The Slow Fade of Meatspace

When will this Internet thing catch on?

When the New York Police Department revealed last year that it had spent nearly $1 million on typewriters over the course of a year, commentators mocked the two-fingered flatfoots for wasting scarce resources on obsolete machines.

“The city is plunking down nearly $1 million on typewriters for its keystroke cops,” the New York Post wrote in a story headlined “Typewrite & Wrong: NYPD ‘wastes’ $1M on relics.” Gothamist said, “It’s looking like robots could rule the subways before the NYPD ditches its last Selectric.” Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg expressed astonishment, telling reporters, “Why are they using any is the question you should ask, and where do you find them?…I didn’t think anybody made them anymore.”

But maybe New York’s Finest were ahead of the curve. While business experts, futurists and most of the media are out to convince you of the game-changing power of new communication technology, one important technical feature of the 21st century has been the persistence of really old-fashioned ways.

Think about this: We live in an age of deserted shopping malls and online sales of nearly everything. Brick-and-mortar retail stalwarts such as Tower Records, Sharper Image, and Mervyn’s have vanished; Blockbuster lingers in isolation like a Japanese soldier who doesn’t know the war is over. Just a decade ago, behemoth bookstore chains were being vilified for driving independent stores out of business (there was even a Hollywood movie about it with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan); now the only question is whether Borders or Barnes & Noble will die first. The physical book itself, object of a thousand years of quasi-religious veneration, may be passing into history as e-reader users rapidly lose their taste for paper.

So what percentage of retail business in the United States would you say is done online? In my world, where people seem to be using their iPads to buy new Kindles, the answer feels like 90 percent, and certainly no lower than 60 percent. Maybe you run with a more old-school crowd, but the figure must be at least 20 percent, right?

Wrong. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a mere 3.8 percent of retail business in the United States falls under the rubric of “e-commerce.” Some analysts say this figure is an underestimate, but even the broadest definitions put e-commerce at no more than 8 percent of total U.S. retail.

True, e-commerce is nothing to sneeze at, with revenues of nearly $140 billion in 2009, according to the Census Bureau. But we’re almost two decades into the commercial Internet, and for a good 15 years the conventional wisdom has been that if you are not devoting 100 percent of your efforts to digital transactions you are moments away from becoming a bump on a deer caught in the headlights of a horse and buggy. How can the Internet still be playing such a small part in our lives?

“These trends take decades to play out,” says Jim Friedland, a researcher covering the Internet and new media for the investment bank Cowen and Company. “We are definitely seeing a secular trend toward e-commerce based on convenience and the likelihood that you’ll pay less if you buy online. On other hand, this growth can seem faster than it is. If you asked people whether they’re going to buy an iPad, you’d think the per capita sales would be two and Apple would sell 600 million by the end of this year. Obviously, that’s not going to happen.”

Since the Census Bureau began keeping track, e-commerce’s share of the retail pie has grown at about 0.1 percent each quarter, but the rate can vary greatly by sector. Sales of automobiles are not highly susceptible to replacement; online grocery shopping, a fad that peaked during the dot-com boom but lingers in some big cities, may never take the place of supermarkets. But even areas ripe for electronic replacement grow only gradually. Despite the popularity of Amazon’s Kindle e-reader, Friedland estimates more than 90 percent of the company’s book sales are still on old-fashioned paper.

If you relish tactile experience and the charm of old technologies, it may be a relief to learn that analog modes are refusing to go quietly—or even in some cases gaining a second wind. Robin Hemley is the editor of Defunct, an online magazine dedicated to “reviews of everything that has had its day: defunct magazines, defunct technologies, defunct theories, defunct fads, etc.” He notes that the death trend is not so simple. “The notion of defunctness may be defunct,” he says. “In a way everything is preserved now because of the Internet.”

This interplay between what old timers used to call cyberspace and meatspace is one of the signatures of our time. In the early days of eBay (which itself has been facing fairly severe market pressures lately), the company’s flacks cooked up a story that founder Pierre Omidyar had started the site to help his fiancée build her collection of old Pez dispensers. The fake story had an element of truth: Thanks to the Net, every old thing lives forever. Rhonda Vigeant, co-owner of Super 8 Sound—a Burbank-based business that provides comprehensive sales and service for the allegedly antiquated technology of Super 8 film—says the company’s sales have been growing during the last 10 years. About 1,000 professional filmmaking projects use Super 8 Sound every year. 

Even the humble, mockable typewriter continues to clatter along. Ed Michael, sales manager for the Moonachie, New Jersey–based Swintec (which provides the NYPD with its machines), says his company recently discovered a growth sector in selling clear plastic typewriters to correctional facilities. Swintec had more sales in 2009 than it did in 2008, many of which were executed through the company’s website. 

Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (bigtimcavanaugh@gmail.com) is a writer in Los Angeles. His site simpleton.com is made with handcrafted html and a quality guarantee of no dynamically generated pages.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Suki||

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  • ||

    +1
    Maybe if it was a "Good Morning Reason" along with something of value it wouldn't be an eyesore at the top of the comments section every time

  • ||

    Related note to the article, sure NYPD spent $1 million, supposedly on typewriters. Anyone actually go see if they really bought $1 million worth of typewriters?

  • ||

    I still have my Olympia "portable" (all 22 pounds of it). Fine Cold War West German craftsmanship and it still smells great. The ribbon, the lubricating oils...computers have no smell. They are sterile, bloodless. They have no soul.

  • Suki||

    My computer smells pretty. Accidentally shooting it with perfume can do that.

  • ||

    My Olympia could kick your pansy computer's ass.

  • Brett L||

    But you have to turn the feed knob so fast to watch porn...

  • ||

    And the carriage is a little sticky.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Typewriters have blood and souls?
    They are way more advanced than computers.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    IF they really bought typewriters, it makes sense to me. Taxpayers don't need to be paying for expensive internet machines for bureaucops when all they need is a simple word processor to fill out forms and shit. Also, the cop cars should be front wheel drive, with an AM radio, crank windows, and heat but not air conditioning.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    And muzzle-load guns.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    Except that typewriters take like 10x as long to use as computers and none of the records would be kept digitally - which conveniently slows down EVERY other process within dealing with the cops.

    It's already bad enough where tickets and the like aren't processed in a lot of places for weeks after issuance and where their systems are notorious for either "losing" data or simply not sharing it with all departments.

  • ||

    Agreed. Yeah, they don't need $2k multimedia machines for each officer...but a $400 word processing PC makes plenty of sense for improving the handling of information.

  • ||

    I'm typing this on a laptop that cost considerably less than $1K.

    Considering the cost of employing one police officer for one year, including benefits and pensions, even a minimal increase in productivity would quickly pay for the cost of computer over a typewriter.

    Assuming the typewriters were even bought, this smacks of union job protectionism wasting vast sums of money.

  • Colonel_Angus||

    If we could shift the responsibility to the cops, lost records is a feature I could get behind. No record, no fine, etc.

  • Sean W. Malone||

    Good luck with that.

  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Huh. I figured Cavanaugh had been fired or something.

  • mr simple||

    But maybe New York’s Finest were ahead of the curve.

    So are you going to write another article where you actually defend this statement or justify the cops' purchase?

  • Christopher Carr||

    "Blockbuster lingers in isolation like a Japanese soldier who doesn’t know the war is over."

    It's interesting you say that, because video, DVD, and videogame rental are alive and thriving in Japan.

    Read this:

    http://www.theinductive.com/ch.....store.html

  • Fluffy||

    Blockbuster lingers in isolation like a Japanese soldier who doesn’t know the war is over.

    That's a really good line. I wish I had written it.

    On the topic at hand: For many people at or below the median household income, food and clothes are 50%-70% of their "retail purchases". Those can never really be replaced by online shopping, as the article notes in passing. But that means that we really shouldn't include that chunk of retail when measuring internet market penetration.

    About the typewriters: I'm surprised you missed a chance to talk about WHY this technology is "persisting" at the NYPD, when it persists virtually nowhere else. I bet if you investigated it, you would discover that it's because you have a government bureaucracy dominated by a union, and that creates a combination of management that doesn't want to change procedures or design new forms and faces no market pressure to do so, and an aging workforce that doesn't want to learn new procedures and also faces no market pressure to do so. This particular technological "persistence" is veru likely the result of the fact that governments are under very little pressure to modernize when they can just make taxpayers foot the bill for their inefficiency.

  • Almanian||

    Doh! Beat me to it!

  • ||

    Frankly, it might help the cause of liberty if government bodies were constitutionally prevented from using computers.

  • Ryan M||

    Would you really like the number of IRS employees to go up by 50X? That would cost a lot more money, and put a lot more people on the dole.

  • ||

    Obviously, such a thing is impossible, but if we forbade the government use of computers, while we still had them, I think we'd come out way ahead.

    I suppose we could allow the military to keep computers, to prevent becoming totally obsolete, but that's it.

    A compromise might be to allow the government to use computers no more powerful than what was available in, say, 1980. Internet access is right out.

