typewriterAs Germany uncovers even more American spies in its midst, its intelligence experts consider protecting themselves from digital snooping by reverting to manual typewriters. Is this a triumph of the old over the new?

Will this bung a wrench into the optimism of our pimple-faced teenage technophiles? Will they stop swooning over every semi-useless electronic trinket? Will they stop ransacking parental credit cards for ephemeral items of such dubious utility? Perhaps not, because few pubescent computer geeks can read. Oh, they can recognise the odd word here and there, especially if permitted to move their lips, but not enough to find and absorb the news story about the German intelligence services.

Then how about their elders working in media and sales; the various 30-50 year-old technological hot-gospellers and the purveyors of wooden nutmegs? You know—the swivel-eyed, porky, sweating types who gesticulate wildly while predicting that in two weeks everything we did in the water closet will be done digitally on tablets and then shared on social networking websites.

Nah, they wouldn’t know how to change the typewriter ribbon on a 1928 Royal, and besides, they don’t read much more than their own information-inflated marketing reports, price-inflated Caribbean real-estate brochures, and internet porn where the inflation is chiefly thoracic. So what about the rest us, who are unimpressed by technology, uninterested in buying seaside villas and able to type with both hands?

Realistically, few of us expect computers to disappear completely, even if the bones of creepy Steve Jobs are sensibly exhumed and dragged through the streets like those of Oliver Cromwell. Yet an old technological system and a new one may drink long and deep at the same watering hole. Old science and new science can coexist happily. Doubters can see what rich people still pay for the Montblanc 149 fountain pen invented in 1924; based on a mid-19th Century technology improving upon an ancient Egyptian papyrus reed.

At least as impressive, Cambridge archaeologists in Turkey have recently unearthed ancient ceramic tokens—circles and diamonds, etc.—that were used by primitive accountants. Since there did not seem to be much stockpiling or taxing grain before mankind discovered agriculture around 12,000 years ago, these handy little clay gadgets need not have become obsolete until nine thousand years later, when people invented writing in about 3,000 BC. Or so we thought. These clay markers, 5,000 years old, were found in the equivalent of an Assyrian city hall, piled up alongside clay tablets inscribed with cuneiform. Clearly, both systems were in use simultaneously; cuneiform writing and the older ceramic tokens.

Historically, this is a lot more impressive than Rosa Klebb reverting to her East German manual typewriter to keep Felix Leiter and James Bond in the dark. For one thing, what else scored 9,000 years on top of the technological dog-pile before being unthroned? Apart, of course, from rakes and scythes and potter’ wheels, and most of the jokes on Saturday Night Live.

clay doodadsOne suspects that those ancient Assyrian bureaucrats would have felt not the slightest embarrassment in using old-fangled clay doodads when new-fangled writing (software) and clay tablets (hardware) were readily available. First of all, they probably all belonged to the equivalent of The American Federation of Government Employees, so they were legally obliged to use the slower and older technology, lest rank-and-file members of the Clay Doodad-Makers Union lost their jobs. But that need not have been the only reason, and we can almost hear the conversation over five millennia.

Someone stands up at a meeting and asks the mayor why local government hasn’t moved wholly to the new hardware-software writing-thingy. Akhabbu strikes a self-important pose: “What if we run out of clay for doodads because we, um, can’t find any more? Yeah! What if we, um, run out of water for the mud? What if we close the school that teaches our sacred Assyrian youth how to use the clay doodads and then we forget, um, never mind…This is a matter of national security! Guards! Take him away!” Then he turns to one side, “Now, Airammu, if you want the mud contract, I want to see a campaign contribution.”

Meanwhile, break out the kerosene. Alternative utility systems are getting cheap enough that it is almost worth while for Americans to drop off the grid, generate their own light and harvest their own water. Somewhere between 180,000 and one million Americans do already, depending on whom you believe. While some American local governments will put you in the slammer if your home isn’t connected to the politician-funding monopoly power or water company, they can’t require people to actually use the services. So you can run your television off of your modern inverter, or read Thoreau by romantic oil lamp. When blackouts start because American electricity needs soon surpass generating capacity—because price controls and/or environmentalism stopped new plants from being built—old technology may cost a premium, so get in now.

But before we rush off to buy oil lamps and fill our basements with dried food, we can reflect on the peculiarities of technology; not so much that recent inventions go away but that the old ones take a long time, if ever, to die. The clay doodads are the historical norm rather than the exception.

abacusMy neighbours in Kathmandu, and multitudes elsewhere across Asia, still use an abacus. Its Sumerian version is about 4,700 years older than the tablet computers which are, themselves, so old that American “20-somethings” can barely remember their introduction.That’s more than ten years, dude!

If there’s a moral to this story, it’s never to listen to the prats who predict the death of printed books, which are barely 500 years old and have at least another five centuries ahead of them. There’s a chance that silicon gadgetry will come and go while books remain. There’s an even better chance that future archaeologists, digging up a town hall from 4014 AD, find a dead tablet computer stacked among the paperbacks.

Our empires will disappear long before our paper-and-ink books do—and, looking across the Atlantic,the wise Germans, Gutenberg’s children, may have figured that out.

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