ChatGPT’s Worst Nightmare: The Typewriter

“I write, erase, rewrite,

Erase again, and then

A poppy blooms.”

-Katsushika Hokusai

“You know what you can do with that?” asked the antique salesman as I stood hunched over a 1952 Royal HH typewriter. “I’ll tell you. You go out fishing on your boat, tie a rope to that typewriter, and throw it overboard. That’ll keep your boat in place. When you’re done fishing, cut the rope, and go home. That’s all they’re good for.”

Apparently, this guy didn’t know how to sell a typewriter. Or, perhaps he did, given that I bought that forty-pound monstrosity. The other salesman was incredulous, “Are you actually going to try to use this thing?” The young face looking across from him must not have looked the type.  

From the ten minutes I had with that machine, I could tell that it was worth a thirty-five-dollar investment. Does it skip from time to time? Yes. Does the ink ribbon need replacing? You bet. Does it connect with Google Docs? Nope. Can you seamlessly share it across all your devices? Nah, get the stamps ready. Don’t you waste paper? Unfortunately. Even so, I still think that a typewriter is worth far more than a boat anchor.

If a person buys a typewriter in 2023, they aren’t buying it because it competes with computer juggernauts. They aren’t buying it because they want a 4k screen, Bluetooth connectivity, or the accoutrement of the internet. In fact, I bought one precisely to escape all of that. For me, this Royal typewriter offers me a chance to be closer with my own writing process—as this essay, typed on both, can confirm.

So why is a typewriter, run by human hands and human mistakes, ChatGPT’s worst nightmare? It isn’t. ChatGPT, the A.I. that can write anything from computer code to your Paideia research paper, probably couldn’t care less about me and my typewriter. I understand ChatGPT’s use, even while I am concerned by the ways in which it can outgrow that original scope. It offers, like all machines, to make life easier. But that offer, to take the writing process off our hands, is a dangerous proposition.

The typing experience on a typewriter is a physical experience. Unlike a flat keyboard, the typist is required to be active, pecking through the keystroke from the type slug, through the ink, and onto the page, all in one fluid motion. Each stroke, each word, matters all the more on the typewriter. They matter because they can only be summoned once, to physically appear upon unmarked paper. The experience of typing is a reclamation of the roots of writing.

Chatbots create the conditions where we forget the importance and the beauty in the act of writing, as Katsushika Hokusai eloquently reminds us. Writing is difficult, and if we are allowed to forget the hard work required by our hands, I fear writing will soon cease to matter. Perhaps that’s cynical or misses the mark of reality. It certainly isn’t the current reality. Nonetheless, the beauty of writing is the process, the action. That process is not some boat anchor, to leave at the bottom of the local lake. It must not be lost in the social attic, where all ancient technology goes to die. The writing process, whether oral or written, endures as an important piece of technology, of humanity, that must be held onto, despite the temptations of an easier life. Writing upon a typewriter allows me a chance to move words, and to let the words move me.