Extras: Women, Technology, and Typewriters

Women, Technology, and Typewriters

David Michael Newstead.

It might sound too bizarre to put into words, but typewriters were once considered innovative. And interestingly, the story of typewriters ends up being a case study about women in technology. So to better understand issues we’re grappling with today like occupational segregation and the gender pay-gap, I thought I’d delve into this chapter of history.

Beginning in the 1880s, many women entered into the workforce for the first time through the newly created role of typist. Now as archaic as that sounds, this represented a big career opportunity compared to the limited jobs available to women at the time. Encouraged by the popular belief that women were better at typing because of their dexterity, more and more of them began working in offices of every variety where once upon a time there had been no women at all. Unfortunately, this is also where some of the worst aspects of office culture first appeared like sexual harassment and glass ceilings. And even the best opportunities for a woman sitting at a typewriter in those days only paid a third of what a man made.

Somethings didn’t change much in the ensuing years. Seven decades later, being a typist was still a remarkably common profession among women in the workforce. As one author in 1954 put it, “There are more women working at typing than at anything else; twice as many, for instance, as are selling in stores and shops and six times the number working on farms.” So for better or worse, women and typewriters share this strange historical connection.

Typewriters started to be mass produced during the Industrial Revolution. From about 1840 to 1880, an assortment of wildly different machines were created by numerous companies. Nietzsche had one. Mark Twain had one. But few of these devices were very profitable for their manufacturers. This ultimately changed when the Sholes and Glidden typewriter was released by Remington in 1874 after years of development. Newer models and plenty of competitors would follow in their footsteps, but this typewriter set the standard. Even today, your laptop’s keyboard is based on this device! Another interesting note though is that Remington is a major weapons manufacturer that needed to diversify its business after the end of the American Civil War. One of their ideas was to build typewriters.

The circuitous route from typewriters to today’s technology starts there. All the largest typewriter manufacturers would again revert to making weapons during the First and Second World Wars, including Underwood, Remington, and IBM. And it’s these lucrative government contracts that helped to establish the business connections linking military spending, office equipment, and eventually research and development. By the 1950s, for instance, Remington began developing pioneering computers like UNIVAC with notable advancements led by Navy computer scientist Grace Hopper. Meanwhile, IBM would go on to become the dominant force in technology for a generation and, by the 1970s, it gained 75 percent of the typewriter market. It’s from this point onward that the typewriter began to fade away and the computer started its ascent in our society.

This time period is noteworthy for another reason though. Just as technology had been evolving over the years, women’s professional options were beginning to change as well. So when early computer programming was relegated to the status of typing, most computer programmers were women. For example, Margaret Hamilton is famous for writing the code behind the Apollo space missions. In that era, men were more interested in hardware, while women focused on software. Bolstered by their expertise in mathematics and computer science, these women contributed to milestones like ENIAC, UNIVAC, and manned space flight.

But while working on typewriters had been gendered in one direction, computers and the culture that grew up around them soon became gendered in a radically different direction. Ads, stereotypes, and more just seemed to reinforce the idea that mainly men worked in technology. In particular, our image of a good computer programmer changed from a woman in a support role to an anti-social male genius. The difference was when this guy typed on a computer it was viewed as somehow more magical than all the typing that came before him. And as a super genius, he also expected to be paid more. By the 1980s then, the number of women entering into computer science began to drastically decline and has never recovered.

Somethings haven’t changed much in the ensuing years. The gender pay-gap persists. Sexual harassment certainly persists. And the problems facing women in the tech industry are now infamous. Overall, this reflects a consistent devaluing of women’s qualifications and contributions in the workplace. Yet as technology has become more central to our lives, the scope of these issues isn’t limited to debates on who should work in a specific industry. The problem becomes what biases and blind spots are built into tools we all use every day. Simply replacing old technology with shiny new devices won’t fix that, but changing outdated mindsets is a good place to start.

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Return of the Typewriter Inheritance

By David Michael Newstead.