  • Ryan M||

    I fully agree with your sentiment, but it's wildly impractical. I can't think of any way to constrain their computer use to "legitimate" functions that wouldn't also totally cripple them (and make it more expensive too). For instance, I like being able to do my taxes online, and I like being able to email my reps to complain about issues. Maybe we could just limit their hard drive size or something, so they can't collect to much data about us?

  • ||

    "I suppose we could allow the military to keep computers, to prevent becoming totally obsolete, but that's it."

    There you have created a government incentive to somehow connect every last function to the military so that they can use computers. By the way, when you bought that cup of coffee at the corner shop this morning, it was interstate commerce. Trust us.

  • Almanian||

    "Blockbuster lingers in isolation like a Japanese soldier who doesn’t know the war is over."

    ...is one awesome phrase

  • Colonel_Angus||

    Its a cliche.

  • Almanian||

    But it's an awesome cliche

  • Almanian||

    And when will the people being serviced by the Big Food Barge be able to place an interwebs order? THAT'S the next big thing..

  • ||

    Occasionally writing on a manual typewriter keeps my carpal tunnel at bay (and might have even permanently cured it since it hasn't come back in a decade.) Maybe the typewriters are therapeutic.

  • ||

    If nothing else, they make you a better typist. Corrections* are a hassle.

    * For you kiddies out there, a "correction" means applying a kind of white paint over the typo (if you notice the typo) and then waiting for it to dry, manually backspacing to the exact place of the error, and carefully retyping the word, usually with one finger so you don't make another mistake.

  • Jozef||

    Amateur... Us real typists use correction papers. You simply back up to the spot you mistyped, place the correction paper in front of the spot, the white side facing it, and hit the letter you want to remove. Neat removal, no mess and no waiting for drying. I have a dispenser for those correction slips glued to the side of my typewriter.

  • ||

    O brave new world, that has such correction papers in it!

  • Fluffy||

    Most decent electric typewriters had correction tape built in. You hit the special key to bring the carriage up, and then you could type over your error.

  • LarryA||

    But that doesn't fix the carbon copies.

  • ||

    The wisdom is strong with this one.

  • JohnD||

    Real typists don't make mistakes...
    (OK, that's a joke)

  • Alan Vanneman||

    "Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (bigtimcavanaugh@gmail.com) is a writer in Los Angeles. His site simpleton.com is made with handcrafted html and a quality guarantee of no dynamically generated pages."

    You didn't tell me that simpleton.com was like poetry. Please, don't do that again.

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    Poetry? Coming from a soulless pestilence such as yourself is truly the apex of arrogance and irony. How could such an unenlightened brute as yourself ever hope to consider the accomplishment of poetry? You are common, sir. Simply common.

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    Yeah, well at least my first isn't, you know, Percy. Oh, and my middle name isn't, you know, Bysshe. Get a life, dude. Get a fucking life.

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  • ||

    The Segway market seems very similar to the typewriter market: bureaucracies.

  • ||

    don't forget overweight campus police! my biggest market

  • Rich||

    a growth sector in selling clear plastic typewriters to correctional facilities

    Is that because the inmates communicate with invisible ink?

  • jtuf||

    A website can still contribute to brick and mortar sales. I don't like to use a credit card online, and I prefer to see an item in real life before buying it. When I need a book, I look for it on the Barnes and Nobel website, call the local store to order it, and buy it in person when the book arrives. This sytem can work great for most products.

  • ||

    An acquaintance of mine, a compulsive shopper of useless gadgets and quackeries, uses this method: He shops from paper catalogs mailed to him by the Postal Service, then calls the businesses and orders by phone, tediously stating product codes, shipping address, credit card numbers...every other order gets screwed up, but his paranoia defeats what little common sense he possesses.

  • ||

    The concern for safety on the interwebs correlates pretty well with age. Internet penetration has probably made most of its great leap forward and will slowly and completely dominate individual sectors as older generations die off.

  • ||

    And as younger generations lose the ability to make letters and numbers with a pen.

  • ||

    Or the ability to write coherent sentences, without some kind of ;) thing on the end.

  • #||

    I suspect that they use old fashioned typewriters because they still use old fashioned forms with carbon paper that requires an impact to transfer the typing to the other page.

  • ChrisG||

    Really Tim?

    So we're now cheerleading luddites and labor unions?

    -----

    Thomas Brookside wrote:
    "...it's because you have a government bureaucracy dominated by a union, and that creates a combination of management that doesn't want to change procedures or design new forms and faces no market pressure to do so, and an aging workforce that doesn't want to learn new procedures and also faces no market pressure to do so. This particular technological "persistence" is veru likely the result of the fact that governments are under very little pressure to modernize when they can just make taxpayers foot the bill for their inefficiency."

