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Article from the New Yorker Magazine: Can "Distraction Free" Devices change the way we write

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

The digital age enabled productivity but invited procrastination. Now writers are rebelling against their word processors.

By Julian Lucas/New Yorker Magazine

For a long time, I believed that my only hope of becoming a professional writer was to find the perfect tool. A few months into my career as a book critic, I’d already run up against the limits of my productivity, and, like many others before me, I pinned the blame on Microsoft Word. Each time I opened a draft, I seemed to lose my bearings, scrolling from top to bottom and alighting on far-flung sentences at random. I found and replaced, wrote and rewrote; the program made fiddling easy and finishing next to impossible. I’d fallen into the trap that the philosopher Jacques Derrida identified in an interview from the mid-nineties. “With the computer, everything is rapid and so easy,” he complained. “An interminable revision, an infinite analysis is already on the horizon.” Derrida hadn’t even contended with the sirens of online life, which were driving writer friends to buy disconnected laptops or to quarantine their smartphones in storage bins with timed locks. Zadie Smith touted Freedom, a subscription service that cut off the user’s devices—a chastity belt for procrastinators. I tried “distraction-free” writing apps that encouraged mindfulness, disabled the backspace key, or, in a few extreme cases, threatened to delete everything if I took my hands off the keyboard (Write or Die). Later, I tried coding my own writing tools, a hobby as rewarding as it was ineffective. The experiments gradually meshed into a literary Rube Goldberg machine, a teetering assemblage of Scriveners and SimpleTexts that left me perpetually uncertain of which thought I’d written down where. Longhand was a luxury I couldn’t afford: Wendell Berry boasted in Harper’s that he didn’t need a computer, because he had a wife, but I was a mere urban freelancer, whose boyfriend had a job. So I continued the search for word processing’s Excalibur, a perfect union of consciousness and composition. Then, in the late twenty-teens, focussed writing tools started cropping up everywhere. Distraction-free text editors stormed the productivity section of the Apple Store. The Times recommended a Tom Hanks-sponsored typewriter simulation for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). A Detroit company Kickstarted a “smart” typewriter that cost more than five hundred dollars. The movement seemed to crest in the first months of the pandemic, as writers newly intimate with the routines of spouses and roommates—or with their own restlessness—sought peace with newfound desperation. I was suddenly deluged with ads for “the world’s thinnest tablet,” which promised not only to replace pen and paper but to help you “Get Your Brain Back.” The company’s Lovecraftian promotional ad, which has racked up nearly three million views, begins with a hissing demon-child clinging to her iPad and proceeds through an animated hellscape complete with attention-sucking brain tubes and notifications circling like sharks. The narrator quavers an ominous warning: “We have to modify technology, or else it will modify us.” The tools of writing have seldom been designed with writers in mind. Most early cuneiform inscriptions were works of accounting, not poetry; a few millennia later, typewriters sprang to success largely as aids to clerical work. Even so, new inventions have always influenced literary production, as Friedrich Nietzsche, who struggled with a semi-spherical typewriter, once lyrically observed: “The writing ball is a thing like me: made of / iron / yet easily twisted on journeys.” Few advances have twisted us more than word processing. Matthew Kirschenbaum’s “Track Changes” (2016), a study of the technology’s advent, notes that the first mass-market writing software promised to emancipate writers from the inconveniences of revision: cutting and pasting with scissors, retyping drafts to fix typos, and losing entire manuscripts in the mail. “Writing on glass” swept America between the late nineteen-seventies, when personal computers first became widely available, and the mid-eighties, when writing with them became the norm. Kirschenbaum uses Stephen King’s fiction to dramatize the transition. Where King’s novel “The Shining” (1977) linked killing sprees to typewriter drudgery, his story “Word Processor of the Gods” (1983) featured an author made omnipotent by software, which he uses to delete his bingo-addicted wife. The magic faded with the universal adoption of word processing, especially after the “word wars” of the early nineties, when Microsoft Word, having shoved aside WordStar and WordPerfect to attain a ninety-per-cent share of the market, was, as Kirschenbaum writes, “fully naturalized as the No. 2 pencil of the digital age.” Google Docs has since challenged its dominance, but the