Friday, May 1, 2009

The clack of the keys

The newspaper paragraph that slayed me lately was the one in which writer and satirist P J O’Rourke admitted to not being able to “work a computer”.
Best-selling author (14 books), top-rated speaker, mocker of presidents and governments, and former foreign desk chief at Rolling Stone , the guy’s been an ace communicator for 30-something years. Now 61, he comes to New Zealand for a full-on round of speechmaking and interviews and tells the Herald’s Karyn Scherer that he’s computer-illiterate.
I am astonished.
He told her, “I can't imagine how I would manage with email. It's just such a massive distraction with email, and BlackBerries, and Twitter, and so on. I have somebody input the stuff and off it goes.”
He excuses himself by saying that if he had a computer he would play with it. He might find himself looking up “exactly what was Rwanda's GDP in 1954, and other such distractions”. He does enough of that already, he says, “just with the books that are sitting around”. And he is nervous that that sort of activity would “soon devolve into playing Battleships with someone, or whatever”.
He has a cell phone but declares that its number is known only to his family, so he and his wife can co-ordinate childminding schedules. Scherer wasn’t brazen enough to ask him if he knows how to text.
He has no interest in blogging. “The only thing that makes writing worth anything is that people put some time and thought into it, and you just can't do that on a blog,” says O’Rourke. (Tell that to some of the best bloggers around.)
He sees the computer not as a useful tool but a distraction, and prefers his outmoded typewriter because all he wants to do is have time to think about something, and not be “constantly distracted and interrupted”. He seems not to consider that cell phones can be switched off, doors can be closed, and email can be checked as often or as rarely as you like.
He sounds like a man who is very easily distracted.
Typewriters. Ye gods. The miles my fingers must have done. I once prized my turquoise Olivetti Lettera portable like I now treasure my laptop. I’ve battered keys on Imperials, Royals, Underwoods and Smith Coronas. I’ve clacked away for hours, furiously typing xxxxx over errors when I couldn’t be bothered using that special eraser (a round, hard, thin rubber disc) or wielding a Wite-Out brush. I’ve faffed around with sheets of carbon paper and once possessed a now long-lost office vocab. Hands up who can remember what a platen is.
O’Rourke apparently uses an IBM Selectric, invented in 1961 and gradually improved over the years until IBM ditched the whole idea when everyone shifted to computers around 1990. Everyone, that is, but O’Rourke. Amazingly, for all his wit and intelligence, he has become an old fogey. Still, whoever it is who “inputs the stuff” must be pleased. At least the job will be there for as long as PJ keeps writing.

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