    Pound added:
    "I suspect that they use old fashioned typewriters because they still use old fashioned forms with carbon paper that requires an impact to transfer the typing to the other page."

    -----

    The entire premise is also absurd.

    Nearly everything you buy at retail was first bought wholesale -- what percentage of that was handled digitally?

    And at retail, over half of all brick-and-mortar purchases are first researched for features and price comparison online. Consumer research that removes friction from face-to-face transactions have brought incalculable efficiencies into the economy.

    Like the rantings of some cantankerous old curmudgeon.

    I can only chalk this up as provocative link-bait.

    This article is just absurd on so many different levels.

  • Jozef||

    Anecdotal evidence from yours truly: The more digitized my usage becomes, the less I consume. Two examples:

    1. Ever since I was forced to switch to digital TV, I watch much less TV. That's because instead of channel surfing and eventually settling on one option, I have access to a listing of all current shows, and can make a much better decision what to watch or not watch.

    2. Ever since I started purchasing books on Amazon, I became much more selective what to buy. That's because instead of just a book cover and maybe leafing through the book, I can now read user reviews and make a much better purchasing decision. I usually browse the books section once per week, and end up buying something once every two months. When I used to go to Borders, I rarely left without a new book.

  • TP||

    Correctional facilities also have clear plastic TVs. Don't ask me how I know that.

    A property manager that I deal with has an IBM typewriter. It's broken, and she said she can't find anyone to repair it. She writes me checks by hand. All the other checks come from the main office. She has a computer, but only uses it to email the main office with the information for writing the checks. How fucked up is that?

  • ||

    food and clothes are 50%-70% of their "retail purchases". Those can never really be replaced by online shopping,

    Food? No. Clothes? Oh, yes. Mrs. Dean and I both buy a lot of a lot of our clothes online. Better selection and better prices. The smarter retailers have free (I know, I know, its really built in to the purchase price) return shipping, which makes it much easier, because you do return a fair amount of clothes you buy online.

  • ||

    Random Manual Typewriter Trivia: Philip K. Dick could type 120 minutes on a manual typewriter. Methamphetamines were involved, but that's still impressive.

  • ||

    Random keyboard trivia: the longest word you can spell with the top row of keys is "typewriter".

  • Brett L||

    Is that 120 wpm or he could go for 2 hours without stopping?

  • ||

    WPM. Whereas I cannot type at all.

  • ||

    You know, it's possible that the NYPD took a look at their procedures and decided that they needed to replace all their typewriters and could either spend $1 million to purchase 2000 or so of them or spend $100 million to replace them all with a totally new computer based system that may not have actually saved them any time...

  • ||

    Don't be his porn.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Perhaps, but $500 for a typewriter is overpaying by at least $400 per.

  • ||

    Agreed, but I'd assume some overpayment and who knows exactly how many they may have ordered.

    Either way, the yearly budget for the NYPD is nearly $4 billion so it's kind of small potatoes.

  • Fluffy||

    Dude, I absolutely GUARANTEE YOU that they are spending more in personnel costs to have someone file carbon copies and retrieve the information when they need it than the computer system would cost. They just don't want to change because, well, police file specialists need jobs.

    Yes, computer systems are expensive. But in the private sector everyone bought them anyway, because they're still cheaper than people. This is less of a concern when your aim is to continue to employ people to perform obsolete jobs.

  • Fiscal Meth||

    Is it also possible that private companies all shifted to computer technology decades ago and continue using it today in an ongoing attempt to go bankrupt by wasting money on useless gadgets? Or maybe computers pay for themselves quickly as Fluffy explained.

  • ||

    Bah. They shoulda just wasted more money and converted their old typewriters to USB typewriters.

  • ||

    I had to scan all the way to the end of the comments thread to see that you had beaten me to this one. That's just cruel and inhuman.

  • ||

    "Wrong. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a mere 3.8 percent of retail business in the United States falls under the rubric of “e-commerce.”

    Are you sure they are including all my porn subscriptions?

  • ||

    This strange article appropriately begins by criticizing the NYPD for using typewriters, but then segues into a story about e-commerce. The issue with the NYPD is informatics, not commerce. The police should be storing, tagging, and cross-referencing their files electronically. They should not be typing them and putting them into file cabinets or desk drawers. If hard copies are needed, there are devices called printers that can generate them. I find it bizarre that one of the largest police forces in the nation is computer-phobic.

  • ||

    I had to laugh as I used my computer to record the audio version of this article onto cassette tape so I could listen to the whole thing at work on my walkman. True story.

  • ||

    well, maybe they got typewriters because there is no way to record every keystroke and they have a lot of covering up to do... they are cops, after all, and I have yet to find an honest one who is still a cop.

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