consolidation of writing technology has only continued. These days, we don’t just write, revise, and lay out our work in one program; if so inclined, we can go all the way from gathering research to monitoring reception without leaving our browsers. (Medium, a writing app that is also a publishing platform and a social-media network, represents the logical extreme of this vertical integration.) Some thrive on the streaming of a previously sequential process; for others, it’s like being forced to write with an Instant Pot. Could the new wave of Zen editors and e-ink tablets, tempering tech solutionism with analog nostalgia, reverse this trajectory—and give writers a dedicated device of our own? My first experiment with focussed writing was iA Writer, a minimalist word processor designed by the Swiss-Japanese firm Information Architects. I bought it in 2014, when I was starting research for a college thesis in literature, supervised by a charismatic graduate student with perfect handwriting who warned me that I spent too much time revising my work. He encouraged me to start writing each day without looking at what I’d written the day before—advice I followed about as effectively as Lot’s wife. If I was ever going to stop rewriting opening paragraphs, it would take more than a commandment. The main feature of iA Writer is not having many features. The program is, essentially, a white rectangle, where the user can do little else but type in a custom monospaced font. There are no headers, footers, drawing tools, or chatty paper-clip assistants. The bare-bones interface uses special characters in a simple formatting language called Markdown to bold, italicize, or otherwise transform text—a way of encouraging writers to keep their hands on the keyboard and their minds on their work. The app’s key innovation is “focus mode,” an option that vertically centers the sentence or paragraph being written and grays out everything else. The feature sounded silly when I described it to friends—like horse blinders for writers. Soon after installing it, though, I became an evangelist. My anxieties about how much had yet to be written, cut, revised, or restructured evaporated with everything else that wasn’t the sentence onscreen. The program’s mobile version, which synched files over the cloud, allowed me to write anywhere—bathrooms, crowded subway cars—with meditative ease, as though I were carrying a small study in my pocket. The impact was as much emotional as functional. With its otherworldly blankness, iA Writer created the illusion of leaving life’s mess for an ideal realm of words. “Plato says that philosophy starts with wondering,” Oliver Reichenstein, the Swiss developer who created iA Writer, told me during a recent Zoom. “And I was wondering, Why is Microsoft Word as it is? And why does it feel so bad?” Reichenstein first had the idea for a focussed word processor in the early nineties, while teaching high-school composition to earn extra money as a graduate student in Basel. He noticed that his students were distracted by the fonts, macros, and superfluous menus in Word; at the same time, he was struggling with the suffocatingly dense layout of his philosophy texts. He began to study typography, then quit Switzerland for Tokyo. In 2005, he founded Information Architects, where he advised media companies on their Web sites—his clients included Wikipedia and Condé Nast—before releasing iA Writer, in 2010. VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKER Surfing on Kelly Slater’s Machine-Made Wave “I just wanted to have a writing app that did one thing right, and that’s writing,” Reichenstein told me. “I didn’t care if anyone was interested or not in buying it—I just felt it was needed.” He drew inspiration from mechanical typewriters, especially for the app’s focus mode and signature font. While most books are typeset using proportionate typography, allotting each character space in accordance with its width, monospaced fonts give each character, whether a lowly period or an initial capital, an equal span. “When you write in a monospaced font, you get a feeling of moving forward,” Reichenstein said. “Even if you don’t click away like crazy, you feel that your text is growing.” His biggest priority, though, was eliminating the agony of choice, the paralysis of “Preferences.” In an early promotional video, a space invader attacks Microsoft Word, strafing icons and toolbars until only a white rectangle with a blinking blue caret remains. The app was surprisingly successful, landing a coveted spot as an “Editor’s Pick” at the Apple Store. Though some users demanded more features, Reichenstein confidently ignored them; in the world of distraction-free writing, the customer is most certainly not always right. Today, iA Writer has more than half a million active users, mostly designers, programmers, and journalists. It has also spawned numerous copycats and competitors, from blatant ripoffs like iWriter to more fully featured Markdown editors like Ulysses and Bear. The ultimate compliment was Microsoft’s