Patricia Nell Warren

Prisoners of Technology

Filed By Patricia Nell Warren | January 02, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: surviving emergencies, Wired Magazine

Seldom do we realize what prisoners of technology we have all become... until our DSL line goes down. Gay or straight, atheist or Christian, Democrat or Republican, those of us who use the Internet all find ourselves suddenly and ruthlessly equalized when our ability to communicate online with the rest of wired humanity is rudely cut off for a week or two.

Once upon a time, back in the early 1980s, I was still typewriter-based. I was living in northern California then -- had a little mountainside property near Nevada City. When one of those typical Sierra snowstorms dumped 3 feet of snow on the county, and the power and phone service went out, I could sit cozy and warm in my little house and keep on writing by lamplight and typewriter.

The old Remington Office-Riter, one that I'd had for so many years, was clunky but it still worked good. A supply of paper and typewriter ribbons, plus kerosene for lamps, was always laid by, and my propane tank for heating and cooking was kept topped off. Thus provisioned, I could ride out a winter storm and keep on writing till the county snowplows finally dug me out. Meanwhile, there was no contact with the outside world except via a battery-operated short wave radio.

All the early work on my novel "One Is the Sun" was done that way. But by the time I finished the novel in 1989, I was using a PC, and enduring all the blessings and curses that come with growing dependence on electronics. In that quarter century since then, the planet that I live on has gone so wired that I've had to wire myself into it in self-defense.

But the more wired we are, the more helpless we are when things go wrong with the wiring. Many of us can't do business, or send emails, or upload documents, or do banking, or pay bills online... or blog. When backup batteries fail, you lose files.

For the moment, I'll be switching to a satellite-based Internet service shortly. The DSL was shut down by my phone company owing to an error of theirs; their customer service is so bad now that it took nearly two weeks, and innumerable complaint calls, to get the service restored. Indeed, telephone company service is generally getting worse and worse, judging by all the consumer anger you can find on the Web. But what happens when the satellite-based service goes down?

Many of us think we're prepared adequately for emergencies if we have an earthquake kit, a first-aid kit and a month's supply of water and non-perishable food -- maybe even a small generator and a supply of gasoline (stored safely, of course). But I've decided to get one of those good old typewriters, if I can find one on eBay... and if there are still companies that manufacture typewriter ribbons.

An inventor friend of mine keeps telling me, "Technology doesn't ever go backwards. Once you're made a step forward, you can't go back to where you were. Because, most of the time, the technology of where you were no longer has any support systems."

But meanwhile that step backwards might be a good survival move -- your "get out of technology jail free" card, as least temporarily. As the recession impacts ever deeper, infrastructure service is going to get abominably bad, especially on the electronics front. If we want to stay connected, we had better be prepared for all kinds of blackouts.

Meanwhile I'm awfully glad to be wired again, and back to my blogging.

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I get where you are coming from. I was really good friends with my IBM golfball typewriter, and then all hell broke loose bringing out computer. After reading your essay, I went on Ebay to explore getting another typewriter. There are many vintage ones, but not fresh ribbons and zilch for IBM golfballs.
When I was in the Navy, I was a good typist and assigned to the clerical division of U.S. Naval Hospital in Oakland. The Commanding Officer and Admiral at the hospital gave me a commendation for typing excellence. Strangely, my mother in her youth won a contest at Ford Motor Company for typing. Must be an inherited typing gene.
Like you, I will be looking for a vintage typewriter on Ebay. Let me know and I won't bid against you. My Ebay username is artuniversalist.
Cheers for the New Year

I took typing - on typewriters! - in high school.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | January 3, 2009 9:34 AM

I took typing - on typewriters - in high school.

But mine were manuals. :) And I would add that I kept my Smith Corona electric on hand (Had a huge office size Remington non electric in college) I was laughed at by others for doing my own typing as "they would have secretaries," (sexist) I told them good luck if they ever need to send a confidential memo. More importantly am I going to depend upon another student for my grade?

Patricia, I kept my typewriter for my business so that I could quickly and easily type an envelope address or some other special purpose. I do not miss all the time I had to spend with "white out" and erasure pencils. I used to footnote my college essays and the process of thinking was too frequently impeded by the interruption of correction before the magical ability to backspace to correct as well as "spell check."

