The Chinese Typewriter: Past as Prologue

I stumbled across a fantastic book over the holiday break: The Chinese Typewriter – A HistoryIt’s a story of the process of innovation — about imagination bottlenecks and their societal consequences, how use case goals shape (sometimes misdirect) design outcomes, the interplay of national and international politics with information technology, the mathematics and philosophy of organizing language and knowledge, and an array of related topics — via an extended case study of the Chinese typewriter.  It’s also a sort of alternative history of IT–an examination of what might happen when you can’t easily build on prior art. Reading the sample right before bed turned out to be a bad idea; I was awake thinking until 3 am.

Chinese Typewriter

The book begins with the history of the mass-produced typewriter, generally speaking. The “problem” of Chinese typewriting stemmed from the fact that the US-led international typewriter industry, after an initial proliferation of typewriter designs, very quickly standardized on the familiar keyboard and one-phoneme-per-key type that we now know, and thenceforth could not envision any other approach. It fell to Chinese inventors to come up with other alternatives, which in the end involved neither keyboards nor keys, and essentially miniaturized traditional moveable type schemes invented in China 1000 years earlier.

There remained the question of how to encompass the 60,000 or so non-decomposable Chinese characters in any compact mechanical device. Western Christian missionaries actually did a lot of the early work on this question, which tended to skew the results towards vocabulary most pertinent to their interests. The development of three main approaches to Chinese typography takes up the majority of the book, but Mullaney also takes a brief detour through the parallel challenges of encoding Chinese characters for telegraphic transmission. There were a variety of homegrown, mostly regional double-encoding schemes, all of which required the use of “special characters”. Special characters cost twice as much to transmit as “standard” Latin-alphabet characters, thus making telegraphy significantly more expensive for China. One doesn’t have to listen very hard to hear history rhyming with Unicode, as well as the ongoing economic impact to countries with double-byte character systems in view of their need to participate in a global communications infrastructure fundamentally designed around European  languages.

The challenge of coming up with a typewriter design that included a manageable but sufficient number of characters led to a widespread conclusion that the Chinese language was “incompatible with modernity.” This was not limited to foreign observers, by the way. Chinese elites, who were increasingly pursuing secondary educations abroad starting in the late 19th century, were keenly aware of the new centrality of the typewriter and telegraph in government and business affairs overseas and grew increasingly concerned that China was being left behind in the communications revolution.

There were heated debates about the best method for indexing Chinese characters in the absence of a system like a standard alphabet sequence: word-level metadata schemes, in other words, necessary for character retrieval. Rather poignantly, this led to something of an existential culture crisis for elites: Chinese high culture had revolved around the written language for millennia–and yet it turned out there was no real consensus even about the true makeup of a character. As Mullaney puts it, “Had the fundamental essence and order of Chinese script yet to reveal itself”, even after 5000 years of existence and intense scholarly examination?

By the 1930s, Japanese manufacturers had appropriated a couple of the most common approaches and began gaining market share. Their share accelerated as they invaded China in earnest during WWII, and continued in its aftermath, as China’s mostly small-scale manufacturing infrastructure was decimated. China’s experience with modern information technology into the 1950s was thus continually at the mercy of foreign interests–first Western bureaucrats, missionaries, and Western-run standards bodies, whose notions about information design were ill-matched with Chinese needs; and then the Japanese, who devastatingly controlled the means of print production in the lead up and during the war.

It’s not surprising, then, that post-WWII China would be as fixated on developing self-sufficiency in technology as in food and energy production. At the same time, maintaining interoperability with the global communications system is obviously essential. While Chinese technology protectionism is strong, so too is participation in standards bodies and open source projects, the latter being a particularly useful method of ensuring baseline interoperability as well as adaptability to Chinese environments without one-way dependency. Two leading telecom companies I work with have contributor rankings for key open source projects as top-level internal KPIs and other Chinese firms are increasingly taking operational leadership roles in those projects.

China’s early experiences with non-WYSISWG, and ultimately operator-designed input methods in both telegraphy and typewriting would form the core of keyboard-based input methods for Chinese in the computing age. Its alternate paths of IT experimentation also provided experience with predictive natural language approaches, as well as user-driven metadata design. Ongoing keyboard challenges, especially with smartphones, provide keen incentive to apply machine learning to predictive text–in the cloud, with an ever-expanding, real-time training set coming from over a billion internet-connected devices.

Mullaney has a follow-up book planned, which continues the story into the computer age. In the meantime, he’s already provided plenty of pattern-matching between China’s experiences as a technology outsider in the last century and its current initiatives in technology.

What to know before you go: Some general knowledge of Chinese history in the late 19th and 20th century would be helpful in reading the book. A brief perusal of a few Wikipedia articles would probably suffice.

I’m not sure how easy or difficult the book is to follow for someone with no knowledge of the Chinese language. Mullaney describes the various theories of how characters are formed in the course of explaining the different approaches to typewriting, but I suspect a quick primer such as one normally gets in the first couple classes of Chinese 1a would have been a good addition to the Introduction. This article isn’t a bad alternative. And this provides a brief summary about traditional approaches to organizing the language.

And, irony alert! It turns out that the Chinese characters sprinkled throughout the text to illustrate the discussion don’t render on older Kindles. I wound up buying the physical book.