Green Machine: For This Engaged Buddhist, the Manual Typewriter is a Practice Whose Time Has Come
I wandered into the Pasadena Antique Mall recently while waiting to meet my wife Steph for dinner, and emerged carrying a near-mint Olympia SM3 DeLuxe, freshly serviced by Highland Park’s legendary typewriter mecca U.S. Office Machines Co. For a guy unexpectedly lugging a heavy case, I must have looked pretty cheerful walking out: I’d been contemplating a typewriter purchase for at least a couple of years, and had found as perfect a piece of hardware as I could ever find — and completely by accident!
Assuming you’re not a manual typewriter aficionado — it is 2013 and you are reading a blog, after all — the SM3 is part of a noble lineage of astonishly well-made German portables favored by quite a few great writers, the most notable perhaps being Woody Allen (who states in Robert B. Wiede’s 2012 documentary about him that he has written everything he has ever written on the same SM3 that he acquired as a teenager, which he further notes “still works like a tank” and will “be around long after [his] death”). To say that this pristine machine was “a find” would be putting it mildly; to know that it had also been cleaned and repaired by literally the best in the business made it a must-purchase item. (And did I mention the price? Let’s just say it was a steal. I almost feel guilty. Almost.)
At this point, you might be wondering why I would even want a typewriter, beyond an obvious fascination with antiquated writing implements. It’s a fair question. Despite a resurgence in use that has been at least significant enough to justify TV news segments and documentary films, typewriters, in addition to just seeming outmoded in a more and more “wired” world, are very nearly an endangered species: some countries have halted typewriter manufacture all together, and the production of manual typewriters may have ceased the world over. (I say “very nearly” because just a couple of months ago the Atlanta Journal-Constitution profiled the Swintec company in New Jersey, which still manufactures electric typewriters, with many being sold to prisons for use by inmates. With the incarcerated population in the U.S. now exceeding the population of high school teachers, Swintec and others in the typewriter business may enjoy brisk sales for a long while.)
Generally speaking, manual typewriters are greeted today as an anachronism. If you see one in the wild here in Los Angeles, it is often as a display of hipster ostentatiousness, and following the sounds of actual typing can lead you to writers with romantic, even superstitious, notions about the tool’s ability to improve the creative experience. They also appeal to the more tactilely inclined, nostalgic for the days before touchscreens: manual enthusiast and Oscar-winning nice guy Tom Hanks, for example, wrote passionately about how typing on a typewriter “feels as good as it sounds” in an op-ed for the New York Times earlier this year.
To be fair, though, many also come to them now for reasons that will certainly resonate with Buddhist practitioners: in an increasingly cluttered and dopamine-jolting digital landscape, the absolute simplicity of manual typewriters, and the attention required to use one most effectively, are certainly refreshing reminders of the importance of mindful awareness. For those looking to be a lot less distracted and a lot more present (while writing, at least), a typewriter is practically guaranteed to help. Just a few days ago, the Los Angeles Times wrote about the neighborhood ritual of writer/artist (and fellow Naropa alumnus) Stacy Elaine Dacheux, who began writing on her old typewriter in an Echo Park roundabout every morning after finding that Facebook-checking was adversely affecting her writing. With the past “in [her] head before the present had time to happen,” Dacheux discovered that being outside with her trusty Smith-Corona was a clarifying tonic.
As wonderful as a manual typewriter is in this regard — incredibly wonderful, in fact — it appeals to me as a practitioner for another reason: its extraordinary environmental friendliness. As non-electric devices, many of them built to last for far longer than a human lifespan or two, manual typewriters are “green machines,” no doubt about it, and that’s all the more reason to love them and consider being part of their renaissance.
Like my friend Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi, I feel strongly that the the Dharma is not just about one’s own “inner peace”: loving-kindness and compassion are so much more than merely “beautiful states of mind,” and they must “issue in action” that leads to the alleviation of real human and planetary suffering. One aspect of practicing with this understanding, I think, is asking myself some very serious questions about the choices I’m making in terms of the food I eat, the clothes I wear, the things I use, and so on. What effects (seen and unseen) on people and the environment do those choices have? Do those choices reflect loving-kindness and compassion? And, if not, would other choices?
A good general, guiding principle for me in discerning the most ethical choices has been Wendell Berry’s exhortation: “We’ve got to use less.” When I’m making decisions that come at the lowest possible cost to the Earth and to my fellow human beings, I find that I feel much more in sync with my values as a Buddhist. Again, there are many things I can do to practice loving-kindness and compassion in meaningful ways, but being as careful as I can be when making these choices is certainly one important way.
None of us can be perfectly pure, but that’s not an excuse (for me, anyway) to avoid asking myself whether or not I’m practicing loving-kindness and compassion to the best of my abilities in all the choices that I make — even with regards to the things that we all take for granted every single day, or have all seemingly accepted unequivocally as “the way things are.” Indeed, when I subject myself to these inquiries when it comes to the computers, tablets, smartphones, and other such digital productivity gadgets that I, like so many others, use all the time, I find that the answers invariably lead me away from using them.
