Everything New is Old Again: A Medievalist Discovers the PalmPilot

This page first posted May 17, 2000. Last modified May 19, 2000.
By James I. McNelis, III

The discipline of English as a whole (and certainly the world outside our racket) always seems vaguely bemused by the affinity medievalists have for high-tech. When a server is down or a print queue doesn't respond, your chances are usually better--if not by much--when you call on the Anglo-Saxonist in your department (rather than, say, the poststructuralist) to take it in hand.

I'll be getting to a couple of reasons why I suspect that is so in a minute. These musings stem from my own delight in the PalmPilot, a handheld computer along the lines of Apple's elegant but ill-fated Newton. The original model, which burst onto the scene about two Internet decades ago (that is, four years) triumphed where Newton failed because it did only a few things, but the right things, and did them well: a day planner, address book, calculator, memo pad, e-mailer and to-do list, all pen-based and built into a case that fits comfortably in a shirt pocket. Having learned from the debacle of the Newton's original handwriting-recognition software, lampooned on Saturday Night Live as well as everywhere else (as opposed to its vastly improved later versions), the Palm--now so called at the behest of Pilot Pen's legal team--works letter-by-letter rather than word-by-word, and requires the user to adopt a prescribed system of single-stroke letter forms, a price which once paid results in an almost perfect record of character recognition. The operating system functions in a mind-boggling 8K of RAM, and it runs for a month and more on two penlight batteries. By combining the elegance of its design with desktop-computer connectivity (functional on the Mac as well as PC), a pop-in upgrade card and the wide availability of user-written software add-ons via the Net, the original Palm may be the most arresting export from Malaysia since Michelle Yeoh. Tech-head readers will, I hope, excuse me for leaving the Palm in second place, at least in the deepest recesses of my heart; those of you who know Ms. Yeoh only from the recent James Bond flick need to take a look at, say, Wing Chun to really understand . . .

But, as my students helpfully point out at times like this, I digress.

Though it has become a near-mandatory accessory for the Dilberts of the world, and even for Dilbert's boss, the Palm has yet to make much headway into academe, perhaps since its rapid evolution, standing now at the Palm VII stage, leaves the current top-end offering at a price around $400. However, a knowledge of Seattle's basement discounters allowed me to lay hands on one of the original models for a little over $100 in 1998, and today both the Palm III and the Handspring clone are available in the under-$150 range. As those like myself who have recently assumed post-grad-school employment are wont to say, that price is right, and I have joined the legions of the abovementioned Dilberts who now scratch cryptic memos on a grey screen instead of trailing Dayrunners and paper scraps everywhere they go. Perhaps it's the infinite irrationality of the human mind, but paying $3 per pack to refill those calendar pages has always brassed me off (much better to go digital and buy upgrades and batteries from now till Doomsday, say I).

The funny thing about the Palm, however, is just how retro it is. From classical times through the Renaissance, the mark of a person of letters was the ever-present tabula, a sort of slate or wax-board binder with stylus that allowed one to make notes on an erasible surface while on the run. Dante, for example, was never without his, as the Vita Nuova attests.

The parallel that strikes me most forcibly is the use of the customized handwriting necessary to use the high-tech tabula, because that too was a feature of the ancient waxboard. The Portland calligrapher Brian Stone once pointed out to a conference session at Kalamazoo the existence of an Irish document, circa A.D. 700, written on wax and parchment together by the same scribe--yet with two sets of letterforms, the one designed to minimize the little rills of wax which pile up around an ineptly plowed stylus like furrows of topsoil thrown aside by a high-speed plowman. Just as medieval scribes wrote in one hand or another depending on the medium, so now do I, whether scribbing on paper or on the Palm--although my undisciplined penmanship, rather less competent than that of a professional scribe, is beginning to introduce odd-looking Palm-type letter forms into my hardcopy effluvia. Future generations of palaeographers will be able to date my scrawls to B.P. or A.P. --Before Palm or After.

Infrared modem ports, pocket databases, and a miniaturized version of Space Invaders notwithstanding, the Palm in some ways brings us closer to working and thinking as our forbears did. In spite of the media's desire to hype "revolutionary" aspects of the digital age, it may instead be the incremental, even conservative aspects of the new technology that provide the most powerful amplification of our mental efforts. Reading and writing will always be the engines of the developed mind, and no multimedia huckster or grandstanding politician will ever convince me otherwise.

Just as the Web has sneakily introduced our youth to the reading of copious amounts of text, perhaps the Palm will similarly restore the habit of spending a great deal of time quietly--dare I hope thoughtfully?--jotting texts by hand, without the clacking of typewriter or computer keys. Dante would be terrified, and contemptuous, of much he would see in our world; but his gaze would certainly fix on the small grey screen in my hand with instant understanding. And, like everyone else who has seen it, I suspect he'd sidle up and plead--"Show me how it works?"