rollout, in 2011, of a “focus mode” for Word, which Reichenstein dismisses as “hilarious”; its only improvement, he said, is to “put away all the toolbars.” The feature vanishes with a touch of the Escape key. Other rivals attempt not only to eliminate distraction but to reënchant digital writing, dispelling the workaday atmosphere of the digital cubicle. OmmWriter, a “mindful” writing app with lo-fi music and gauzy background visuals, attempts to lull the writer into a creative flow—an experience akin to being trapped inside an inspirational quote. A more rugged alternative is the Tom Hanks-sponsored Hanx Writer, a skeuomorphic indulgence that displays the smartphone keyboard as a vintage typewriter, complete with carriage-return bells. Neither offers much more than a change in atmosphere, but sometimes vibes are enough: here are apps that nobody would use to prepare a memo or an invoice. But focus mode on an everything device is a meditation room in a casino. What good is it to separate writing from editing, formatting, and cluttered interfaces if you can’t separate it from the Internet? Even a disconnected computer offers plenty of opportunities for distraction: old photographs, downloaded music, or, most treacherous of all, one’s own research. And so, just as savvy entrepreneurs have resuscitated the “dumb” phone as a premium single-tasking communication device, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would revive the stand-alone word processor. Released in 2016, the Freewrite Smart Typewriter is a hefty little lunchbox of a machine with a noisy mechanical keyboard and an e-ink display the size of an index card. The user can type and backspace but not much else, and, with the default settings, only ten lines of text are visible at a time. (Even Vladimir Nabokov, who studied butterfly genitalia under a microscope, was less zoomed-in; the famous index cards he used to write “Lolita” had fourteen lines each.) Documents automatically synch to the cloud for later editing; you can try to revise, but—without a mouse, a touch screen, arrow keys, or the ability to select—the only option is to backspace and rewrite, which quickly grows annoying. The writer is conditioned to simply keep going, typos and non sequiturs be damned, and to experience these constraints as a form of liberation: “Set Your Story Free,” the display commands when asleep. Portraits of Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and Isaac Asimov take inspirational turns looming over the injunction. The Freewrite’s creators, Adam Leeb and Patrick Paul, aren’t writers themselves, but they quickly caught on to the appeal of focussed apps for professionals trying and failing to get their words out. Everyone seemed to want to unplug, but without sacrificing the convenience of digital text. After meeting at a Detroit incubator in 2013, the two imagined a machine that would keep writers’ minds off the Internet while maintaining a discreet back channel to the cloud. “People didn’t even need to see what it looked like,” Leeb told me from the company’s office, in Michigan. “They were just, like, ‘Wait, I think I need that.’ ” He and Paul created the Freewrite as a “conceptual piece” for a hardware competition, but when news of the device went viral they decided to establish Astrohaus and manufacture it. Their Kickstarter campaign earned two hundred thousand dollars in the first twenty hours. Now, thousands of units later, Astrohaus has added a miniaturized Freewrite Traveler and a “Hemingwrite” special edition for the writer who quipped that “the first draft of anything is shit.” Leeb tailored the machine to the M.F.A. workshop dictum that you have to get it all down before you can fix it all up. “Anything that was not critical to helping people write more, we just left out,” he said. “You draft top to bottom and then edit later.” He considered omitting the backspace key but decided that would be a step too far. Another consideration was comfort, particularly the reduced eyestrain of e-ink and the tactile feedback of a mechanical keyboard. The final touch was a dash of fancy; Leeb calls the device’s appearance “retrofuturist”—it looks a little like a console torn from the cockpit of a steampunk biplane. “Are we childhood best friends or do we just know too much about each other to break up?” Cartoon by Sarah Akinterinwa Copy link to cartoon Link copied ShopOpen cartoon galleryThe stylized appearance has often been mocked. Mashable described the Freewrite as “pretentious hipster nonsense,” and even enthusiastic reviewers have admitted that they would be embarrassed to use the device in public. The hefty six-hundred-dollar price tag has only reinforced its dilettantish aura. “Oh, you’re gonna buy something that you can replicate by just turning off your Wi-Fi?” Leeb said, paraphrasing the naysayers. “You need to buy this expensive gadget to control yourself?” But he’s found that consumers are increasingly willing to shell out for single-purpose tools. “If you want to be in control of your life, then you have to be in