“I love everything that’s old: old friends, old times, old manners, old books, old wine.”
You’ll find Oliver Goldsmith’s words chalked on a coffee-of-the-day board steps away from the Regional Assembly of Text — a small paper emporium that would make Ned Ludd proud. Here co-owners Rebecca Dolen and Brandy Fedoruk, grads of Emily Carr University of Art + Design, stand behind the counter of their store, a wall of cast-off industrial filing cabinets behind, assembling cards and packages with meticulous care. Their space is notably lacking a piece of computer technology, or even a phone. Orders are written up by hand on rubber-stamped receipts. It’s a stark contrast to Vancouver’s noon-day bustle streaming by outside, moments from the corporate homes of Electronic Arts and Lululemon, and mindfully so.
Quiet spaces like these are becoming increasingly popular, a refuge from our perpetual state of information overload.
Today, text messaging has eclipsed the telephone call to become the most frequent form of communication among U.S. teenagers. The average adult spends more than 18 hours per week on the Internet. Ipsos Reid recently reported a 35% decrease in e-mail received, but it’s really a shift in consumption to emerging communications platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and various Instant Messengers. Facebook users send an average of 16 messages inside of that platform each week. Those using MSN Messenger or Blackberry Messenger are sending even more messages on a weekly basis.
There’s no question that technology has overrun our lives. Over the past century, the world has welcomed technological ‘progress’ with arms wide open and we’re living with the clicking, dinging, anxiety-inducing deluge of it.
But a creative backlash is underway, helping human beings cope with the avalanche of data that passes in front of most of us every day through the use of computers and cell phones.
Slow food, the back-to-the-land movement, and groups like letter writing clubs are being formed by a new subculture: the 21st century luddite, wielding fountain pen and notebook, and some checking e-mail from the public library a mere hour per week. Dolen and Fedoruk think this movement is more than a blip on the technological continuum.
“We started the letter writing club right off the bat because we wanted to have an ongoing community event. There have been a few hardcore regulars but 80% are new people each month. We started with five to ten people and now regularly have 20 to 30.”
There’s a universal sense that something must be done to rope the nodes in. But what? We can’t all pack our bags and head for the hills, or can we?
As a student at M. I. T., Eric Brende became a critic of modern technology. He left the bookish hollow of Boston and immersed himself in an Amish-like community in middle America. He chronicles the slow appeal in his book Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology.
“This explained not only why time moved more slowly but also why we had more of it, why we were able to relax and read the way we were doing right now: in the absence of fast-paced gizmos, ringing phones, alarm clocks, television, radios, and cars, we could simply take our time. In being slower, time is more capacious. The event is only in the moment. By speeding through life with technology, you reduce what any given moment can hold. By slowing down, you expand it.”
Today items like the typewriter have pretty much disappeared from the communications lexicon in the span of a generation but, thanks to a growing group of modern-day luddites, they are making their way back.
On Canada’s West Coast, the Assembly of Text tries to create this expanse through a simplistic, low-tech aesthetic. Every month the shop plays host to a popular letter writing club manned by a handsome collection of thirty some-odd typewriters. Filmmaker Andrew Blicq was drawn to this scene for a Merit Motion Pictures film exploring the impacts of information overload.
“There really aren’t many groups who have gone completely off-line,” Blicq says of his choice to film the gathering for Our CrackBerry World, a documentary appearing on CBC Television this fall.
The concept of ‘information overload’ can be traced back to Diderot, though not by that term. In Encyclopédie (1755) he wrote, “As long as the centuries continue to unfold, the number of books will grow continually, and one can predict that a time will come when it will be almost as difficult to learn anything from books as from the direct study of the whole universe. It will be almost as convenient to search for some bit of truth concealed in nature as it will be to find it hidden away in an immense multitude of bound volumes.”
Diderot was right. Today, myriad reasons are drawing people to reduce their amount of input, whether it be blog feeds, audio books, or e-mail.
For one letter writer, the appeal of a slower form is its mindfulness: “You have to think about what you’re writing because you can’t erase it.”
Older technologies, such as typewriting and the fountain pen, require forethought. There’s also a sense of humanness, of the real and the unmediated.
“The handmade is coming back because everything is too standard now,” reflects Rebecca Dolen. “With the typewriter, it’s not nostalgia. People are too young for it to be nostalgia. We always had one around the house but didn’t use it. There’s just more personality with the typewriter. With mistakes and everything, it feels like it’s really you.”
“You can edit too much on e-mail. Maybe there’s a release with the typewriter and the handwritten forms,” chimes in Fedoruk, both nodding their agreement.
“People are back into the letterpress big time,” echoes Fedoruk. “W2 [the global media arts centre in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside] started a letterpress studio from the get-go. Everybody wants a typewriter. We get 100 requests a week.” Inquiries are sent on to Art Polsons, a Terminal City fixture, who refurbishes and re-sells scores of Olympias and Remingtons to a growing clientele.
It’s the messy mindfulness of the handwritten note and the therapeutic clack of the typewriter that are drawing a new breed of writer. To many it’s a form of escapism, drawing one’s mind away from the distraction and interruptions of our 140-characters-or-less lives.
“There’s this sense that, especially with text messaging and Blackberry chat, that it can’t wait. Messages have to be answered immediately,” comments Blicq in an interview from his summer cottage, aware of the irony as he finishes up film production from his remote hideaway.
“No one’s going back to the Smith-Corona [typewriter]” he goes on, “but we’re also sick of using the Blackberry in the bathtub and the car. Our work weeks have stretched from 40 to 70 hours with the introduction of the smart phone. There’s no question something’s missing from our lives.
“It was ironic to be asked [by the CBC] to direct this film. Everyone in the TV/film industry has a smart phone, and internet and computers are everywhere. We all have a problem with juggling. Once we hit the streets of Toronto and Vancouver and asked people about technology, the universal answer was: “Yes, it’s too much.” But we all like it, we’d be lost without it. Also, I think that to be a part of the global dialogue you have to plugged in to some degree.”
“Technology is not going away, the genie is out of the bottle. But the big question we need to be asking ourselves is: ‘Is it going to manage us or are we going to manage it?’”
A few months ago, a little boy stumbled into the Regional Assembly of Text with his mother. He sat down on the couch at the front of the shop and began to tap on the resident typewriter. Stunned at the words forming on the page in front of him, he announced with glee:
“Mom, the letters go right onto the paper!”
Maybe what we need is a little bit more of that.