I clung to my typewriter until the last place in Chicago that repaired went out of business and the ribbons were gone. The fearful thing is the prospect of work lost due to hitting the wrong key, but I have discovered "undo the last command."

Even Micky Rooney has given up his Smith Corona if you watch "60 Minutes." That is saying a lot.

Actually I have been checking online, and find that typewriters and ribbons are more easily available now. You may have to buy a new typewriter and an update ribbon, instead of the vintage models. But just google under "typewriter ribbons."

My guess is that growing numbers of people share our disgust with being prisoners of electronic technology.

Patricia, you are so on the money with this. Right now, my own computer is down and as I wait for the parts to arrive to fix it I find myself at loose ends. There's so much stuff I need on that hard drive I currently can't access that I can't wait for that package to arrive.

I'm writing this on someone else's computer, and I even managed to do my radio show on New Year's Day (featuring guest Diego Sanchez talking about his new position, Barney Frank, and what we can expect from Congress this year...pod up soon!) on a Playstation Portable (PSP), but I won't feel "right" until I'm back behind my own computer, in my own space, typing on my own (wireless, ergonomic) keyboard.

It's funny how technology, especially computer/Internet tech, seems such a basic, almost invisible part of one's life until all of a sudden that tech goes down and you have to make do without it and you realize just how deeply tied to it you really are.

Well, I am using a computer but it is in a reproduction of a railroad station from the 19th Century that a friend is working on as part of the "Women in Technology-19th Century" living herstory project. The woodstove is going, and I've just finished hooking up some telegraph circuits and testing them, run off of glass jar acid batteries.

There are kerosene lanters in here...all we need is an old Royal machine with electronic contatcts to connect to the internet...

My family's old ranch headquarters is now a national historic site, the Grant-Kohrs Ranch, at Deer Lodge, MT. The ranch office has been restored with all the original early-20th-century furnishings...including the huge black ancient Underwood typewriter (probably early 1930s vintage) on its oldie stand with wheels. It has an extra-wide carriage for typing cattle and horse pedigrees. I wrote my first little short stories on that typewriter at age 10, doing hunt and peck.

In spring 2008 I visited Montana on a public-library Banned Books Week tour, and was in Deer Lodge for one of the events, so I spent some time at the GKRO. The staff sat me down at the typewriter and rolled a sheet of paper into it.
I wowed everybody by typing "now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of their country."

By golly, that 75-year-old machine still worked good. There was something reassuring about the THUNK, THUNK, THUNK sound that filled the room as the carriage moved along.

Don't expect that kind of performance from a 75-year-old computer...or a 75-year-old diskette or CD.

Previous civilizations left behind all kinds of wonderful information on papyrus rolls, and parchment manuscripts -- even the books, from Gutenberg's time up to the time when highly acid paper began to be used for books, condemning them to disintegrate after a couple of decades. But our electronic information storage is so highly fragile, unstable and vulnerable, that it makes high-acid paper look as permanent as the Pyramids.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | January 4, 2009 12:38 AM

I share your nostalgia for the reassuring "clack" of a freshly cleaned typebars hitting a platen. Remember the rubbery goo one used to have to press in to the typebars to get the built up ink out of the small case "e" and "a"? Then came the brushing of the typebars to get that last bit of hardened ink out and the inevitable day when the "a" and "e" would become so worn from frequent use it was always faint.

I do wonder what happened to that 60 lb Remington.

Oh yes, and my Faber erasure pencil, with the brush on the other end, and the stack of erasure leavings that would have to be cleaned out of the bottom of the typewriter or the top of the desk. :)

Where would I store all this stuff any more? Without the internet I could never live comfortably in Asia and as long as we backup data what we need to know is easy to find.

Isn't it odd, that when office supply stores don't carry typewriter ribbons we go to the electronic technology we claim to dislike to find them, and I disliked it since our first Atari computer in 1981. I kind of doubt I would find a typewriter in Thailand, in English :)

A good example of what you mean would be one of the telegraph sounders here. Manufactured in 1895, it is in working order and clacking away

Want to lay odds on finding a Commodore Vic that would that well at 113 years old?

I used to play computer games on a Commodore in the late 1980s. I would rather give you odds on a three-legged horse winning the Kentucky Derby.