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Intermediate technology

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For writers of a certain age, the most nostalgic sound in the world is the irregular clatter of an old manual typewriter. I have several typewriters, fully functioning antiques that provide a reassuring link to the past. My favorite machine is an Underwood, manufactured around 1949. I bought it in a yard sale many years ago and used it every day until fate and lack of foresight pushed me into the computer age.

The reign of the manual typewriter was quite short. The first crude machines appeared in offices in the 1870s, and the first electric typewriters in 1935. By the 1980s, typewriters were already history. For my generation, though, the clack of a typewriter was and is the very sound of romance. In movies or radio dramas, the appearance of a brilliant writer or a heroic journalist was always signaled by this very sound.

It's true that most of the world's great literature (some would claim all of it) emerged in near-silence from under a scratching pen. When the typewriter appeared, many writers condemned it as a noisy, barbaric device that would probably usher in the end of civilization, and certainly the end of literature. Perhaps they had a point. But those of us who grew up with typewriters found that they had a romance of their own. The clumsy machine was like a superior alter ego, turning our awkward phrases and spidery calligraphy into real writing.

Now, the next wave of unwanted and unnecessary technology is upon us. We are being pushed, pulled and bullied into artificial intelligence and quantum computing, pushed back to silence. In this brave new world there will be no more clattering keys, and not even the soft patter of a computer keyboard. Only silence, as the machines do it all for us.

Nobody wanted or asked for these gadgets except those who will profit hugely from selling them. In the circumstances, it’s hard not to indulge in a little technological nostalgia. I’m not nostalgic for antiques in general.

Still, the Luddite in me stirs when I think of some old-fashioned machinery that worked without fuss, like the manual typewriter, and cars that didn’t lock and unlock themselves at random, and that you could drive without being harassed by a whole host of electronic warnings, and wired telephones (remember how simple it used to be to make a call from a wired phone and how you could actually hear what the other person was saying). Every improvement has proved to be just the opposite. I am now using what is called a state-of-the-art computer. I would like to know what “art” is supposed to be, and I would like to meet the artist responsible, who I imagine as a kind of electronic Jackson Pollock, a joker.

Somewhere along the way I lost the original Underwood, but I found its twin in another yard sale. I was more than ready for the Year 2000 computer crash, but it never happened. I’ve not given up hope. I am ready for power cuts, ready for Armageddon. Whatever happens I’m sure that the old Underwood will survive, and I like to think that it will be the only machine on the planet in a condition to take down my observations on the interesting period immediately afterwards.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.