"It's not writing, it's just typing" was the way the late Truman Capote described the books of Jack Kerouac.
There's more wit than truth in this devastating comment—Mr. Capote was not one to praise rival authors—but it expresses an intriguing and very American ethic: If something is automated it has less value.
There are newspaper reporters who insist on retaining their heavy black typewriters. They will not, cannot, write on a word processor. They feel that the very term processor demeans the creative act of writing. It's not writing, it's word processing.
So processed things, robotized things, things made with machine assistance are derided as mass-produced and likely therefore to represent the lowest common denominator in quality, or taste.
But clearly this is one case where the medium, the tool, isn't the message. After all, few would question the excellence of much of the typing done by Tennessee Williams. And few would doubt that Shakespeare would have chosen a word processor over of a pot of ink and a feather, given the opportunity.
If writing of the finest quality can come out of a typewriter—and most great twentieth century writing has—why do some people resist new tools? Why are technological advances criticized variously as impersonal, too automatic, too easy? When is the process more important than the product? Is there a clue in the ways we tell the difference between human- and machine-made artifacts?
Oddly enough, one answer seems to be texture. Handmade things generally feel and look rougher than automated things. Rugs, furniture, bricks, cloth, even typed manuscripts all look irregular and somewhat mottled when they are hand done.
By contrast, looms, high-speed lathes, assembly-line molds, and computer printers operate smoothly, with more controlled rhythms, than do human hands. The result is more polished and regular. This is where the accusation that something "doesn't look human" comes in: Automation results in replication rather than what we call creation. Automated things are not one-of-a-kind. They don't evidence the struggle that went into something handmade.
Certainly part of the value of hand-hewn beams in a house is our collective awe that something so large was finished at so great a price in human effort. We identify with the craftsman. We may feel envy of his skills, or feel pity or admiration. The point is that we feel something. We are rarely jealous or sorry or emotional about machines.
And even with everyday products, things like shirts and food, we tend to prefer the handmade over the mass-produced. Given a choice, most people would favor grandma's real apple pie over Grandma's Home Style Apple Pie Treat.* After all, the human grandma cuts each apple and carefully arranges the wedges and lovingly rolls and crimps the crust.
Over at the factory where the Pie Treats are made, five tons of apples are blown apart in a steel vat, then scraped off the walls, forced through some extremes of temperature, and finally dropped five feet as a congealed mass onto a textureless crust.
The case for human-crafted objects is a strong one. But we should also consider the craftsmen. There is a serious and permanent split between the producer and the consumer here. You might like to be able, to own or buy hand-hewn beams, but would you want to hew them? It's nice to eat homemade pies, but would you want to bake them?
Ultimately, we've got to learn to accept and value texture-free goods. The day of the handmade consumer product is gone because, when everything is handmade, only the rich few can live well. It simply takes too much time and effort to do things the old way. Mass-production brings products to the masses, us, and the general standard of living is greatly improved even if we are surrounded by smooth, uninspired objects that show no evidence of grandma's love or a woodworker's sweat.
Lately, the process of learning to love the machine has started in interior-decorating circles. It's called High Tech design and it takes the cold symmetries of industrial and Bauhaus architecture and invites them indoors so we can adjust to our new, smoother world.
Automation is to our age what industrialization was to the nine-teenth century. Automation won't go away just because we feel nostalgia for products costing an enormous price in human labor, for unpredictable irregularities in the texture of the things around us.
*Pie Treat, and the manufacturing description that follows, are Mr. Mansfield's fictional (we hope) creations, and are not intended to bear any resemblance, accurate or otherwise, to any products out there in the real world that might also share the name "Pie Treat." —RCL.