control of the things that you’re interacting with on a daily basis,” he explained. My own trial run with a Freewrite was, if not quite liberation, at least a reprieve from various distractions and loops. To begin this essay, I set it up on a small folding table, a ritual that felt more like getting on a rowing machine than like opening a laptop. It created a boundary: I’d bang out words on the device, then return to the computer to find a draft already waiting, as though it had been filed by someone else for my disinterested consideration. The aluminum body and spring-loaded keys made each word feel weighty and propulsive—an antidote to writing on glass. Perhaps the authors who first used word processors felt emancipated from the typewriter’s linearity, but I began to wonder if they hadn’t been mistaken. Ralph Ellison and Octavia Butler, I learned from Kirschenbaum, never finished the novels they started on computers. “Intensive iteration could create ‘magic,’ ” he writes. “But it could also prove devastating.” The era of touch screens and predictive text has only made it easier to slip and stumble; without friction, we lose our footing. The most venerable form of literary friction may be the scratch of pen on paper. Computers have largely failed to replace the original focussed word processor, which is not only cheap and abundant but uniquely conducive to the forms of spatial thinking—arrows, scribbles, doodles, and diagrams—that writing often demands. Physical mark-making also quickens the memory, which is one reason that handwritten notes are so much easier to recall than their typed equivalents. Yet paper can also fail us in the heat of composition, when the time comes to search notes and splice sentences. The two indispensable systems square off. For years, I’ve switched between them in what can feel like a war of attrition: scribbling until my hand cramps, typing until dazed by the screen, and wasting time with scanners to translate between mediums. Then, in the early days of the pandemic, I began seeing targeted ads for the reMarkable, an e-ink tablet that resembles an A5-size Kindle. The product, created by the thirty-seven-year-old Norwegian developer Magnus Wanberg, was a subtly transformative update of a very old technology. Wanberg, who studied engineering at M.I.T., describes himself as a lifelong “paper person.” Before founding reMarkable, in 2013, he worked at Boston Consulting Group, where he noticed that his colleagues, though surrounded by expensive technology, nearly all took handwritten notes. Wanberg shared their preference, but also found paper messy and difficult to organize. He wondered if there might be a way to digitize the medium without ruining it. “Paper is a five-hundred-year-old invention,” he told me. “Why haven’t we fundamentally improved upon that?” For many years, he knew, e-ink displays were too slow to effectively mimic pen and paper. Waiting half a second for an e-reader to turn the page may not bother anyone, but a pen-stroke lag is enough to break the illusion of writing and disrupt hand-eye coördination. So in 2015, when Wanberg débuted a prototype tablet with a “latency” of only fifty-five milliseconds, it was a major step toward eliminating the “slow-ink problem.” Now, with more than a hundred million dollars in annual revenue, reMarkable has evolved into the most successful enterprise in the world of distraction-free writing. The reMarkable is “digital paper,” a sheet of imitation loose-leaf that approximates the precision, friction, and immediacy of the real thing. Its slightly rough, resin-coated display can detect more than four thousand gradations of pressure, applied using a special stylus equipped with a replaceable nylon felt tip. The device can decipher handwriting in thirty-three languages, according to the manufacturer’s Web site—albeit only by sending it to a secure cloud server. With one button and no apps, it’s a computer disguised as a non-computer: the stick bug of devices. The company’s promotional “Get Your Brain Back” video, a masterpiece of camouflaged advertising, left many commenters asking why an anti-tech manifesto was trying to sell them a tablet. But Wanberg sees no contradiction in fighting gadgets with gadgets. “Can you sit down for three hours and just think about one thing deeply?” he asked me. “Because I can’t. And this device helps me.” A growing cohort of writers agree. The reMarkable evidently has particular appeal for academics—in a survey recently conducted by the company, more than a quarter of users identified as “researchers,” employing it to grade papers, prepare lecture notes, and annotate the scanned book excerpts and journal articles that constitute the lifeblood of academe. (Tressie McMillan Cottom, a MacArthur-winning author and sociologist, is scholarship’s most visible reMarkable influencer. “What writer doesn’t want less?” she asks. The reMarkable “turns off the voices inside the house.”) But to succeed the device will have to fend off a growing number of e-ink competitors, such as Supernote, Papyr, and