In 2015, I started a blog series about repairing my grandfather’s old typewriter. The idea was to talk about my grandfather, how I got his typewriter, and my on-going struggle to repair this really cool machine. Somewhere along the way though, things got sidetracked and it’s been awhile since I featured The Typewriter Inheritance on my blog. I was still interested in the project, of course, and it’s not like I suddenly forgot about the typewriter sitting in my living room. It’s just that 2017 didn’t feel like the right time to work on stuff like that for a laundry list worth of reasons. But this year, I want to relaunch the series, redouble my efforts to repair the typewriter in question, and to write about some interesting things in the process. The good news is I’ve already begun that work. And this time, I’m going to stick with it until the end.

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More Analog Extras

Discussing The Revenge of Analog with Author David Sax

By David Michael Newstead.

With digital technology becoming more a part of our daily lives, The Revenge of Analog stands out for drawing attention to the limits of that trend. Author David Sax highlights the resurgence of some analog industries that were close to disappearing as technology continues to disrupt our economy. Yet in recent years, things like vinyl records, board games, and film photography have enjoyed renewed popularity despite the fact that there are now cheaper, more widely available digital alternatives. What exactly is behind this phenomenon? To find out more, I spoke with David Sax about his book, about analog versus digital, and its impact on everything from retail to cybersecurity. Our conversation is below.

David Newstead: So, I live in Washington D.C. and since I’ve read your book I realized two stores near me now sell vinyl records. There’s apparently a vinyl section in Best Buy. And there’s a cool cafe in Adams Morgan called Songbyrd that has a growing vinyl selection. Just because your chapter on vinyl was my favorite part of the book, I’m curious where you think the Vinyl Revival will go from here?

David Sax: I mean, I think it’s just going to keep growing. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be like it was in the 1970s or 1980s, but it’s shown no sign of slowing down. I think, in fact, more people are buying turntables. The only thing you can really do with a turntable is play records on it. And right now, demand is outstripping supply in the business. Obviously, it’ll level off at some point. It’s not as though the number of people who are listening to records is going to grow beyond a certain amount of the population. But right now, it’s still a relatively small part that’s been growing over the past ten years. So, I don’t foresee it contracting in any way for a while. But I think it’ll just reach a stable point where record stores are going to exist and there are going to be different record stores for different tastes. It will be a healthy part of the music business, which will still be dominated by streaming. But you know, it’ll exist in its own kind of way as its doing now. In fact, it’s still showing growth, which is to me really interesting.

David Newstead: There seems to be this common thread in your work focusing on culturally significant spaces. In The Revenge of Analog, for instance, you really emphasize record stores. And in your last book, Save the Deli, you talk about your love of Jewish delicatessens and their decline in recent years. Why do you think it’s important to preserve cultural spaces like these? And what do you think those places have to offer to people today?

David Sax: At the heart of it, we have this simplified notion of progress, which is that we move forward and onward and we discard what’s old and pick up what’s new and that’s the best. And the reality is that progress has many different faces. And sometimes, progress means re-evaluating what we thought we moved beyond and ascribing a new value to it.

So, you know with the deli book and with food in general you see this great example of that with like artisan sour dough bread. There’s that place in D.C., that tremendous bakery up by American University – Bread Furst. You know a place like that wouldn’t have existed fifty years ago. Everyone would have focused on the progress that we’ve made in processed bread like Wonder Bread as the pinnacle of baking. And then suddenly, we’ve come back to it where there’s artisan bakeries and craft beers and these sorts of things proliferating again, because we realized that for all the progress we’ve made in highly-processed and inexpensive food we missed something. And that was an experience, the flavor, things that the older, more archaic way of doing something gave us. And I think that’s the same with various types of food and it’s the same with different types of culture, right? I think it was only by almost closing down the record industry and having vinyl record stores almost completely disappear and book stores as well that we were finally able to ascertain what their true value was. And then, realize it was something we actually wanted and were willing to pay for in order to keep alive.

It’s that same thing: the experience of it. Is it more efficient to get your music on Spotify or Apple Music? Of course! It’s cheaper. It’s just a few taps with your finger. You don’t have to physically store anything. You don’t have to go anywhere. But in doing that, you’re sacrificing a lot of the pleasure around physical music and vinyl. It’s that same thing – the quality of the experience – more even than the quality of the sound. It’s the place that these things have in our community. You know we could do all our shopping online, but then what kind of neighborhood do you live in if it doesn’t have any stores or anywhere to go? So, I think that’s what really links these things together.

