Writing Technologies

[Printable version]


Daniel Cordle and Philip Leonard

‘Not writing, but typing’
Truman Capote, on Jack Kerouac

Technology has frequently seemed to be antithetical to writing. When Jack Kerouac was accused of ‘not writing, but typing’, the insult implied an inhuman quality to his prose, as though the machine on which On the Road was produced had replaced the more transcendent humanity required of the writer. 1 Kerouac, it implied, had become a typewriter, and could therefore not really be considered a writer in the true sense at all. Something as quotidian, as material, as technology might feature in the world depicted by the writer but, this criticism implied, it had no place in the ethereal process of writing. Yet, the very term ‘writing’, though thoroughly naturalised as a metaphor for a particular sort of communicative mental activity, implies a relationship with technology, the pen, which is a medium that translates and directs thought as specifically as the typewriters on which Kerouac, or later William Gibson, famously tapped out their works. Before broaching these complex questions of technology, production and subjectivity, it is perhaps first worth considering the more prosaic ways in which technology is at issue in writing.

Technology does, of course, feature as a set of objects ‘in’ writing, in the sense of being invoked as part of the fabric of the world described by writers. While this may seem most obviously to be an issue in genres like science-fiction, which frequently takes technology as its subject, or procedural detective fiction, in which technologies of forensic investigation are central, it would be a mistake to assume that the most fertile ground for investigation necessarily lies in these areas. If technology is culturally significant, it is significant not only when its novelty directly impinges on our consciousness but also for the ways it is naturalised as an assumed fact of everyday life (indeed, Gibson’s search for a ‘superspecificity’ of reference in his science-fiction is in part an attempt to invest the novel technologies of the future with the everyday qualities of the everyday). 2 Without the technologies of shipbuilding, timekeeping, cartography, navigation, industrialisation, and civil and military administration and suppression, there could have been no European expansion into the wider world and no broader world of Empire into which to flee for all those characters of nineteenth-century realist fiction, like St. John Rivers in Jane Eyre, who leaves Britain to carry out missionary work, and Monks, in Oliver Twist, who gets his comeuppance far from home. 3 Unassimilable at home, many of these characters can be tidily got rid of abroad, their disruptive influences lost in the margins of Empire.

Next page 

1. R.J. Ellis outlines the derivation of Capote’s offhand remark. R.J. Ellis, Liar! Liar!: Jack Kerouac – Novelist (London: Greenwich Exchange, 1999), p. 27.

2. ‘Superspecificity’ implies that future technology is rendered with the same nonchalant, and brand-oriented, terminology as we might apply to the contemporary world when we talk of, for instance, a ‘hoover’ rather than a ‘vacuum cleaner’ or an ‘iPod’ rather than a ‘portable MP3-playing device’. Gibson traced his influence in this respect to hardboiled detective fiction: ‘[Dashiell] Hammett may have been the guy who turned me on to the idea of superspecificity, which is largely lacking in most SF description. SF authors tend to use generics – “Then he got into his space suit” – a refusal to specify that is almost an unspoken tradition in SF’. Larry McCaffery, ‘An Interview with William Gibson’, in McCaffery, ed., Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Science Fiction (Durham: Duke UP, 1991), p. 269.

3. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847; London: Penguin, 1966); Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1837-38; Oxford: Oxford UP, 1999).