On a desk at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore rests an object of uncertain, but surely prehistoric, vintage. It is about a foot wide and a hand high, it weighs perhaps five or six pounds, and it is made of pieces of metal. It is a flimsy construction, yet over many years its owner coaxed and bullied from it a steady stream of fulminations that caused the righteous to tremble and the mighty to fume. It was, as an example chosen at random indicates, a lethal weapon:
"I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to decent men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human govenment, and even to civilization itself--that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating."
No doubt you have by now surmised that the historic object in question is the typewriter that belonged to H.L. Mencken. It is not, by the standards of an age in which typing machines have memories and talk back to their owners, an especially prepossessing piece of equipment, but in its day it got the job done; were the Sage of Baltimore still around to tickle its worn and faded keys, surely it could still sing a merry tune. And Mencken, who was so maladroit at matters mechanical that he gave up driving an automobile as beyond his comprehension and dignity, was lucky to have it. He never had to turn it on or off; it ran on finger power.
Melancholy thoughts about Mencken's machine and its doughty reliability came to me last week: at 10:30 on Thursday morning, to be quite precise. It was a day that had promised, at the outset, to be productive. I had risen early, read the papers and done an errand, and now was perched in my study in front of the portable word processor upon which, courtesy of this newspaper, I regularly commit mayhem upon the English language. There I was, sailing gleefully into the second paragraph of a book review, when suddenly . . . when suddenly there was no there there. The screen was utterly, devastatingly blank; my words, borne off by time's winged chariot or some such vehicle, had vanished into a black hole. Repeated efforts to resuscitate the processor went for naught; I was up a creek without a paddle.
In a panic lest half an hour's labor go unrewarded, I turned to my electric typewriter and managed to recreate about a page of what I had poured into the processor; but it was not long before the arduous effort required to operate so primitive a device left me exhausted. The next morning my panic intensified when, upon presenting my dead machine at the office for replacement, I was informed that no replacement was available. I had pieces to write and no word processor on which to write them. How could I write? How could I think? How could I exist?
Never before had I realized how deeply in thrall I have become to this word processor, how much of a role it has come to play in my professional existence. I wonder whether moments of such terrible illumination were ever given to Mencken and others who have done their writing with instruments somewhat more complex than the quill. I hope that one night Mencken's typewriter ribbon self-destructed, that the hour was late and the stationer was therefore closed, and that as a result he had to carry on with pencil and paper. I hope that taught the old boy a lesson, as my sad experience certainly taught me one.
A mere 25 years ago, as a college student, I worked nights as a printer in the shop that put out the campus daily. I came to love the Linotype machines and the heavy steel chases in which the pages were set; so it was that, a couple of decades later, I greeted with fear and anger the news that the paper for which I was then working was about to convert from "hot" type to "cold." Yet within days I came to realize that the new technology permitted me to do my job more quickly, accurately and effectively, and I came to depend on cold-type printing ways that its elegant but limited precursor could never have offered me.
Ditto for the arrival, a few months later, of my first word processor. I'd had enough trouble, in the early '70s, switching from a manual typewriter to an electric. Now I was ordered to do my writing and editing on a television set! So I kicked and I screamed and I even shed a few nostalgic tears--and by the end of the week I was in love all over again. I quickly saw that the word processor was far less demanding physically than even an electric typewriter, and that the possibilities it made available for effortless self-editing were virtually limitless.
The machine on which I have worked at home for the past year and a half is not, by comparison with those with which most people are familiar, especially sophisticated; but I am as dependent on it as if it were state of the art. It can hold only about 1,800 words at a time, its memory is very limited, its small screen is hard on the eyes after prolonged exposure, and though it can transmit information it cannot receive any. But none of this (except the eyestrain) bothers me at all. That machine is at least as important to my life as the furnace and the refrigerator, and probably more important than the automobile and the dishwasher; it makes me a more productive writer, and perhaps a more effective one.
It took the heartless breakdown of that machine to make me fully aware of how much it means to me; its sudden betrayal paralyzed me for two full days. It is more than slightly unnerving to be forced, by the failure of a machine whose inner workings are as mysterious to me as those of a space capsule or an avant-garde novelist, to acknowledge that in a very short space of time it has become entirely essential to my professional well-being. But it is, of course, an acknowledgement that millions of other Americans find themselves making as they exchange the vows with their own machines. The age of the machine that runs the man is upon us. Pull the plug on our machines, and you pull the plug on us. It is not a pleasant thought, but we shall have to learn to live with it.