October 12, 2021
She was dazzled by the carbon paper. "I don't understand how this works!" she said, running her finger down each side. I showed her how to put it between two clean sheets of paper in order to make a copy. She's fascinated. Astonished.
It's the summer between her sophomore and junior years of high school. She had a month between commitments so I hired her to help me sort through old files. We got into a cabinet that I haven't opened since moving it into the keep-out room 22 years ago.
There was a fat file labelled "poems in redundant drafts." Many versions of poems I was working on in the mid-eighties. (Why I felt compelled to keep all of the drafts is a question I don't feel qualified to answer.) "I wrote on a typewriter," I told her. "Typed out a poem, and then I made revisions in pen or pencil and then I typed it again." Three or four versions in a day, according to the dates at the top of each sheet. I used carbon paper to keep a copy of the one I mailed to the magazines. She can't quite visualize it. The unconnected world.
I tell her about traveling with a heavy portable (luggable) computer back in 1990. About modems and phone lines and disk drives that had their own power supplies. "You don't know what a floppy disc is, do you?" She shakes her head, trying to peer through me into the distant past. I tell her about taking the silver dip pen and a bottle of ink and a volume of Tom Jefferson's complete works into the class I was teaching about the internet and copyright. That was in 2000 and the students were in their late teens. The kids passed the pen and bottle around and gingerly wrote their names. I held up the book, "Now imagine using that to write all of this." They were impressed, but they still had bits of memories of a pre-internet world. But Josie was born in 2005.
Carbon paper. Typewriters. I didn't attempt to explain a mimeograph machine. She'd had a similar reaction a year and a half ago when her Mom gave her a Crosley turntable and a vinyl record for Christmas. She'd turn the record over. "Why does it have two sides? I don't understand how it works!"
In my study, with the amazing carbon sheet in hand she said it again, but then, "But my phone, the CDs, DVDs, I don't understand how any of it works!" She's brilliant at using the devices in her world, of course. But she has no comprehension of how they work.
I turned her age in 1971. When my Dad told me about the world he lived in as a boy, thirty-five years earlier, I could understand how it worked. We lived in the same electro-mechanical world, principles established during the industrial revolution. Television wasn't around yet, but you could imagine it as an extension of the radio. When it arrived, he knew how to tinker with it. Jet engines were built from the same underlying dynamics as automobile engines. Things got faster and more efficient from his boyhood to mine, but the technologies were fundamentally the same. He understood how the things in my boyhood worked, and I knew the same about his.
The half century following the invention of the moveable type press is the incunabula period, European civilization being reshaped by the impact of inexpensive, uniformly replicable books, and the technological and cultural transformations they set in motion. Our Gutenberg moment, analogous to the days those first printed books went on sale, occurred in the fall of 1994 when Netscape was released -- the first widely available graphic internet browser.
By 1500, printed books were no longer curiosities, game attempts at emulating the handmade books of previous centuries. They were the standard means of knowledge transmission, with dozens of printers and publishers across Europe vying to tap into the new markets. Among the crucial innovations was the widespread adoption of the size called octavo – a book that could easily fit into a saddlebag. New knowledge spanning the continent as fast as a rider could take it.
Our incunabula period ended when the iPhone launched, barely a dozen years after Netscape. Now Josie carries the internet in her hip pocket. That feels natural. A world of carbon paper and typewriters is nearly inconceivable. I straddle the two worlds, writing in my leather-bound journal with a good fountain pen, then shifting to my laptop to write things I can easily share. I'm not nostalgic for the world we're leaving behind. I feel lucky that I get to taste them both and that I can tell Josie tall tales about the ways of the world before.