Walter Benjamin and the iPad

or, Advice for Writers in the Age of Digital Orthography

In his book of aphorisms, One Way Street, published in 1928, Walter Benjamin has a remarkable premonition. ‘The typewriter’ he says, ‘will alienate the hand of the man of letters from the pen only when the precision of typographic forms has directly entered the conception of his books. One might suppose that new systems with more variable typefaces would then be needed. They will replace the pliancy of the hand with the innervation of commanding fingers.’ [p63-4]

This is exactly what started to happen with the advent of the desktop computer six decades later, and with the internet, email and the web, digital command extended into a virtual domain which even a prescient fellow like Benjamin couldn’t have imagined.

The following section in One Way Street is ‘The Writer’s Technique in Thirteen Theses’. Mostly it seems to me these stipulations still apply, including his admonition to ‘Avoid haphazard writing materials’: ‘A pedantic adherence to certain papers, pens and inks is beneficial. No luxury, but an abundance of these utensils is indispensable.’ I still have—and use—a range of pens and especially propelling pencils with built in eraser (insert at one end, delete at the other) but translated into digital orthography, this means choosing your computer programmes with due care, and I am one of the people who learned to hate Microsoft’s Windows and now feel very happy on an Apple Mac. Just as Benjamin conjectured, typographic modification has become second nature and I apply it fluently while drafting. (As for video editing, this becomes a form of audio-visual writing on the timeline.)

I have always been fascinated by both calligraphy and typography. At primary school I was taught to write italic and worked hard at it, carefully choosing a fountain pen with the right italic nib for my hand. At my next school I jumped at the chance to join the printing shop, and I learned typography the old way—composing stick in hand, a beautiful nineteenth century treadle platen press. Something like this:

Later I changed schools, and as soon as I could I went out and bought myself an Adana hand press with all the appurtances, including a small but carefully chosen set of fonts.

I started printing stuff like visiting cards and invitations and programmes for school events. I was reading Proudhon (‘Property is theft’), and remember being impressed by the fact that he was an autodidact printer by trade, and concluded that the print would be a perfectly respectable trade to follow. This lasted two or three years, but I gave up the press when I started ‘monetising’ my hobby, because I quickly realised I didn’t want to turn into a little businessman. Still, as an undergraduate, one of my great pleasures was the result of becoming the editor of one of the student newspapers. Sussex Outlook was printed at the local newspaper in Brighton, and we used to go in and lay it out with the printers, proof-read, make corrections on the platen, and then  watch the first copies roll. (Many years later, I hitched up with a partner who was a typographer, who while we were together, made the transition from workbench to computer screen. We talked a lot about stuff like the implications of computers for de-skilling in a range of traditional trades and professions.)

I began using a typewriter during my teens—an old portable which my father gave me when he replaced it with something else. I became a quite proficient two-finger typist—never learnt touch-touching, but I was good enough to get a summer job temping as a clerk in a factory a bus ride away in Stonebridge Park. (A very valuable experience in the drudgery of such jobs, something I also learned by sometimes earning money at weekends working in my dad’s little factory, where he made shoulder pads for tailors all over London. But that’s another story.) I seem to remember I got a new portable typewriter when I went to university, but also that I still wrote a good deal in longhand, including personal letters. When I started writing music journalism I graduated to an electric typewriter. I first heard about something called a word processor from the popular novelist, Len Deighton, who when I knew him was just about to purchase one of the first of those souped-up typewriters with an internal memory which allowed you to make corrections line by line as you went along, which he described to us as the latest technological wonder. That was in 1968, but it wasn’t until the 80s that I got one, when the price came within my reach, and which was superceded a year or two later by my first computer.

Today I no longer use a fountain pen. I follow Benjamin’s advice, ‘Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens’, but with a propelling pencil. I long resisted mobile telephones but I was an early adopter of the tablet computer, trying it out in different sizes, pleased to discover that my neat handwriting worked very well, and hey presto, it turned into print which could be easily copied back onto my desktop machine. I seldom used the thing at home, but found it very helpful when travelling. Long experience has taught me to travel light—hand luggage only if at all possible, so the smaller the machine you have to carry the better.

Now comes a new device. At first I was very sceptical—it seemed to me stupid of Apple not to include handwriting recognition, as well as a few other things—until one day I idled into a store and tried an ipad out and began, I have to admit, to be seduced. The on-screen finger keyboard is actually very usable tapping with one finger while holding the thing with the other hand, it turns on instantly, has an excellent screen and promises very good battery life.  I still resisted until I came across what for me is the crucial element, an application with handwriting recognition. I use it with a stylus and it works quite well—on first try, I managed to write 800 words on a two-hour train journey.

I completely disapprove of Apple’s philosophy, especially the lack of open architecture, which has led to engineering choices that are very frustrating. It’s odd that the ipad isn’t multitasking, but switching back and forth between applications is very fast, and so is websurfing and syncing over wifi. In fact, I now have it permanently on my desk, and use it in preference to the desktop machine for looking things up (especially now I’ve installed the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and some other reference tools). Having broken it in, it’s ready for my next trip, for using it in class or at conferences to project from, whatever. In short, it has joined my abundance of writing (and teaching) utensils in preference to my laptop, which I now regard as my back-up in case the desktop machine goes down.

It’s frightening how dependent we become on our tools, even as digital culture and the digital economy open up huge spaces of communication on a global scale and profoundly transform socio-cultural intercourse. I note a couple of recent reports on the dangers that information overload is ‘killing our capacity for reflection, contemplation, and patience’, perhaps even ‘altering the very structure of our brains’ (The Guardian, 20.08.10), or as the New York Times puts it, Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime. Nevertheless, I have to admit, the ipad gives a whole new meaning to Benjamin’s idea of ‘commanding fingers’.


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