David Newstead: Just to kind of riff on that. There was a NPR piece a year or so ago and it was about cooking during the Great Depression era. And the reason it was interesting to me is that there are some things that I don’t consider of any significance that were really innovative for their time. Like eating canned food was once considered super exciting to people and new and modern. And one thing that occurred to me from reading your book is once something stops being new, it takes on a different meaning in our culture.

David Sax: I think we ascribe them a different value, right, because they’re no longer competing. No one is comparing peas from the farmer’s market to frozen peas from the super market. No one is comparing those, because those are totally different experiences now. You know what one is. You have the option to have both. Sometimes, you have some in the freezer and some you buy fresh. And I think it’s the same thing with a lot of this analog culture. It’s not an either/or thing. It’s both. So, people will have a Kindle and they’ll download certain books, but other books they want to buy from a store. It’s the same with music. There’s a lot of music that I just listen to on my phone when I’m walking around, but other stuff that I would want to buy on a record. But I can’t buy everything on vinyl and I don’t necessarily want to. It is the same thing with analog culture, right? It’s not a question of one or the other. It’s a question of creating that balance and having both.

David Newstead: The vinyl stores I mentioned earlier, you know I looked over the selection and a lot of them weren’t new albums. A lot of them were socially significant albums from the history of music. Like stuff you would want to own! The Beatles’ White album and things like that. Whereas whatever the hit pop single right now is, would people really want to own that on vinyl? Probably not. Maybe.

David Newstead: Shifting gears to your chapter on retail, one thing I wanted to ask you about that’s been in the news over the last year is the Retail Apocalypse. I’ll just use my area as an example. All the chain bookstores around me have closed down. And not only have they closed down, it’s as if they were never there and no one gives a shit. Meanwhile, there are numerous independent bookstores around the city that have lots of events going on and people really like them. Plus, everyone I know orders off of Amazon. So, I want to get your perspective on this change that’s going on not just in terms of books. Over the last year, there has been this decline in retail, but it’s almost like a decline of a certain kind of retail.

David Sax: I think that’s it, right? In the age of Amazon when you can buy anything you want with a click generally at a lower price than you could find at a brick-and-mortar, what justifies a retailer existing? What allows them to be competitive? Well, it’s no longer price and selection. The internet has infinite selection and you can always find the best price. Amazon, the dominant retailer, is willing to sacrifice price for anything. They don’t care, because they have so much more money and stock options. They’ve subsidized their prices. So, what allows a place like East City Bookshop in Capital Hill or Kramer Books or Politics and Prose to compete and actually make money and grow in a market that Amazon really owns? It’s not price. It’s not infinite selection. It’s a sense of place. It’s a reason to be there. It’s events and community. It’s a limited selection that’s been chosen by people that have knowledge and taste. It’s not a mathematical formula.

I think you see that there are lots of retailers that are doing poorly and closing down. But are we really saying that K-Mart and Sears and JC Penney are the pinnacle examples of intelligent and forward thinking retailers out there? No! I mean, we’re talking about the worst examples of what retail can be. And there are plenty of bright spots in retail that are actually doing well, because they are doing something that the internet cannot. And I think that’s going to continue. There are many things that people will buy and many reasons people will buy only for price and selection. If you’re competing in the realm, then you need to offer something else, because it’s going to be increasingly difficult to beat the internet on that. And I think those that do will survive and thrive. Look at Kramer Books. It’s such a great store, that place. It is packed. It is chaotic. It is everything you want in a bookstore, because it’s so visceral. So real.

David Newstead: You mentioned some good ones earlier. I would say Busboys and Poets is another great example. But like, all the most successful bookstores I know about in D.C. are all more than just bookstores. Meaning that they’re also probably bars and restaurants at the same time as well as venues for different kinds of events, etc. So, they’ve cobbled together all these cool aspects of having a physical location, which I assume strengthens and diversifies their business.

