‘The Chinese Typewriter’ and the future of the alphabet: An interview with Thomas S. Mullaney

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Thomas Mullaney has a gift for metaphors. Someone eavesdropping on his conversations would find themselves in a world of things that are not what they were designed or sold to be. A MIDI piano might be the future of the alphabetic keyboard. The future of alphabetic computer systems might be caught in a cul-du-sac, as if it were lost in an unfamiliar suburb. This sense for prefiguration, for imagining things not as they are but as they could be — as we might come to understand them — is what makes Mullaney more than just a historian.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Mullaney discussed his new book, “The Chinese Typewriter: A History.” The book is a technological history of the efforts to create a typewriter suited to a character-based writing system. One of the central objectives of the book is to move the definition of “typewriter” away from the mental image of a contraption with a keyboard that uses the alphabet and toward a more reflective, complex understanding of what machines that allow us to write really are.  

According to Mullaney, “The Chinese Typewriter” is “not an easy book.” While he said this with the reader in mind, writing the book does not seem to have been exactly “easy” either. The process took years — tracking down documents, manufacturing companies, political cartoons — and the research process alone seems to be nothing short of a lifelong romance. And in many ways, it is.

“The Chinese Typewriter” is actually an initial installment — a promise for future research — the foundation for Mullaney’s next book, “The Chinese Computer.”

This sense of ongoing momentum is reflected in Mullaney’s promise to his readers. While it may not be the easiest book, he assures that those reading “The Chinese Typewriter” that it “will break through the membrane to another set of questions.” His use of the word “membrane” is an interesting choice. It creates an image in which academic inquiry becomes something biological, something permeable. Upon breaking through the skin of the immediate research question, one finds not a nucleus or an answer, but rather another set of questions. This is very consistent with what seems to be Mullaney’s work ethic. The answer to one thing is the question to another. Solutions to the Chinese typewriter are really inquiries into the Chinese computer.

So what about the Chinese computer? This is where Mullaney’s gift for metaphors becomes indispensable. The comparison he facilitates likens a QWERTY computer keyboard to a MIDI piano. A MIDI piano is a keyboard that can be used as a synthesizer to play any instrument. Similarly, Mullaney explains that when the QWERTY keyboard was adapted to be used for the Chinese language, a new range of possibilities opened up.

Instead of the traditional assumption that the letter on the key you press is what appears on the page, the new system uses the letter you type as a request for all the Chinese characters that correspond with that criterion. As more letters are typed, the criteria become refined, and eventually, the machine provides you with the candidates that most closely match the information you have provided.

Mullaney sees this as a breakthrough. In fact, he goes as far as to say that current alphabetic systems are trapped in a cul-du-sac, “a half-millennium dead end,” as he calls it, or “the typing mindset.”

“We use this as if it were a 1924 Remington,” Mullaney said in reference to a MacBook Pro.

But the Chinese computer has bypassed the “typing mindset,” has moved forward with its criterion-candidate system and escaped the cul-du-sac.

Toward the end of the interview, Mullaney began discussing a classic “chicken or the egg” debate within the field of linguistics: spoken language versus written language. Many believe that written language comes after spoken language. Mullaney rejects the idea that they are a fixed binary.

“It might all be writing,” he said, before proceeding to compose an illustrative series of metaphors in which his tongue and vocal chords became his instrument, the air became his ink, his listener’s auditory framework became the substrate.

This more fluid definition of writing and language is a bit more philosophical than Mullaney gets in his research, but it suggests something about the driving force behind his work. Mullaney believes that the QWERTY keyboard has become a standard of Euro-American linguistic hegemony, against which all other languages are measured. In many ways, “The Chinese Typewriter” is an effort to combat the idea that the alphabet is a creation of linguistic superiority and to counter with the argument that character-based writing systems offer advanced insights into technological communication.

In essence, Mullaney believes there is no one true system of writing (or typing, for that matter).

Contact Blue Fay at [email protected].