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On the Production of Words

by Paul Gangloff

What might be striking about the expression ‘production of words’ is that it reveals that the very stuff of our thinking is a product. According to Walter J. Ong, the reification of words happens not with writing, but with printing. “Alphabet letterpress printing, in which each letter was cast on a separate piece of metal, or type, marked a psychological breakthrough of the first order. It embedded the word itself deep into the manufacturing process and made it into a kind of commodity.” [1] Etymologically, manufactured means ‘made by hand.’ Letterpress printing put the hands to work in such a way that may be thought of as paradigmatic, it introduced a new form of production, as Ong writes further: “The first assembly line, a technique of manufacture which in a series of set steps produces identical complex objects made up of replaceable parts, was not one which produced stoves or shoes or weaponry but one which produced the printed book.” [2] In other words, the assemblage of text using moveable type provoked a change in thinking that gave way to assembly line factories; a completely rationalised mode of production that made industrial capitalism into the organising principle of work and life. The pre-existing letters, or type, with which one prints, correspond to the replaceable parts of industrially produced commodities. The model that we attribute to Henry Ford, and his exemplary automobile factories is an extension of the one developed by Gutenberg in the 1440s.

In contrast to the manufactured products of Gutenberg’s assembly lines for text, work done with the typewriter can be considered digital — as it is with the fingers that one strikes the keys. From the end of the nineteenth century on, writings flow would falter — the movement of a line, traced by a handheld tool, would increasingly be replaced by the rhythmic staccato of tiptiptip ten fingers hitting keys. As Sadie Plant describes in Zeros + Ones: “If handwriting had been manual and male, typewriting was finger-printing: fast, tactile, digital, and female.” [3] The hands with their “opposing thumbs” — often associated with humanisation, the tool, and labor — retreat up the arms, ceasing to be a surface of contact between the body and the object it handles. The points of contact for digital production are ten tips connected by a complex system of nerves and muscles, a different set of tools from the arm and hand of the writer. This shift in the production of words is described by Sadie Plant as follows: “An activity which had once been concentrated on a tight nexus of coordinated organs — hand and eye — and a single instrument — the pen — was now processed through a distributed digital machinery composed of fingers, keys, hammers, platterns, carriages, levers, cogs, and wheels.” [4]

Discrete units

A child learns to count on her fingers. Long before producing typewriters, FACIT began to manufacture counting machines. These were calculators, with keyboards of just thirteen keys, that brought the work of the fingers to another level of efficiency when it came to counting. If one believes that the origins of writing spring from the needs of the first city dwellers to count and keep account of their livestock and harvests — as proposed in the theory that has the letter ‘A’ originating as a sign representing the head of an ox — then, it is rather unsurprising that the western production of words remains a derivate practice of accountancy. The typewriter is a business machine. And if our writing instruments are also working on our thoughts, then our thinking as city dwellers might still be related to a business mode of thinking.

Technically, the difference between the counting machines and the writing machines built by FACIT is a significant one. The cyphers of the counting machines are mounted on wheels that rotate to operate the calculation, while the letters of the writing machines are placed at the ends of levers aimed towards a central point where the letter hammer hits the ink ribbon to leave a mark on the paper. Yet, on the other side, the side of the operator, the appearance and use of a calculator and a typewriter are very similar. Striking the key that bears a sign makes the thing go ‘click’ and the machine produces the expected outcome: the corresponding sign has been produced. But “why do typewriters go ‘click’?”, Vilém Flusser asks in his text from 1993. [5] The answer that the click is simply the noise of the machine as it goes from discrete unit to discrete unit did not satisfy the philosopher. For him, it is not enough that a mechanical device cannot slide, but instead has to operate in separate steps (a motion that he calls stuttering), there needs to be a broader perspective. Flusser examines the hypothesis of a correspondence between the stuttering of the machine and the stuttering of “everything in the world (and the world itself).” [6] He advances that the world, and every-thing in it, quantises. “Thus numbers, but not letters, correspond to the world.” The consequence being that “letters (if they want to survive) have to simulate numbers.” [8] And this is what they do in a typewriter.

With the technological developments of cryptography, computation and cybernetics, letters reliance on numbers has increased, to culminate in powerful systems of control (see how the words of politics now rely on the cyphers of finance). FACIT did not manage this technological change from its typewriters to today’s so-called “artificial intelligence” systems. Media theorist Friedrich Kittler insists on the role of war as a condition for this technological development. Perhaps it is Sweden’s supposed neutrality during World War II that had a decisive influence on FACIT’s fate. Its competitors from the USA, Italy, Germany and Japan benefited from military research and development financed by war spendings, that FACIT could not find in neutral Sweden.

While considering the military, it might be worth indicating that the above-mentioned ‘click’ that Flusser hears as a stuttering, is the noise made by a machine that “roll[ed] (...) off the production lines of a gun manufacturer.” (Remington) [9] “The typewriter became a discursive machine-gun. A technology whose basic action not coincidentally consists of strikes and triggers proceeds in automated and discrete steps, as does ammunitions transport in a revolver and a machine-gun (...).” [10]



1. Walter J Ong, Orality and Literacy (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 116. (First published by Methuen & Co. Ltd in 1982.)
2. Ibid.
3. Sadie Plant, Zeros + Ones (London: Fourth Estate, 1998), p. 118. (First published by Doubleday in 1997.)
4. Ibid.
5. Vilém Flusser, The Shape of Things (London: Reaktion Books, 1999). (Originally published in Vom Stand der Dinge, Bollmann, 1993.)
6. Ibid., p. 62.
7. Ibid., p. 62.
8. Ibid., p. 62. Whether the world actually quantises (whether it is made up of discrete units), or if it is through calculating everything that we have come to think of it as a sum of little bits leads to more philosophical reflections in Flusser’s text.
9. Friedrich A. Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1999), p. 190. (Originally published as Grammophon Film Typewriter by Brinkmann & Bose, 1986.) For a genealogy of the typewriter, one would, next to guns and calculating machines, also need to mention the sewing machine.
10. Ibid., p. 191.