David Sax: Have you been to East City Bookshop in Capital Hill? That’s a great one. That’s one of the newer ones in town too. It’s this new, beautiful, independently run place. It’s really great.

David Newstead: I haven’t been to that one yet, but I’ll definitely check it out! Aside from books though, one thing that’s been interesting to me is watching stores like Dollar General and similar chains rapidly expanding nationwide. Meanwhile, stores like Sears and Macy’s are suffering.

David Sax: A lot of stuff that’s closing is stuff that’s in malls that were developed in areas that were assumed to be much bigger than they are. And post-recession, those areas are highly underpopulated. The Retail Apocalypse is the convenient scapegoat for a lot of different things, but the reality is that brick-and-mortar is still where it’s at. It’s like when some restaurants are closing down, they could blame it on the prices, the wages, and the labor. But that doesn’t seem to stop their competitors from doing well.

Again, it’s the type of thing where people assume an extreme example. They believe it’s going to be either/or, because that’s the kind of choice that digital makes us think of. Like it’s an A or B choice. It’s Apple or Samsung. It’s Windows or iOS. The reality is, the world isn’t that simple. It’s not a question of if it’s only going to be stores or only going to be online retail. It’s going to be a mixture. You know, the reason that Amazon is opening physical locations is that as much of the consumer dollar as they’re getting they’re still only getting a fraction of it, because there’s only so much shopping people can and will do online. There’s all sorts of other reasons that people like to go to stores and why they buy things in stores. And no matter how good the technology gets it can’t compensate for that.

David Newstead: To that point, do you think part of the reason people have gravitated towards digital is just because of advertising essentially? When I was reading your chapter on education technology, for instance, that was something that stuck out to me. Because something is new and “the best”, does that sales pitch pretty much account for the hype around it?

David Sax: Oh yeah, I think so. Everybody likes things that are new and novel. That’s what sells. And over the past decade plus, these companies (Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Google) have seen such tremendous financial success that it’s inevitable that people envy that and want to get a bit of that glitter. I think there is also conversely then a fear of missing out. It’s not just a cultural fear about missing out on what’s going on social media today. It’s a very real economic one. For example: “If our school doesn’t get these students computer literate then they’re going to miss out, because the Chinese are coming and they’re going to be so much better.” And that’s often to the exclusion of the real evidence that’s showing that that may not be the truth or maybe it’s more complicated. Again, it’s subscribing to a very simplistic notion of the role technology has and what exactly the benefit is. So again, often to the ignorance of what the evidence may show or what the reality is.

David Newstead: I talked to a couple friends about this and they’ve had similar experiences. The only time I’ve only seen a LaserDisc player was one that was sold to elementary school years ago. I just remember this giant CD and we maybe only used it twice, but all these school districts around the country got convinced to buy them. And that trend continues, I guess.

David Sax: It’s an easy sell: the new thing. It’s a much simpler sales pitch especially because something is maybe an unknown. So, you are selling someone on the promise of something fantastical and wonderful. And easy too! You just pop in that disc and this will take care of all your problems. And again, it ignores the complexity of what the real world is. But it’s no different than a company being sold some sort of new software and saying this is going to cure the ills of what they’re trying to achieve. You know the real problems are more complicated. They can’t just be solved with software with the snap of a finger. But we like simple answers and we often delude ourselves.

David Newstead: So, I hope this question isn’t overly speculative. But society is entering uncharted territory now in terms of the Internet of Things, virtual reality, and debates about voting online, etc. All of those have tons of implications. And in your view, what do you think should strictly be kept analog?

David Sax: Oh, good question. We’re talking about issues of cybersecurity. Let’s just acknowledge the fact that the term is an oxymoron. There is no such thing as cybersecurity, right? If it is built and digitized, it can be broken into. And yes, of course, even Fort Knox can be broken into, but no one has actually broken into it before. It requires a greater degree of resources and daring and manpower to do it. So, I think we’re often readily sacrificing the security of what we’re doing strictly because of the promise of ease and making things better or greater. With elections, whether it’s our fears of seeing an election stolen at the ballot box or whether it’s something more subtle like what happened with the Russian meddling in the U.S. election, these things have consequences. To me, it’s not whether one should or shouldn’t.

