The Future of Writing Looks Like the Past

The Freewrite, a “smart typewriter,” wants to liberate writers from their computers.

Ian Bogost

These days, I write with my fingertips. We all do. And so, anything that changes that sensation stands out. Today, instead of chiclet keys on an Apple laptop, I am clacking at the white, mechanical keys of the Freewrite, a “smart typewriter” made by Astrohaus. It’s the latest and most extreme entry in the distraction-free writing wars. The idea: by stripping down a computer to its basics, writing can be simplified and improved.

Even though it looks like one, Freewrite is no hipster paean to writerly minimalism. It’s got a foot in the past and the present: the mechanical keyboard inscribes text to an e-ink screen (like the Kindle’s), and a physical Wi-Fi lever activates networking—but only to send your documents to services like Dropbox or Google Drive. The lowly writer, plagued by the torment of Facebook, Twitter, and browser tabs, can finally get down to business and just write.

I’ve already cheated. I couldn’t remember how Astrohaus described their product, so I checked my laptop, still sitting next to me, to get the “smart typewriter” appellation right. Then, of course, I got distracted talking to my Atlantic colleagues in Slack about the fact that I was writing about the Freewrite on my new Freewrite. But now I’m back, and I’d better close the computer and relocate.

I settle into a chair in the den. The cool, dark, cast aluminum of the Freewrite’s case feels like it belongs here, next to the mid-century fireplace, far more than the supposedly Bauhaus MacBook that might fill my lap under ordinary circumstances. It’s been some time since I’ve used a typewriter—really used one, not just pecked out a form on one or admired another as a prop. But Freewrite isn’t really a typewriter. It’s what we used to call a word processor. Not the software program, like Microsoft Word or WordPerfect, but the hardware appliance. I’d tell you more about the history of word processors, but unfortunately I’m offline, away from the computer and unable to do the usual quick web search I’d run to refresh my memory about the earliest and most popular word processors.

That too is a lie, of course. My iPhone is in my pocket, whimpering silently for me to look it up. But I’m determined to immerse myself in the focused, intentional, writerly life of which the Freewrite believes I am capable.

Online distractions offer an obvious case, but it’s easy to forget how much the tools with which we write change what it means to write in the first place. Writing longhand on paper was different from typing ideas and sentences on a mechanical apparatus that pressed forged letters between ink and paper. It’s a transition that Friedrich Nietzsche made—the first major philosopher to use a typewriter, a bizarre-looking but reasonably portable Malling-Hansen Writing Ball, which looks a bit like a skull with keys on needles stuck into it at all angles. For Nietzsche, the typewriter offered a way to write despite his deteriorating vision (and sanity). He knew that tools changed their users; “Our writing tools are also working on our thoughts,” Nietzsche aphorized. These are facts I happen to know just because they were memorable, not because I remember facts like these regularly anymore. I’ve long since outsourced such easily-rediscovered knowledge to the Internet.

As I’m congratulating myself on the feat, my nearly two year-old daughter finds the Freewrite as I set it down to get the door, where FedEx is delivering some bauble I had ordered two days ago from the magic box on which I usually shop online instead of writing. She bangs on the keyboard, declaring it “yo’s” (which means “hers”). The Freewrite designers seem to have anticipated this sort of nefariousness, and they cleverly require the user to press two red “new” buttons on opposite ends of the keyboard simultaneously to abandon the current document.

She manages to create a new document anyway, and I don’t know how to go back to my previous one on the device—mercifully, the files are automatically saved to my Dropbox, which took two minutes to set up on Astruhaus’s website. Stealing an unwriterly glance at my smartphone, I notice that each press of the “send” key also offsends an email with the material attached as a PDF. I’ve got about a dozen such messages thanks to my undistracted daughter. (Astrohaus co-founder Adam Leeb assures me that this option will be configurable, eventually.)

In these days of touch-screens, it’s easy to forget that keyboards were once symbols of futurism and innovation. I happen to have a Type-Rite “pre-computer typing tutor,” circa 1985, which bears a striking resemblance to the Freewrite. I give it to the baby (“It’s yo’s!”) so I can reclaim my new smart typewriter. I have to admit, the gadget’s resilience affords me a comfort in her mild abuse that I’d never have tolerated with my MacBook, even though the latter is also made of aluminum. The fragility of computers and smartphones have made us all fear them.

* * *

Anyway, since my old file has evaporated to the cloud, I’m joining you again in a brand-new, blank file. Which means that I can’t remember what I was writing before this digression. I think I was telling you about how writing tools change the nature of writing. The typewriter depersonalized writing, disconnecting it from the human hand that once had fashioned it. Forms and papers, but also letters and notes became bureaucratized when typed instead of written. Not to mention sonified: the tap-clack-ding-shwwwnk of the typewriter signals industriousness, no matter the content on the page.

When the electronic word processor and the personal computer came onto the scene, they changed writing still further. Editing became a part of writing from the very start, thanks to the ability to move the insertion point, select and relocate text, to backspace and correct, and generally to enter the copy arbitrarily. Later, hybrids arose. Certain mechanical/electronic typewriters incorporated a small LCD display and a text buffer that allowed line-by-line word processing before sending the buffer out to the software-controlled head of the mechanical typewriter, which emblazoned the results permanently in ink on paper.

