Just another sense memory

olivetti

I wrote this piece for last week’s Guardian about how the Amstrad PCW converted writers to the computer.

I suppose in the future mine will be remembered as the last generation for whom writing was an indubitably analogue act. We even had handwriting lessons in my primary school; at my secondary school they still had the old sit-up-and-beg desks that you opened up to put your books and papers inside, with a hole in the left-hand top corner for the ink well. I have no particular nostalgia for obsolescent writing tools like fountain pens or typewriters – unlike Will Self, who disdainfully calls the word processor the ‘plastic piano’ – although I do think the Olivetti Lettera (pictured above) was a thing of beauty.

But it is true that the act of writing is becoming invisible, the tools of the trade ethereal and fluid. Handwriting is now an endangered activity; after taking three-hour exams, my students’ arms ache, atrophied by technology. We are forgetting writing’s associations with the impression of ink on page. How much longer will computers even have keyboards? You never hear the labour of writing any more – except in our university library, where the quiet patter of a hundred keyboards sounds like gentle rain hitting rooftops. Perhaps writing in the future will simply be a matter of touchscreens and voice recognition. ‘Typing may someday survive only as another sense memory,’ wrote Marshall Jon Fisher in his 2003 essay ‘Memoria Ex Machina’. ‘A writer, while composing with his voice, will still tap his fingers on the desk like an amputee scratching a wooden leg.’

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