How Returning to a Low Tech Life Might Just Keep You Sane

low tech writer book cover

David Maddalena /

There is something about the $1 billion purchase of Instagram by Facebook that has got me down. Not because it was an absurd purchase price, or because of what might happen with community-oriented Instagram now that it's been bought by a mass-audience-corporate-angled Facebook, nor for any number of reasons many others are chatty over or nervous about or downright up in arms around it. But it's that fact that has me down -- that fact that it has been such a substantial part of our cultural conversation since it happened. The fact that the purchase of an image-sharing app was bought by a social-networking website is such world-shaking news... that has me down.

Why did the purchase happen? What will happen now? Why does it all matter? How will it change image sharing and social networking and money and income and future apps and...

These are indeed big questions and the fact that they are big questions gets to me. Today we have the documentation of life at a rapid-fire pace that it is almost as much a race to get followers and likes and hearts and validation by strangers that we did something worthwhile with four minutes of our day, as it is enthusiastic about capturing and sharing moments as they happen. Between this and the noise (and serious copyright problems) created by Pinterest, and watching how quickly tablet devices are changing functions of daily life from perusing magazines to checking out at the cash register, and the use of smartphones to know exactly where someone is at any given moment and how close they are to a certain restaurant and how many stars that restaurant has from Yelp reviewers.... between all this I find myself more than ever wanting to throw my iPhone out the window and slam it shut to quiet the din of "new-next-generation,break-through, game-changer, nothing-will-ever-be-the-same-again, aaaahhhhh".

As if reading my screaming mind, David Maddalena's book "(low) tech writer" has hit the press. It's nice to find a book where you're smiling and saying, "I think so too" through the whole thing. Maddalena is not anti-tech, and neither am I. We both are thankful for our laptops and wouldn't want to give them up, along with a wealth of other technological advancements. But we also both want to see more appreciation for the low-tech things in life. A recognition of the beauty of simpler things, things made to last, and whose functionality and relevance never die. A love of the just-right tool rather than a lust for the latest. And that's what this book is: a collection of essays documenting the low tech tools, places, and ideas in Maddalena's life and why those things have meaning.

Something about this book just fits everything that's been going through my head, like a glass of water on a small fire. It is made of paper and came via snail mail. It has an image of (gasp) pens and pencils on the front. It begs to be read slowly, with my cell phone on silent, or better yet, turned off. In the spirit of slowing down for this low tech book, I took full minutes to look through the copyright and table of contents alone. Then, I turned to the introduction and sighed into the text.

Living La Vida Low Tech

remington typewriter
 Anthony Albright / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.

Maddalena celebrates everything from typewriters to toothbrushes to trails for walking in the wild. He has a knack for making fun of us for falling for the newfangled, the designed-for-a-problem-we-didn't-really-have gadgets and the original versions that worked just fine and still work just fine, whether it is toothpaste or a frying pan, or kids toys or shaving razors. This book is as much about our silliness as a species (if you choose to read it that way) as it is about the simpler things in life.

What is wonderful, too, is that Maddalena manages to capture that newness that old stuff has, when it's old enough -- when an old technology makes us go, "Ooooooooo" again. He notes it with typewriters:

This is a place to get your fix for beautiful mechanical writing machines. This is where you remember why a keystroke is called a key-stroke. There is no tap-tap with these machines: here it's stroke, slap, ka-chunk. Key, plunger, hinge, lever, spring, embossed hammer slapping ink-impregnated ribbon against paper, making an impression. An impression. Say it with me. This is not an image squirted onto paper; this is no mere print, like you get out of the cheap plastic box that shares space under your computer with the dust bunnies and has a lifespan shorter than a hamster.
No. Not a print, but a press. These machines are one-digit-at-a-time printing presses; all steel, and oil, and ink. Yes.

Makes you want to go check out an antique typewriter and press a key, doesn't it? Makes you want to hear that sound. To analyze the design and engineering of such a machine and be amazed at the work that went into crafting it. At the fact that it still functions 100 years later. It is, truly, wonderful.

pentax camera photo
 Aston / Flickr

This passage reminded me of my first experience with a "real" camera. I'd been given an inexpensive Nikon point-n-shoot as a kid that I'd used for years. It made just the faintest click when you pressed the button and then a vaguely mechanical whirring sound as the film advanced. It was a new technology. I got used to that tiny click and whirr, so when I was a teenager and decided I wanted to get a fully manual camera and bought a vintage SLR, I was amazed at the sounds it made. I took the very-old-but-new-to-me Pentax to my aunt and said, "Listen." I pushed down the shutter release and we heard the clack-clack as the mirror flipped up and down and the shutter flapped open and shut again. Heavy. Well-built. No whirring as there was no automatic film-advance. We looked at each other and said, "Oooh, it sounds like a real camera." It'd been so long since she (and never for me) had handled a camera made to last, with simple parts. No cheap plastic pieces, no "auto" functions. No matter how fancy or convenient our cell phone cameras may get, I will always, always hold a soft spot for vintage SLR cameras.

Low Tech Life, Not Just Low Tech Stuff

Not only does Maddalena take note of things, but also the intangibles, like silence. Like making something yourself. Like the smell of winter. Like the ability to tie a good knot. Simple things that we seem to be less and less aware of as they are harder to find.

Maddalena writes:

I love it when the power goes out. I'm not immune to the inconvenience: I am a computer user after all (note that I don't publish these essays on parchment paper)... But if the power does go out, I will save my work, fold my laptop up, and revel in the silence and the dark... To light candles and just be in the beautiful glow of little flames and listen to the subtle, natural sounds... It's a little unplanned vacation from modernity. I am glad for the conveniences of electricity. But there are always consequences that result from our tireless pursuit of convenience.

The consequences too often include the creation of crap, mountains of unrecyclable plasti-crap, or toxic electronic crap that is outdated in 18 months. What would happen if we slowed down if we used tools that fill a need that isn't manufactured by advertisers if we appreciated the long-lasting craftsmanship of those tools? I venture a guess: We'd probably be every bit as happy as we think we are with modern "conveniences."

While Maddalena doesn't really knock high tech stuff, he makes the point through his essays that being pro-low-tech as much as one is pro-high-tech can go a long way to keep you sane and squarely in reality. Don't throw your 2-year-old computer out the window, but give a little appreciation to that ultra-simple wood-handled pocket knife has stuck around for 45 years.

"(Low) Tech Writer" is a fantastic celebration of the simple, and if you would like to spend a little time reveling in your favorite, simple things, I recommend picking up Maddalena's book, or at the very least, visiting the website on which these essays live.