I think this is the same thing with debate on education, right? It’s not a question of whether all education must relocate to digital technology in schools or whatever. I don’t think anyone is arguing that view. But I think before you adopt something and digitize some process whether you’re talking about elections or the power grid, there needs to be an actual discussion and a very objective evaluation of what the cost and benefit is. And I think for too long we’ve just seen digitization as a pure benefit. “Oh, this is great. It’s going to be easier and better and cheaper. Blah blah blah. Let’s do it. You don’t want to be a luddite. Don’t stand in the way.” But the reality isn’t that simple. I think there’s a process that actually needs to happen so we learn from our mistakes, I hope.

David Newstead: At least with the Internet of Things, I say this half-joking, but I’m waiting for the day when Russian hackers have taken control of my refrigerator and Chinese hackers are holding my garage door hostage. And I can’t watch Netflix right now, because of the North Koreans.

David Sax: Well, remember what happened with that stupid North Korean movie that James Franco made? Sony was hacked and the movie was brought down. It is happening. The Russians hacked the power grid of the Ukraine. So, these things are very real possibilities. Again, they are being downplayed or in many ways ignored, because of the supposed benefits of automating things. But yeah, I think it will take some sort of catastrophic event just like what’s happened with social media in the election to have a reckoning of sorts and start really having that discussion in a concerted way.

David Newstead: With the Sony hack, I remember wondering at the time what level of effort a dictator would have to go to years earlier to do that? Like sending secret agents across oceans to steal film reels and breaking into file cabinets. It would’ve been a ton of work!

David Sax: I mean if you saw the movie, they did the world a favor, because it’s such a terrible film. Haha.

David Newstead: At the time, I wasn’t going to see it and then the whole news story got wrapped up with other stuff and it was like “Well because I value a free society, I guess I have to watch this…”

David Sax: Oh yeah, you’re a patriot! You’re a true patriot for watching that. Haha.

David Newstead: As a closing question, do you feel like you’ve struck a good balance in your own life in terms of balancing the digital and the analog and just your relationship to technology in general? Where do you come down on that?

David Sax: I do my best. I think there are times when I’m really good at it. I’m very good on a weekend with just turning my phone off. I was on vacation the past couple weeks and turned my phone off for days at a time. Or if I had it on, I would check it like once a day just to make sure nothing was there. And that’s good. But then when it’s on, I was checking it every few minutes when my kids were home sick yesterday, because I had to see whether something was happening. And you know, I was ignoring them when they needed me and it’s a shitty feeling to have and we’re all susceptible to it. So, I think it’s the type of thing that takes a concerted effort. You really have to kind of retrain yourself. It just doesn’t happen naturally. And it’s something that I strive to do more. And also still keep an open mind about the potential benefits of digital technology, because it’s not all bad. It’s not all evil. I have a tendency to see it that way just because of the view I’ve taken. So, it’s a hard thing, but it’s that idea of not seeing it as binary.

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Extras: Revenge of Analog

California Typewriter / Revenge of Analog


David Michael Newstead.

California Typewriter pretends to be a documentary about typewriters, but it’s actually about the limits of technology in our lives. The Revenge of Analog is a book by David Sax about outdated things that have found success again in the digital age precisely because they aren’t digital. I didn’t intend to read that book right after I saw the documentary. It was just by chance. The documentary got put on Amazon Video and then I finally got around to reading something that had been sitting on my bookshelf. As it turns out though, the two go together perfectly.

California Typewriter follows a range of people and their connections to typewriters today. Actor Tom Hanks collects typewriters for fun. Musician John Mayer uses them to write songs. Artist Jeremy Mayer builds elaborate sculptures out of old typewriter parts for Silicon Valley executives. Meanwhile, a small brick and mortar store in Berkley still sells and repairs typewriters and struggles to stay afloat. It’s through these stories and others that some important issues get raised about technological change and obsolescence, the significance of actual tactile experiences, and the need for more balance in our relationship with technology. For me, one of the most memorable parts was when John Mayer talked about digital technology and the cloud as being a kind of glorified trashcan where you can go back and look at everything you’ve ever done, but you never actually do. Another great moment came when a historian explained that all the letters of the word typewriter are located on the top line of your keyboard and were put there intentionally so that salesmen could demonstrate this “high-tech” new product.

