Computer keyboard.
Another day, another major breakthrough in information technology, another qwerty keyboard. Pretty sure that’s a biscuit crumb below the Q. My picture, my keyboard, my biscuit.

New tech, same info

This piece is being written by an incurably older person. I’m not particularly woke and I’m certainly not a millennial, but I do have a perspective.

I’ve watched information technology develop since my then-employer, the Financial Times, replaced my typewriter with an Apple Mac. I can remember pushing my keyboard aside to lay out pages as normal with galley proofs, layout sheets, scissors and Pritt Stick, while screensaver-fishes swam on the screen in front of me.

I’ve watched the World-Wide Web (sic) develop since the first London bank in my contact book (and I do mean book) launched its first website. It was a picture of a room with filing cabinets in it. Click on the filing cabinet labelled “Savings” and you got a list of savings accounts — plus a number to call if you wanted to find out more. They called a press conference (“press” not “media”) to show us this masterpiece of cutting-edge design. We wrote about it.

I was there for the early debates about paywalls. I wrote a book under the title E-Commerce in Retail Banking in 1998. Ran to two follow-up titles and was described by its publisher (Informa) as a bestseller. I’ve played Elite on a Commodore 64, and all those retro gadgets on the high shelf in the tech store — yeah, I had the earlier versions of those.

The first mobile phone I saw was a shoulderbag with a phone handset clamped to the top. I remember taking urgent taxi-rides to picture-libraries — to look at 35mm transparencies on light-boxes; to leaf through folders of b/w prints; to find eventually the pics I needed for the late article I was laying out. My then-manager at the FT stored all our old typewriters on shelves around the editorial office in case IT didn’t catch on. I remember reading in a newspaper that the first “digital natives” had been born.

If this was a creative-writing exercise, I’d get points for not just telling you that a lot of time has passed since I gave up my last typewriter, but using examples to show it. I was around for that moment in ancient history; I used those pre-historic tools. Et cetera. If this was fiction, I would have set myself up for the big reveal that I’ve been around for a really, really long time. I knew Shakespeare when he was writing Hamlet; I remember Joe Gutenberg talking about his idea for a printing press. Et cetera. Wow, those Wars of the Roses were noisy. And getting Stonehenge through planning — you wouldn’t believe!

But that’s not it. The actual weird thing is the exact opposite — no time has passed. The special effect we need here is just my working life, speeded up: me sitting at a desk with a big typewriter, then a small typewriter, an Amstrad PCW8256, a huge Apple Mac, a suitcase-sized laptop, a tower beneath the desk and a deep screen on it, another laptop, a smaller laptop, an even smaller laptop … and eventually, this cute little Chromebook. And at the desk, me going from young to “You’re not old!” No time has passed.

I have been patronised for not being up to speed with the new thing ever since the new thing was electronic typewriters. I remember that like it was yesterday — because it was yesterday. When Facebook came around, I remember, big-time consultancies made serious money from running courses for banks and business people on how to “leverage” Facebook (the word was always “leverage”). Yes, my child, I have heard of BookTok.

No time has passed and nothing’s changed. Yes, I know everything’s changed, but nothing’s changed. There was that moment when all my page-layout skills became obsolete. But the youngster at the next desk showed me how to work Quark Xpress, and within — okay, more than a few moments — I was back to laying out pages. Doing exactly the same thing. I’ve gone from hailing a taxi to calling an Uber, and instead of my usual bed-and-breakfast I stay at an Airbnb. Doing exactly the same things. Still going places and still staying overnight.

Even writing this, I’m still “cutting” and “pasting”. We went through all that enormous change just to take the scissors out of cutting.

What I like most about the present day is how much we seem to want it to be the past. When we want to represent “writing” or “being a writer”, for example, we look for a picture of a typewriter keyboard. Or something even older. Front cover of the book Being a Writer by Travis Elborough and Helen Gordon (2017) shows a man in a flat cap and overalls, sleeves rolled up, using a plane to sharpen a giant pencil. The logo for Dabble, which claims to be “The ultimate cloud-based fiction writing software”, launched in 2017, is a quill pen.

Good year, 2017 (thanks, Google). The story we tell ourselves about the world is: we’re people who write with quill pens. We’re practical workaday folk who apply our carpentry skills to pencils. That’s how we write. We’ve invented a new tool that does everything for us, but huh! We can still handle the old tools. Oh, yes! I mean — Heck, yeah! And we’re not too sure what we feel about the new tool either. From Max Headroom onwards, 1985 was when he started, every media representation of tech outside fiction has incorporated a glitch, a flicker, to tell us what it is. We identify it by pointing out its imperfection. [Inside fiction — IT is unequivocally against us.]

Back in the early nineties, I wrote 10,000 words of an 80,000-word book on a Psion Organiser Series 3 on commuter trains in and out of Liverpool Street Station. Couldn’t have done that with a typewriter and a wad of A4 paper. My Psion came with a programming guide, so I did a bit of that, too. The rest of that book (yes, it was published; by Bloomsbury), I wrote on an Amstrad PCW 8256. There’s a surviving paperback copy of the book on that shelf … yes, there. Frustratingly, because I’m not sure how to turn this into a memorable conclusion, I also have the original manuscript — but it’s unreachably stored on 3½" floppies. Which is some kind of ironic, right?

In the absence of any cloud-based conclusion-writing software, I shall just have to say that in my view, technology [He was doing so well. The rest of this article is just old-guy stuff about the impact of technology. Search “old guy grumbling about technology” for some funny pictures — Ed.]

William Essex is author of Escape Mutation: A Journal of the Plague Years and Ten Steps to a Bedtime Story: How to get a lively toddler to sleep before the supper goes cold, both published by Climbing Tree Books. Find them wherever you look for books. Find him at www.williamessex.com.

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