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Mission: Impossible adopts typewriters

by | Jan 19, 2023 | Uncategorized | 5 comments

Rodja Pavlik alerted me that the new film “Mission: Impossible 7: Dead Reckoning Part One” includes a scene in a room full of typewriters and typists.

We are the future: in the battle “to control the truth,” as the film puts it, ink and paper represent resistance against ever-more-powerful digital manipulation.
To quote The Typewriter Revolution:

Digital creations can be found in a split second. But what if you don’t want to be found?

Think of every digital mark you’ve made: every e-mail you’ve sent, product you’ve rated, video you’ve uploaded, account you’ve created. Our phone calls are digital, our purchases are digital, our driving is digital. In a city, digital cameras record you at every step; Google’s cars drive past your house and make pictures of it available to the world.

All this can be stored, copied, and used by corporations, governments, and individuals. The Internet is constantly crawled by bots that crunch data far more efficiently than any old-fashioned Ministry of Truth could. Social networks and spy agencies identify faces in your snapshots; video sites pinpoint the song that’s playing in your home movie.

Small wonder that our private information is vulnerable. In 2008, some digital picture frames were found to be transmitting data from owners’ PCs back to China. In 2012, the director of the CIA himself, David Petraeus, was exposed as an adulterer because he communicated with his mistress electronically. In 2013, Bush family e-mails were published online.

To quote Edward Snowden, “Any unencrypted message sent over the Internet is being delivered to every intelligence service in the world.” Snowden’s revelations about the long arm of the NSA came as little surprise to those who’d been watching the construction of a massive data center in Utah that slurps up all available information.
Thanks to spyware, the fact that you didn’t put a document online doesn’t mean that it’s safe on your personal computer. Passwords and encryption are safe only until the next clever hacker comes along.
So how does the humble typewriter come in? Your old-fashioned writing machine has the power to circumvent this entire global system of data analysis. File your typescript in a safe place, and there will be no copy unless you want one. No one will see it unless you choose. Mail it to a trusted correspondent, and only the two of you will be the wiser. (But be aware that the exterior of every piece of US mail is now scanned.)
In 2013, to help meet the challenges of digital espionage, the Kremlin’s Federal Protective Service invested in a phalanx of machines capable of outwitting the latest, greatest algorithms. Yes: typewriters (twenty Triumph-Adler Twen 180s). Other government units relying on typewriters for security include MI6’s top secret facility at Hanslope Park, England, and the High Commission of India in London. Privacy-sensitive Germany has seen a spike in typewriter sales.

Of course, nothing is failsafe. Offices can be burglarized, mail can be opened, and it’s well known among forensic document examiners that every manual typewriter creates distinctive work. Carbon typewriter ribbons retain a record of your writing, and in the eighties the Soviets even devised a way to bug the Selectrics used in the US Embassy. But compared to the automation and speed of digital snooping, these physical methods are so inefficient that a typist’s privacy is highly reliable unless you have already been identified as an important target.
We live in a time of suspicion and fear, thanks in part to the flood of information that makes it easier for criminals and terrorists to devise their plots. The forces of order try to head off those plots through Total Information Awareness (the name of a project that was shut down—but the concept is alive and well). In this atmosphere, the very desire for privacy looks suspect. The typewriter revolution is not a violent movement; we believe in words, not terror. But we also believe that we have the right to keep those words our own, and to decide who, if anyone, will get to read them.

Privacy isn’t just about fending off spies; the problem also extends to the voluntary oversharing that the Internet encourages. Publishing has become so fast and easy that the very concept has almost lost its meaning: The default setting for our existence is worldwide publicity. Snowden warns: “A child born today will grow up with no conception of privacy at all. They’ll never know what it means to have a private moment to themselves, an unrecorded, unanalyzed thought.” The consequences of the principle that “all that happens must be known” have been explored in all-too-realistic dystopias such as Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Dave Eggers’s The Circle. Let’s just say that it isn’t good.

In a time of publicness run amok, typewriters build a space for privacy.

5 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Another good reason to always be someone other than who you actually are online, and to have done it since the 90's :D

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    There is TOR and Proton, but it is still digital. Just think, when the government wants to stop all communication it will be very easy when every one is digital anything, especially fiber connected internet.

    Reply
  3. rino breebaart

    Very well put, Richard. Privacy is so over… and for a lot of people, in the rush to adopt all these super convenient means of communication, it seems not to have mattered much in the first place. I'm getting tired of all the people who tell me 'Meh, it doesn't really bother me that much'. But it's pervasive, this erosion of privacy and the loss of integrity of owning your own words. It will have consequences, very fine ones, and lots of consequences we won't ever be aware of — especially with regards sensitive medical information, information that may affect jobs or insurance, and the potential fallout from every opinion we've ever expressed/published. Whilst real power (and dangerous digital powers) operate unchecked, in great secrecy, without accountability. (maybe why there's so many conspiracy theories today, to fill that gap). Sad, strange, alienating times…

    Reply

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