Ghosts of Tech Past

Today, I visited the amazing City Museum in St. Louis. It is a playground for the body and imagination that fills and overflows an old factory building. Every space and surface is filled with design features such as this printing plate on a wall of extremely varied printing plates. This one struck me for several reasons. The image of geared rings that was printed from this plate hearkens to a technology that is gone. The plate itself is a memento of a printing process also in the past, and yet it has found a new life here in this visually rich environment.

When I lived in St. Louis, I had the pleasure of taking some bookbinding classes, and the teacher had a printing press in his workspace. In other times of my life, I have run into various types of presses and seen them in action or even used them. There is something to the act of creating media one sheet at a time as the end result of a process of creating the text and images. I have only once set type, and that hands-on experience led to such a greater understanding of kerning, leading, and other type related ideas than any other graphic design class or tutorial I have taken.

And yet, these experiences are less and less common, and our children are less likely to have access to them. I cannot imagine life without the memory of a typewriter in my fingers or of the impatient wait for a rotary phone to return from dialing 9 or 0. I provide excursions for my students to try these things out once or twice, but they will never have the repetitions to make these motions part of their body memories. I wonder what will theirs be? Will the finger swipes that we see in tablets and now operating systems be a fading memory when they are teaching their children? What will be replacing those?

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Anachronisms Under Our Fingers

A few years ago someone, I think my mom, shared a one-panel comic with me. In it a woman is reentering the workforce after time away. When she reaches the end of a line she is typing, she reaches up and smacks the monitor off the computer. To those of us who grew up using a typewriter to bang out papers in school, this is hilarious. To digital natives, this is just oddly violent , Luddite style behavior.

So many vestiges remain, however, from the invention that followed the trajectory plotted by the printing press. With a typewriter, the average person could now quickly create a document.

Each year, I bring a few examples of old technology to class to give students a tactile experience to which they can anchor some references that were merely theoretical previously. I love young children’s reactions to my rotary phone. Many poke the hole in the dial in order to enter the number; their faces register shock when I hold their finger and start the dial rotating. They can’t believe how long it takes to dial a whole number. They groan if theirs has many larger digits.

I also bring in my dad’s typewriter. With this tool, I show them what Shift and Return really mean. They love the mechanical action of the carriage as it advances the paper as it moves to the left margin, and the force they have to exert with their pinkies to push the Shift keys astounds them. Proper touch typing technique flies out the window as they bang away, very respectful of the importance of this typewriter to me. Letters to parents and siblings, complete

alphabets, and other prized pages are quickly put in backpacks to take home and share.