start too quickly. Indeed, we mistakenly believe that starting work means starting to produce." That is actually exactly the opposite of what I advise Ph.D. Students to do. There are too many people who "think" about what they are going to write without writing. You can't think complicated thoughts without writing. Therefore, it is necessary to start right away. And, as to an alternative to doing "our thinking piecemeal, interspersed amongst flashes of inspiration and fumbling in equal measure." I don't know of any.

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