Thursday, September 5, 2013

Field notes off the web

In St. Louis, Henry Goldkamp spends his weekends on the streets writing poetry for passersby, using a Smith-Corona manual typewriter.

I find this really cool, if only for the very concept, and so did St. Louis's Riverfront Times.

Goldkamp has gone one step further, though, and installed about 40 typewriters, with paper, at various places around the city, inviting St. Louisans to answer the question "What the hell is St. Louis thinking?"

Now, I have to admit, something in the back of my tech-saturated head was thinking "Hey, that would make a cool project, put a bunch of keyboards around the city, pipe the results back to a server somewhere and show them on a web page in real time ..."

Um, no.  We already have that, more or less.  It's called Twitter.

What Goldkamp is doing is getting people to interact with technology that, to many of them, comes from another age, almost as though from another planet.  "How do I work this thing?" seems to be a common response.  Having learned to type on some combination of IBM Selectric, Smith-Corona and my grandfather's manual Underwood (I loved that thing), I have to chuckle a bit, but by the same token I can understand why it might be daunting at first.

Besides having to fuss with paper and the carriage return, and mash on the keys to get the typebars to move, the most distinctive feature of a typewriter as opposed to a computer keyboard is that you can't delete anything.  There's a backspace key, but that just moves the paper one space to the right.  About the best you can do is type Xs over what you already typed (on the other hand, you can have fun combining letters to make little icons).  If you were writing professionally, you'd generally type double-spaced (i.e., with a blank line after each line of words), mark up the results with a pencil, literally cut and paste to rearrange, and then retype the whole thing for the next draft.

So if you're sitting at one of Goldkamp's typewriters, expressing your thoughts, you're making a record of every typo and every false start,  all in the order it came out, on a nice, tangible piece of paper that you produced yourself.  At least at first, it will be the only copy of those words in the world, and if someone wants to read it, they'll have to come see it.

Pretty much the antithesis of publishing on the web, and pretty much the way things were for around a hundred years until the "Personal Computer" came along.

Goldkamp is by no means a technophobe.  Among other things, he runs the web site,  where you can see "A selection of poems that turned out okay", such a typically Midwestern way of putting it, and one of the best page titles I've ever seen.   For my money, the poems I looked at did come out okay, if not better.