Onyx, which sells not only tablets but a full-sized e-ink computer monitor. And, with a paper-textured screen cover and an Apple Pencil, even iPad users can mimic the reMarkable experience. Then, there’s the question of its almost four-hundred-dollar price tag. Wanberg dismisses that concern. “The appeal of focussed tools in a very unfocussed world is massive,” he said. “What’s the price of thinking better?” The targeted ads for reMarkable caught me at a vulnerable moment. During lockdown, several publishers stopped mailing physical review copies of forthcoming books—and so, like many other critics, I found myself staring endlessly at PDFs. The eyestrain was terrible; worse, I missed scribbling in the margins, a form of intimate backtalk that no comment bubble could replace. I held out for a few months before my boyfriend and my mother, pitying my long nights with Adobe Acrobat, jointly bought me a second-generation reMarkable. After I received my tablet, it quickly became my preferred way of reading anything that wasn’t in print—and occasionally of drafting articles, which it transcribed with the accuracy of a tipsy stenographer. Ironically, it also helped me address bad habits created by other distraction-free experiments. After years of iA Writer’s myopically zoomed-in sentence highlighting, I’d become a faster and more careful writer, but at the expense, I worried, of my intuitive grasp of a text’s over-all shape. The tablet gave me a fuller view of what I’d already written, without forcing me back on analog inconvenience. Many focus seekers remain skeptical of expensive devices that purport to fix problems created by other expensive devices. When I surveyed writers on Twitter, I was surprised to learn that many were using a stand-alone word processor from the early two-thousands called the AlphaSmart. Originally marketed to schools as a cheap alternative to laptops, they are little more than durable keyboards with built-in LCDs, which, unlike computers, kids couldn’t play games on or easily destroy. The final version, AlphaSmart Neo 2, displays six lines of text at a time, and boasts seven hundred hours of battery life. Although AlphaSmart was discontinued in 2013, the devices, which sell for about sixty dollars on eBay, enjoy a flourishing afterlife among a small but growing cult of “AlphaSmarties,” including journalists, screenwriters, scholars, romance novelists, and NaNoWriMos. Diehards outfit them with backlights, wild paint jobs, and expensive mechanical keyboards; an aspiring horror novelist who likes to write in the dark told me that he wears a headlamp while operating his model. The zealous online community around the device treats it not only as a tool but as a toy or collectible—typewriter mania meets millennial nostalgia for nineties homeroom homeliness. Tracy Clayton, the host of the Netflix podcast “Strong Black Legends,” sent me a picture of her model mid-script at a bar in Brooklyn, next to a glass of rosé. “I just asked my ig friends if they think I’m hipster trash for using it in public,” she wrote to me. “Twenty per cent said yes.” It’s tempting, even for enthusiasts, to dismiss the renaissance of dedicated word-processing hardware as just another superficial vintage fetish. Alongside the AlphaSmarties are subcultures devoted to the Pomera, a folding Japanese pocket writer, and to the USB Typewriter, a conversion kit that uses gold-plated sensors to digitally capture typewriter keystrokes. (The product’s Web site describes it as “a groundbreaking advancement in the field of obsolescence.”) The more tech-savvy rig up focussed writing devices from old e-readers, computer keyboards, and discarded phones, then showcase their inventions online. These extremes of life-hacking whimsy are also illustrations of the ways in which many writers feel alienated from their tools. When Frank O’Hara typed his “Lunch Poems” on a floor-sample Lettera 25 in Olivetti’s showroom on Fifth Avenue, it was a cute stunt. Now writing on apps and devices owned and actively managed by corporations is the default, leaving us ever more vulnerable to subscriptions, algorithms, proprietary formats, and arbitrary updates. A minor literary doctrine holds that great writing should be platform-independent. Let amateurs mess around with gadgets and gizmos; Wole Soyinka wrote “The Man Died” in a Nigerian prison with Nescafé for ink and a chicken bone for a stylus. Yet the ability to write with anything and the drive to experiment with everything likewise reflect the fact that the means, no less than the matter of writing, should adapt to our selves and to our circumstances. The quest to match writer and machine may be as necessary, in its way, as literature’s unending effort to reconcile experience and expression—or so I tell myself as I sign for the latest delivery. My AlphaSmart, hurriedly unboxed, comes to life with a flash last seen by a high-school student in the mid-two-thousands, and I feel, not for the first time, that it might just be the final Word. ♦

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