In retrospect, word processing made typescript authorship suddenly seem like shackled writing, even though we got by with it fine for a century. But even though WordStar and Microsoft Word and Google Docs made correction and editing far easier than had been possible previously, they also altered the flow of writing. Handwriting and typewriting move across and down the page, unforgiving, ever forward. Only once a document was complete would it be revisited, and usually with pen or pencil, the editing context separated from the writing context. But the word processor wadded the two together, making the writer ever anxious about anything that just took place. The blank page has always been tyrannical, but the computer screen dampened its cruelty somewhat by allowing an infinite number of retraced steps that the writer can still complete rapidly.

The Internet made things even worse, not only by giving the writer immediate, zero-cost access to others’ writing, all impossibly perfect in comparison to the writer’s own calamity-in-progress, but also by appearing to provide full and total knowledge of every fact, idea, opinion, or citation that the writer might incorporate into the work before him or her. Writing today feels terrible not because writing has changed (surely writing always felt terrible), but because today one can never write alone. The writer always feels watched by the voyeur army of real and imagined critics that later will post or tweet inflammatory comments after publication.

Despite its claims, Freewrite doesn’t really offer a salve to distraction. After all, anybody can turn off their laptop’s networking functions, or choose to work at the coffee house without Wi-Fi. Rather, it creates a new context for writing, one that builds upon the prior work of the typewriter and the word processor. In particular, the Freewrite enforces the forward-only vector of the traditional typewriter. The e-ink display shows ten lines of text, and you can backspace through your document to your heart’s content. But there are no cursor keys to move the insertion point, and no mouse or pointer with which to enter another part of the text, nor to select, copy, or paste. No arrow keys, just the arrow of time.

Yet, the forward momentum of the Freewrite is dampened by its  e-ink display. Astrohaus chose this technology for the same reason e-reader manufacturers do: it uses a microcapsule surface that retains its state without continuous updating, thus reducing its power needs substantially—Astrohaus claims that the Freewrite can go weeks between charges. E-ink displays are also naturally high-contrast, making them easily visible in direct sunlight (but not in darkness; when switched on, the Freewrite’s screen activates a backlight). But in exchange, e-ink displays update slowly. E-readers exhibit this delay when turning pages. On the Freewrite, it’s obvious after every key press.

The result is a provisional, embodied writing experience that doesn’t quite match any prior technology. The Freewrite is built for first-gos rather than polished pieces. Despite its $500 price tag (Leeb tells me they’ve sold “thousands”), Astrohaus expects that you’ll also own a normal computer with which to manage, edit, and finalize your writing. They even framed Freewrite writing in those terms: One doesn’t create documents or stories on the device, but “drafts,” a term that underscores the tentative nature of the copy banged out on a Freewrite. The thing is, it actually works. Freewrite forces writers to embrace a maxim they often espouse but rarely embrace: at first, just let the words flow out unfettered. Worry about making them good later.

Far from being a hindrance, the e-ink screen’s latency actually promotes this goal. The screen isn’t really for staring at like a computer screen, but just for glancing toward to verify a word or to get one’s bearings while writing. While it takes a bit of getting used to, the touch-typist eventually stops looking at the screen entirely, and begins instead to look around the environment.

I can’t overstate how liberating this feels. For so long knowledge workers of all stripes have been stuck behind screens or in front of displays, their glass-and-aluminum surfaces shielding them from the world, and it from them. An open laptop is a Pandora’s box. What is its owner doing? Writing, or otherwise working? Watching porn? Wasting time on Facebook while you try to lecture or run a meeting? The tablet momentarily alleviated this detachment, sitting flat on the desk so that its owner could look others in the eye. But nobody can work on a tablet, and attaching a keypad to it, like the Surface or iPad Pro does, just turns it back into an alienating laptop.

The Freewrite removes that shroud, situating the writer in the world, while also making the writer’s work transparent to any who would happen to look or wonder. And given that the device is small and light enough to take anywhere, that place could be anywhere—the armchair, the bed, the toilet, the terrace, the lawn. It signals that its user is writing, because it can do nothing else.

* * *

I get the first wobbles of dizzy drunkenness as I realize that the Freewrite encourages me to see into the distance as my fingers inject letters onto its screen, into its files, and eventually up to the cloud. It’s just my den—I’ve seen it a million times before. The couch, the chairs, the bookcases, the art on the walls, the ceiling fan spinning. But I’ve never seen them while writing—not this directly, anyway. The Freewrite almost feels like an en plein air field easel, but for words rather than pigments. I can look at what I am writing about, without looking back and forth to the screen on which I would write it.

I feel headless. Blind, almost. I’m typing—writing, I should call it, but it doesn’t feel that way—on nothing whatsoever. This is a device that truly earns the name “cloud,” for it makes me feel as if I am floating.

