To resist the robots, get a typewriter
By Mark Hurst • April 26, 2024

Some nursing homes in Japan are welcoming a new visitor to engage the residents. Paro, shown below, is a furry and friendly-looking baby seal – sort of. Paro is a robot, one of the many so-called “social robots” that are now being developed for deployment in elder care, hospitals, schools, and many other venues in work and private life.

The current crop of social robots was my topic on Techtonic this week, as I spoke with Eve Herold, author of “Robots and the People Who Love Them.” (Listen to the show / jump to the interview / see episode page with links and comments.) Eve urges us to get ready for an influx of robots, as they will be arriving in our lives and workplaces faster than we might think.

Being the tech skeptic that I am, I’m a little uneasy about the spread of embodied computers that are designed for social interaction. Much as I feel when I call a 1-800 number and hear the chirpy AI-generated voice asking me to “state what your question is today,” I don’t want to have to deal with a robot and its artificially cheerful demeanor. I just want to get my todo done and move on with my day.

The thing is, I don’t want a relationship with a machine. That puts me and the machine on a kind of level ground, obligating me to spend time and energy in the give-and-take of a conversation. No thanks. What I want, instead, is technology that isn’t going to use artifice to nudge me into one sort of behavior or another. I want technology that is going to stay quiet and unobtrusive until I direct the thing to do my bidding. Like a shovel, for instance. There’s no nudging or cheerful personality in a shovel. It just sits there until you’re ready for it to dig a hole.

But it’s not quite fair to compare robots with garden tools. Shovels, rakes, and hammers are a little too one-note, a little narrow in their range of action, to usefully compare to Paro the seal. To really highlight why I’m not enthusiastic about robots, I need to compare them with a piece of technology that has some depth, some range of use, yet still is simple enough to serve as a counterpoint.

And I have just the object: the manual typewriter. It’s been on my mind recently since I interviewed Richard Polt on the April 15 Techtonic. Richard, the author of “The Typewriter Revolution,” explained how typewriters are better than digital devices, and always will be, for certain uses. (Listen to the show / jump to the interview / see episode page with links and comments.) Richard is also a philosophy professor at Xavier University and so of course I asked him to summarize Heidegger. It’s really worth listening to the interview.

The comparison

Now we have a worthy pair of technologies to compare. Robots and typewriters are very different, of course, but they have a strange symmetry in their outcomes – almost diametrically opposed – that I find illuminating.

Here, off the top of my head, are ten comparisons between robots and typewriters:

Surveillance: robots have multiple cameras and sensors to watch you and the surrounding environment, often sending surveillance data into the cloud for further proccessing. Typewriters, though, have no surveillance. None. Zero. No cameras, no sensors, no listening, no spying, no cloud.

User autonomy: robots claim that they’ll do the job, so that people can attend to other things or just go to sleep. Typewriters demand that the writer step up and put in the work, because otherwise it won’t get done. If robots cause atrophy, typewriters encourage growth.

Mechanism: robots hide their mechanical nature under a smooth android exterior (or a robot-seal fur coat) while presenting an illusion of sentience. Typewriters bare all, displaying their levers and typebars in plain view.

Environmental impact: robots’ AI engines consume massive amounts of electricity and fresh water, not to mention the rare metals and chemicals used to construct the robot. Typewriters consume sheets of paper, an occasional ink ribbon, and manual power to press down the keys.

Truth: robots express whatever version of reality was coded into them by their company’s engineers; typewriters invite the writer to express the truth however they can word it.

Scale: robots run algorithms at ultrafast processor speeds, communicating with other devices through high-speed internet connections; typewriters operate at human scale, with finger-sized keys working at the speed of human thought. And communication uses postal mail.

Value to Silicon Valley: robots, as the embodiment of AI, are seen as promising assets for future exponential growth. Typewriters, on the other hand, are considered by Big Tech to be bygone relics, irrelevant to the new tech age.

Longevity: robots, like other digital devices, need to be replaced frequently to stay up-to-date; typewriters built 50, 80, even 100 years ago are still working faithfully with their original parts.

Business model: robots, typically designed by growth-at-any-cost tech companies, rely on constant upgrades, monetization of surveillance data, and recurring fees; typewriters, once purchased, need no further investment or payment, beyond paper and an occasional repair.

Legacy: the impact of robots is ephemeral, lasting only as long as robots continue to function. Typewriters, on the other hand, produce the written page – which can last for hundreds of years and change lives and cultures based on the words it contains.

I write these comparisons, of course, on a digital device that much more closely resembles a robot than a typewriter. My Apple laptop runs at the speed of a robot, contains the same conflict minerals, and sends data to the cloud. It’s no typewriter. Even so, it’s worth calling out these differences to understand what we’ll be up against, soon enough, when a robot walks in the room and asks you: What can I do for you today?

More pointers

There are dozens of threads and resource lists on our members-only Creative Good Forum, available to you right now when you join Creative Good.

• In our Humanoid robots are advancing fast thread on the Creative Good Forum, we have more resources for exploring the current state of robots – including the new Figure robot and a disturbing new Atlas robot from Boston Dynamics.

• In Satisfying takedowns of AI hype there are several critical looks at AI, acknowledging what AI is good for, while cutting through the constant hype from the industry.

• Speaking of typewriters, our thread Local journalism is being destroyed by Big Tech discusses how Big Tech’s surveillance-and-plagiarism business is causing the closures of local papers across the country.

I’ll close by saying that I could use your support in putting together this newsletter. If you’ve found this informative, or helpful, in some way, please chip in by joining Creative Good today. Thanks.

Until next time,


Mark Hurst, founder, Creative Good – see our services or join as a member
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