THE MANUAL AGE (2003)

In his essay
“Digibabble, Fairy Dust, and the Human Anthill,” writer Tom Wolfe writes of the opening of an art show in Osaka, Japan, honouring the work of New York's fabled Pushpin Studio. Attending the show were “four of the greatest American graphic artists of the twentieth century,” including Pushpin’s Milton Glaser and Seymour Chwast.

The museum’s director began his introduction to the opening in Japanese, then paused for the interpreter's English translation: "Our guests today are a group of American artists from the Manual Age."

The “Manual Age”?

“All at once they (the four artists) got it. The hundreds of young Japanese staring at them from the auditorium seats saw them not as visionaries on the cutting edge ... but as woolly old mammoths who had somehow wandered into the Suntory Museum from out of the mists of a Pliocene past ... a lineup of relics unaccountably still living, still breathing, left over from . . .
the Manual Age!”

Ah yes, the days when things were done manually, rather than digitally. Remember?

If any Gen-Xers out there can’t recall the time, then gather round, young’uns. Let Uncle Olson bounce you on his knee while he tells ya ‘bout a time before keyboard commands and Photoshop plug-ins. The time of “freehand illustrations,” when graphic artists roamed the earth wielding airbrushes, rulers and templates.

In my youth, the computer chip’s penetration of consumer electronics was still limited to pocket calculators and digital watches. By the time I graduated from a college program in graphic arts, the Macintosh computer was still a decade away from becoming the standard for design and publishing. It’s still odd to think I started working in a time that predated digital layout. (Quark was a kind of subatomic particle, and a Mac was what you wore in the rain.)

That puts my formative years smack-dab in the Manual Age, when typography and typesetting involved more than a few mouse clicks. Among the Jurassic materials recalled by graphic artists, the least-missed is Letraset: clear plastic sheets with letters of different fonts and sizes printed on one side, which you rubbed onto paper or board with a burnishing tool. Working with the expensive sheets was a labour-intensive proposition. Invariably I would arrive home from college and find little letters clinging to my elbows..letters making the great escape.

The success of the personal computer was followed explosion of printer fonts, with Adobe and other electronic font factories consigning Letraset to the typographic scrapheap. (Good riddance to bad rubbish, I say.)

Graduating from college to work at the Whistler Question newspaper, I encountered my first optical typesetter, a big clunky thing the size of a arcade game, with a periscope-like viewer and a flywheel on the side.

The typesetter was manned — or womanned, perhaps — by a bilious bible-thumper I will call Doris. This tempermental beast (the machine, that is, not Doris) always seemed to break down with a preternatural regularity near deadline.

Doris saved her oaths for Sundays, and was forever lecturing anyone who took the Lord’s name in vain, which was pretty much everyone else on staff. A lot of the cussing was directed at the page layouts, 'flats' assembled for the printer. Staffers ran columns of text through a waxer and affixed them where they could among the ads -- a Rubic's cube confusion in two dimensions. On the way to the printer, a strip of text would invariably drop out and end up someplace else, making the paper read, on the odd page or two, like a William Bourroughs novel.

Exacto knives were used to cut and trim lines of text, photographs, and occasionally fingers. This was a tradition in college, and the habit followed me into the newspaper world and beyond. It’s not that I’m especially clumsy. It’s just that no graphic artist worth his salt hasn’t accidentally stabbed himself at least a dozen times on assignment.

So I have no misplaced nostalgia for the blood and sweat of the Manual Age. I was the first cartoonist in Canada to go digital, and never looked back. My first Mac amplified my creative output greatly, allowing me to digitally manipulate scanned cartoons and caricatures. I never abandoned freehand illustrations; I just had more options to play with onscreen.

In his Digibabble essay, Wolfe goes on to cast a cold eye on a world “shrinkwrapped in an electronic membrane,” and conflates computer-generated imagery with “synthesizing music or sending rocket probes into space or achieving, on the Internet, instantaneous communication and information retrieval among people all over the globe.” He’s right in the sense that all these thing are cousin to one another, cultural descendants of the first computer chip. And yes, there’s been a downside to the computer age — ask any office worker who gets hundreds of work-related e-mails a week, or anyone who has to remount the learning curve with every system upgrade. But for designers and publishers (and for writers, as well) it’s mostly been a boon.

It’s this point Wolfe misses. The computer is just another tool, a glorified paintbrush with a monitor attached. Without a creative imagination involved in the digital process, its garbage in, garbage out.

Not that this hasn’t kept an explosion of garbage from happening: quite the opposite. But its also multiplied the number of worthy efforts. Nowadays many publications can be midwived by a couple of PCs and a laser printer, and prepress costs have plummeted across the board. E-zines bypass the material world entirely, and are freely available to anyone with a mouse and modem. Unless I'm a bit obtuse, that's progress of a sort.

Certainly, it means the trickle of print we had in the sixties has become a magazine monsoon, with available markets increasing harder to find, but that's a fairly predictable result of the digital ages’ infoglut. Even wandering around the web has been described as “trying to take a sip out of a firehouse.”

So overall, the death of The Manual Age has been greatly exaggerated. It wasn’t so much overtaken as partnered. With a drawing tablet (a device that allows the artist to draw onscreen) and a program like Corel Painter, an artist can render images onscreen in a style indistinguishable to oil painting. This will never replace actual oil paintings, or the desire from buyers for the real thing to hang off their walls. But it does free up the painting prole from smocks, easels, canvas, and the attached overhead. It also means no more expensive solvents and paints, gassing off a toxic hydrocarbon bouquet guaranteed to turn any would-be Picasso into a wheezing, twitching wreck by forty.

But I will say this in favour of the Manual Age: at least Picasso didn’t have to deal with a Hotmail account overflowing with Viagra advertisements.

Geoff Olson