It is a different kind of emancipation than merely eschewing online distractedness. Unfortunately, it’s also an aspect of the Freewrite that has been downplayed as the device made its way from prototype to Kickstarter campaign to manufactured product. When I signed up for Astruhaus’s crowdfunding campaign a year and a half ago, they were calling the gadget the Hemingwrite. It was an obvious riff on the lucid and unadorned prose of the American novelist, the sure and unfettered individualism of the writer of True Sentences overtaking the anxiety and uncertainty of the Internet-connected, hipster-neurotic, Brooklyn-based writer. There were good reasons to change the name, not the least of which is its unnecessary coupling to a machismo that’s long outlived its usefulness in writer’s circles of all kinds.

Nevertheless, it’s still bittersweet to have abandoned Papa as namesake. Like Thoreau in the 19th century, in the 20th Hemingway had made writing a kind of living, and living a kind of writing. Deliberate, individual, slow, strong, lonely, powerful. Words maturing in the mind’s warm pupa, before fluttering into the cool air via the chrysalis we nickname “the writing process.” A few hundred true words a day, before the trauma of war wounds gave way to the pallor of drink.

Alas and thank goodness, those days are over. The Hemingwrite would have been doomed to romantic nostalgia, as if there really ever was a time when writers just wrote, even in the sticky heat of nonchalant, mid-century prosperity. Not to mention the fact that Hemingway wrote his first drafts longhand anyway! Today, the Freewrite can never really escape the delight and the prison of writing in the time of the Internet.

Perhaps it’s only possible to understand the state of contemporary writing—fiction or nonfiction, thinkpiece or memoir—after having looked awry at the written word through the distorted lens of the Freewrite. Contra Hemingway, and despite the stereotype of online clickbait and quick-hits, ordinary writing has become complex, latticed, always looking out rather than in. For all the clever bluster I worked up above about the effects of offline authorship, they’re just there for effect, precious one-offs that only work in a story about a writing device that precludes incorporating on-the-fly research. But when used normally, Freewrite drafts just become Word documents, ready to be encrusted with the links and details and embeds of the contemporary Internet Baroque. Hemingway’s one true sentence is long gone. In its place, the default aesthetic of stories, novels, and Internet thinkpieces alike has become that of the perfectly-overwritten adolescent television character, where wittiness and acrimony appear to flow together fluently like soft-serve twist, rather than having been ventriloquized by a room of puppeteers behind the scenes. Merely going offline to write on a small-batch smart typewriter will hardly change the aesthetics of reading and writing. Nobody writes without cribbing.

* * *

For now, the Freewrite is a design fiction more than it is a product. Like a prop in a Wes Anderson film, it straddles our world and an imaginary world. It’s a pastiche of the real and imagined past and present, but a real one rather than a fictional one. Hemingwrite was never the right name, but neither is “free” the right word to describe the confluence of feelings this delightful device invokes. It would have been better called the DeLillograph, after Don DeLillo’s convincing accounts of our contemporary sun-kissed dystopias. Freewrite, a usable writing device that’s also a critique of the system of writing itself.

There’s an old aphorism about writing that goes: Real writers write with the mind, not with the fingers. Actually it’s not an old aphorism, I just made it up right now and I can’t check if anyone’s said something similar because I left my phone in the house. But out here, sitting on the lawn with the Freewrite in my lap, the sun peering in and out of the clouds, I can almost believe that I might yet write with my head—or even with my soul. This is a soulful gadget, and in this time of dumb smartwhatevers, even if that’s all it is wouldn’t it be enough?

The feeling dissipates, of course, when I switch on the device’s Wi-Fi, press send, and turn all these words into bits awaiting their transformation into #content. I put the Freewrite in standby mode, and a screensaver overtakes its e-ink display: an unidentifiable galaxy with moons and planets and a rocket, superimposed by the mouthless, noseless head of a 1960s mutton-chopped figure. It’s Isaac Asimov, a figure with whom I feel exactly zero personal affinity as a writer (even if some considerable admiration as a reader). Other idle screens depict Agatha Christie and Edgar Allan Poe—likewise inspiring, but in a time that only further proves how different writing has become. The small display area beneath that normally shows the time or the current draft’s word count now reads, “Set your story free.” Alas, the ghosts of writing past still haunt the Freewrite. As if anyone even knows what their story is, anymore.

Back at the computer, I retrieve, assemble, and edit my Freewrite drafts into this article. The copy is a hot mess: full of typos I didn’t bother to backspace and correct, split across a handful of weirdly-named files, tiny and unstyled on-screen, pock-marked with double-hyphens and straight-quotes. The drunken feeling has worn off, but the words still feel like the ones you write when drunk.

The black-and-white world of Freewrite’s e-ink screen gives way to the reds and yellows and blues of Mail and Slack and Twitter and all the rest, and the truth of writing today becomes clear to me: writing is both enhanced and ruined by computers. Actually, everything is both enhanced and ruined by computers. Isn’t it reasonable that the solution to this paradox would involve neither the unrepentant embrace of digital life, nor its curt rejection either? The Freewrite offers another model: one where writing becomes an activity that has computers in it, rather than an activity that takes place inside computers. Maybe—hopefully—this is the future. And not just for writing, but for everything else, too.