Screen overload — Image from Health CGB

The Next Big Thing for Writers?

No matter where you’re at in history, the latest technology looks like a pathetic version of the future’s technology. We’re picky little creatures, and we have enough ingenuity to know we can do better, so that’s what we do.

The better things get, the more pathetic the old stuff starts to look. And of course, we’re just getting started.

While it’s impossible to predict the next solutions, the problems are easy. “My phone is slow!” or “Notifications are distracting!” or “Social media is ruining face-to-face communication!”

We rock at complaining, and technology responds.

The oldest complaint ever found was carved 3,750 years ago on this stone, the Complaint tablet to Ea-nasir

The oldest complaint ever found was carved 3,750 years ago on this stone, the Complaint tablet to Ea-nasir

So in the spirit of humanity, here’s a problem I have:

I work behind a screen for 40 hours a week. On a given day I encounter at least 40 zillion pixels, and they make my eyes fatigued. Sometimes it continues through the evening with classwork, some weird side project, or the occasional movie = screen after screen after screen.

Then there’s all that screen-based communication, texting, social media, Facetiming (is that a verb yet?), and more.

You know the story. By now, this is all rather commonplace to the human experience.

And besides all of this, there’s writing — an activity that has produced billions of articles, millions of magazine and newspaper issues, an estimated 130 million books, plus some 2 million blog posts written every day, all (likely) adding up to trillions of man-hours.

And what do all those hours look like?

Nowadays: behind yet another screen. That’s the problem, and it has me wondering …

Do modern writers really need a screen? What new technology could possibly make screen-based writing look pathetic?

Rocks, pens, and typewriters

Writing technology used to be pretty basic — from carving on rocks to painting in caves — but the whole thing was pretty laborious.

So we did what humans do: developed technologies to outsource our problems, creating new problems along the way, which we outsourced to new technologies, which came with new problems, and so on, and (now I’m projecting) just keep getting bigger and bigger.

Pen and paper was a cool upgrade — way faster than rock carving. And when the eraser came along, you could even change the parts where you misspell a word, or sound like an idiot (side note: I wrote ‘somethig’ instead of ‘something’ and misspelled ‘misspell’ as ‘mispell,’ and, unbelievably, even misspelled ‘misspelled’ as ‘mispelled’ in this very side note, but a little bubble popped up and told me to fix each one; thanks, technology — sure that all makes me sound like an idiot, but I’ll leave it as an illustration).

Cave painting found near Yunnan, China dating back 7,000 years. — Picture from http://mongolschinaandthesilkroad.blogspot.com/

Cave painting found near Yunnan, China dating back 7,000 years. — Picture from http://mongolschinaandthesilkroad.blogspot.com/

Socrates was freaking out when writing came along (or at least had some thoughts on the subject). He feared it would make humans lose their memory. At the time, some humans could recite entire novels like The Iliad and Odyssey. To Socrates, writing seemed like a crutch.

And he was right. Why memorize these long stories when you can write them down, check them out at a library, or do some Googling? I’m not sure about you, but I have zero novels memorized. Times ain’t like they used to be. The tempting ease of technology is too strong.

Of course, humans didn’t stop with pen and paper. The typerwriter eventually came along and gave writers even more superpowers. With the neat consistency of a keyboard, writing became faster and easier.

Typerwriter — Image from Wikipedia

Typerwriter — Image from Wikipedia

And that still wasn’t enough.

Today we use the sophisticated powers of word processors, allowing us to write and edit at the speed of thought. It’s a wonderful invention. You can move the cursor around, cut and paste, format fonts with the click of a button, and write almost anytime, anywhere. Austin American-Statesman Reporter, Michael Barnes, goes so far to say that the word processor is partly what kicked off his writing career in the first place.

As he told me a year ago, “It worked more with my way of thinking. I see things in a topography, which doesn’t lend itself to a linear essay. But when you can cut and paste easily, then I could write.”

Yes, it’s amazing in one sense, but it’s accompanied by another problem: it’s yet another screen.

So how can we keep the superpowers of the modern word processor, yet somehow ditch the screen?

Lightbulb moment: turn off the lights

I don’t know the solution (humans are notoriously bad at predicting the future). But I’m awfully intrigued by one niche of a solution that has captured some writers. The idea hit me a while back while I was reading my Kindle. For those of you who have never used one, the screen almost looks like paper — no backlight, no distractions, no eye fatigue — just words. It feels like magic.

Amazon Kindle — Image from The Verge

Amazon Kindle — Image from The Verge

If we have such a device for reading, why not writing?

So I jumped down a Google rabbit trail to find one — cuz everyone knows that 99% of ideas are either terrible or already exist, or both.

Sure enough, this one exists.

Some people swear by a few old school options that combine a keyboard with a small screen resembling an oversized calculator display. One device called the AlphaSmart has even gathered somewhat of a cult following. They usually run around $20, but they’re currently listed on Amazon for $150.

But when I say “old school,” I mean this:

AlphaSmart Neo2 — Image from BoingBoing.net

AlphaSmart Neo2 — Image from BoingBoing.net

I have a feeling humanity can do better.

The only modern device I could find is called the Freewrite, which successfully raised nearly $350,000 on Kickstarter in 2015. It has an e-ink screen, comes equipped with wifi to sync your writings with the cloud, and essentially does nothing but word processing. It kind of looks like a toy typewriter.

The Freewrite word processor — from getfreewrite.com

The Freewrite word processor — from getfreewrite.com

There’s one immediate problem, though: it’s $500 — which makes it tough to take seriously. That’s probably why one of the top results in Google for “Freewrite” is an article from Mashable, titled “The $500 Freewrite word processor is pretentious hipster nonsense.” The authors admittedly never even used one, but first impressions were … pretty bad. “When the news was posted to our Slack channel, we couldn’t stop talking about just how much dumb this entire idea is,” they explained.

Yet plenty of reviews from those who have used it give raving reviews. Wired Magazine said it “may just be the ultimate word processor.” The Atlantic wrote an article about it called “The Future Looks Like the Past” and describes it as a “soulful gadget” that feels “liberating” to use. The Guardian described it as “just plain boring — and that’s precisely the point.” It’s distraction-free, squint-free writing.

Final thoughts

So maybe this isn’t an original idea, but I’m still not ready to settle. The Freewrite is at least trying to one-up the modern word processor. But I know humans can do better. A bigger e-ink screen would be nice for editing, and so would a more compact design for portability, not to mention a better price tag. And if we want to get real experimental and crazy, you could even include a little safe in the device where you can hide something valuable (like your keys), and it only opens if you reach a certain word limit or click “Publish” on a new blog post.

Okay, so maybe it’s not the “next big thing,” but how brutally helpful would it be for writer’s block?

The Passion of Creation, by Leonid Pasternak, 19th Century

The Passion of Creation, by Leonid Pasternak, 19th Century

But it doesn’t matter what I think the best solution is. Surely, the next big thing for writers will surprise us all.

That being said, if you’re a mechanical engineer or some other technical genius and have the means, please put your brains to work on this. If rock carvings weren’t enough, pen and pencil weren’t enough, and even typewriters weren’t enough, I think it’s pretty safe to assume, the modern word processor also isn’t enough. Humans can do better, and they’re all counting on you.

Oh and one more thing — if this post inspires you to create something and it works out really well (like millions-of-dollars-well), maybe consider throwing a tip my way? That would be awesome.

Thanks, humans. You rock.

 

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