Computers, tablets, smartphones, et al, are not innocuous technology; quite the contrary, in fact — their manufacture and use exact a heavy toll on the environment and on human beings. Bryan Walsh, a senior editor at Time Magazine, for example, recently translated the findings of a report from the Digital Power Group, “a tech- and investment-advisory firm,” about the electrical needs of the digital economy. He writes:
…The information-communications-technologies (ICT) ecosystem, otherwise known as the digital economy…includes everything from smartphones to laptops to digital TVs to — especially — the vast and electron-thirsty computer-server farms that make up the backbone of what we call “the cloud.” In his report, Mills estimates that the ICT system now uses 1,500 terawatt-hours of power per year. That’s about 10% of the world’s total electricity generation or roughly the combined power production of Germany and Japan. It’s the same amount of electricity that was used to light the entire planet in 1985. We already use 50% more energy to move bytes than we do to move planes in global aviation… As our lives migrate to the digital cloud — and as more and more wireless devices of all sorts become part of our lives — the electrons will follow. And that shift underscores how challenging it will be to reduce electricity use and carbon emissions even as we become more efficient.
Given this information, as well as the fact that almost 70% of the United States’ electricity is currently generated from fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), and nearly 20% more from nuclear power, energy efficiency and a serious shift to renewable energy sources are of the utmost importance: continuing on in this current direction under the present conditions is both completely unsustainable and incredibly dangerous to the health of the planet.
However, despite companies like Lenovo and Apple making important strides in terms of renewable energy use, other tech giants are using their enormous resources and influence to throw us deeper into peril. For all the good press around its immigration reform work, FWD.us, the lobbying group led by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, is supporting the Keystone XL pipeline project, which has been publicly opposed by myriad climate scientists, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Former Vice President Al Gore, Corporate Ethics International, the National Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club, 350.org, the National Wildlife Federation, Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the Rainforest Action Network (among many, many others). In addition, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Yelp, and Facebook all have representation on the communications and technology task force of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the conservative lobbying group that is aggessively pushing the pipeline project.
On top of the human suffering that the exacerbation of climate change will bring in the future, the manufacture of our devices has a high human cost right now: the horrific working conditions for Chinese laborers at the FoxConn factories that make our iPhones and Kindles (and lots and lots of other popular gizmos) made headlines not long ago, and the simultaneous rise in the proliferation of mobile devices and horrifically bloody war in the Democratic Republic of Congo — the place where we get many of the minerals necessary to make these devices — really ought to garner more.
Knowing all this, I’m left with at least the very same koan that Wendell Berry (who still doesn’t own or use a computer, and, with his wife Tanya, does all his writing by hand and on an old Royal Standard) was left with when he first wrote about computers more than a quarter-century ago:
I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct dependence on strip-mined coal. How could I write conscientiously against the rape of nature if I were, in the act of writing, implicated in the rape?
Enter the typewriter.
Now, all that said, I admit that I am at present and have been a pretty heavy computer user. Excited by the myriad possibilities that blogging and social media held for education, journalism, and activism in particular, I jumped in with both feet when these tools first appeared. Being an early adopter, among other things, has both helped me greatly in my career and enabled me to do what I hope has been some good, and for those things I am very grateful. And yet, my dissatisfaction with the morality of these tools has grown, and I regret being so hasty to grab at them. (It resonated strongly when I heard the comedian Louis C.K. say that our culture desperately needs the reminder that “everything that’s available to do isn’t necessarily a good idea.”)
Again, though, I recognize that no choice is perfectly pure: with the typewriter (and writing by hand), I must still use paper and ink and lead, and those have some problems of their own (by comparison, though, much less enormous problems). I also know that I will need to use computers and the internet at least from time to time — heck, I’m using a computer to write this particular blog post because I wanted to be able to back so many things up with the appropriate links to reports, news stories, and such.
But, “we’ve got to use less.” Knowing that one simple Google search alone consumes as much energy as lighting a 60-watt bulb for seventeen seconds, and what that means, how can I, in good conscience, keep going like this?
I’m resolved now to move away from the computer as my main tool for writing. As much as possible from here on out, I’ll be composing by hand and on the SM3. When a final version of something needs to make its way into a Word document or blog post or another electronic format, it will either be scanned or rapidly word-processed, consuming as little electricity as possible.
In addition, given all that’s required for their mass manufacture — from the Earth and from workers — this will probably be my last personal computer. (What am I? Too good to share with other denizens of my local public library?) The same goes for other mobile devices. I’ve also got a lot of thinking to do about which applications, companies, and social networks I should be outright rejecting based on their energy policies and politics. (I’m looking at you, Facebook…)
It may not be a perfect environmental solution — a lot more of us will have to move to manual typewriters to make much of dent in terms of the digital economy’s cost to the planet, and our own personal greening should certainly not preclude us from participating to the fullest in efforts to see larger environmental solutions legislated and implemented. But for this engaged Buddhist, typing away on the SM3 instead of staring at a busy, glowing, energy-guzzling computer screen sure feels like a practice whose time has come.
Rev. Danny Fisher is an associate professor and Chair of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Department at University of the West in Rosemead, CA. Author of the Patheos blog “Off the Cushion”, he has also written for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Inquiring Mind, The Journal of Buddhist Ethics, The Journal of Global Buddhism, The Middle Way: Journal of the Buddhist Society, Religion Dispatches, and others.
In 2012 he was trained and certified into the Climate Reality Leadership Corps by Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Former Vice President Al Gore. You can request a climate presentation from Danny here: http://presenters.climaterealityproject.org/presenter/danny-fisher_3340