The Revenge of Analog follows the revival of industries and activities that seemed like they were near death just a few years ago. In a purely utilitarian sense, most of the things David Sax covers in the book were made obsolete by digital technology and the internet. Yet, they survive and are now thriving, because people want more than just the internet! Some notable examples include the dramatic resurgence of vinyl record sales, the success of companies like Moleskine and The Economist, and people’s renewed love of board games at a time when meaningful interactions are becoming scarcer and scarcer. But instead of this reflecting some hipster trend or baby boomers’ nostalgia, Sax shows the limits of technology’s dominance where people choose an analog option because they actually prefer it. He goes on to discuss the dismal results of some digital initiatives like MOOCs (Mass Open Online Courses) and One Laptop Per Child that were supposedly going to be so world changing. They weren’t. The author writes:

Digital’s overwhelming superiority initially renders the analog alternative largely worthless, and devalues that analog technology significantly. But over time, that perception of value shifts. The honeymoon with a particular digital technology inevitably ends, and when it does, we are more readily able to judge its true merits and shortcomings. In many cases, an older analog tool or approach simply works better. Its inherent inefficiency grows coveted; its weakness becomes a renewed strength.

On page 40, he later adds:

Then there is the question of legacy. In digital, a legacy brand is yesterday’s lunch, because the best digital technology is always the next one, and consumers have no loyalty to the past. In analog, legacy commands a premium. “You can perfectly imitate a Louis Vuitton bag,” Maffe said, pointing at one hanging on the arm of an elegantly dressed woman sitting near us in the luxury hotel café where we were having coffee, “but you can’t sell it for six thousand dollars because you don’t have the heritage. As long as you can convince users the past is relevant, they’ll pay billions for it. There is no rational economic reason behind that. Just marketing.”

I spent some time mulling over this book and the documentary I had watched. Neither one was anti-technology by any means. It’s just that we’re at an interesting crossroads as a society – somewhere between The Twilight Zone and Black Mirror. So if it’s possible to do absolutely everything online, then I think it’s noteworthy when we choose to take a different path. For many people, that doesn’t come naturally, because embracing new technology and discarding old devices was our default for so long. I’m part of a shrinking group that can vaguely recall life before the internet. I remember all the upbeat technological hype of the late 1990s and 2000s. And while plenty of those changes were good, it’s also important to question the extent of technology’s place in our lives nowadays. Or perhaps a better way of saying it: deciding what we want to keep in the real, non-digital world.

David Sax also points out how we value the analog, the real, and the tangible in ways that the digital can’t ever come close to. Nostalgia might play a part in that, but it’s not the driving force anymore. To me, it almost seems like every platform or medium has its own golden age that can be remembered and romanticized, but never quite recreated. After all, radio will never be as relevant as it was when FDR was giving fireside chats or when Orson Welles was dramatizing The War of the Worlds. To people of a certain generation, cassette mix tapes on a Sony Walkman were like love letters. And comic books were once the cheap, brightly colored foundation of many people’s childhoods. Polaroids, paperbacks, movie reels, 8-tracks, newspapers, Saturday morning cartoons: it all meant something to someone. And when I try to recall my own memories of these analog things, it feels like a time capsule that’s meaningful to me, but would probably be inconsequential to someone who grew up in another era. I remember the first CDs I bought and how I eventually alphabetized them all on this rotating plastic rack. I remember the thrill when my family first got a VCR and how fun it was to rent VHS tapes from Blockbuster on a Friday night. I remember being hunched over my desk as I wrote down ideas in Mead composition notebooks that could fill up a shelf. And I remember fondly waiting a week or more for photos to get developed before I knew how a picture turned out. I liked those things and I value those memories. Hell, I own a typewriter. But The Revenge of Analog and California Typewriter aren’t trying to turn the clock back a few decades to some idyllic past. They’re really about living in the moment and nowadays that means not being online all the time.

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