Y2K bug? 'No problema' with typewriters

From behind his circa-1950 Remington manual typewriter, Jos Edith Gonzlez says he's not losing any sleep over Y2K.

And why should he? Sure, part of the world frets over what could happen if computers fail to recognize 2000. But not Mr. Edith - he happily earns his tacos banging away on his Remington.

As Edith's neighbor, Rommel Jaimes, says, "On a typewriter we put the date we want. There's no computer telling us what the date is."

Messrs. Jaimes and Edith are public writers, or what Mexicans familiarly call evangelistas after the letter-writing evangelicals of the Bible. The two men are among the two dozen public writers who set up typewriters in Mexico City's Santo Domingo Plaza every day and for a small fee type up job applications, official forms, project cost estimates, school papers, lawsuits, even the occasional love letter.

The electric typewriters hum and whir, the manuals clack and ding, but nowhere is there a computer in sight - reminding the globe's PC-dependent that there is still a place for the humble typewriter.

And that place is largely the third world.

Computers a luxury in Mexico

"As long as people communicate with the written word and as long as there is poverty in the world, there will be typewriters," says Jorge Martnez Aponte, director of marketing in Mexico for Olympia, the German typewriter manufacturer. Noting recently that the day's sales had included an order from Egypt for 5,000 typewriters and another for 4,738 typewriters for rural Mexican schools, Mr. Martnez says, "The simple truth is that these countries just can't afford to put computers everywhere all at once. For them the typewriter is still a useful and necessary tool."

The typewriters in Santo Domingo Plaza are a sign not just of Mexico's poverty, but of its continuing high illiteracy rate as well, especially among older adults. And even adults who can read and write still seek out the evangelistas to guide them through a stubbornly centralized and forbidding bureaucracy.

While third-world countries consume the lion's share of the world's typewriter production, they are home to only a small fraction of the world's computers.

Of the 364 million personal computers in use in the world at the end of 1998, according to the Computer Industry Almanac, the United States alone accounted for more than one-third - followed by the world's richest countries: Japan, Germany, Britain, France, and Italy. Mexico had only 4.6 million, and China, with more than 1 billion people, had just over 8 million.

Martnez says he doesn't fault the first-worlders who blithely assume that the product he sells has gone the way of the horse and buggy. "I even had a taxi driver right here in Mexico City turn completely around in his seat when I told him I sold typewriters and ask, 'They still make those?'"

He says that even typewritermakers have projected their product's demise, only to be proven wrong. As far back as 1980, when Olympia's annual sales of manual typewriters in Mexico stood at about 70,000, the company predicted the computer would cause sales to fall to 15,000 to 20,000 by 1985. Sales did indeed fall, but only to 58,000. And Martnez adds that the "three-letter colossal," IBM, once planned to phase out its electric typewriter production but reversed itself when it realized there was still a market - even in the US.

Fewer typewriters produced today

There's no getting around the fact that global typewriter production has plummeted. Ten years ago, 10 million typewriters a year were sold, according to industry figures. But annual consumption has fallen to about 3 million - with about 70 percent of the market in the third world.

But what keeps industry leaders like Olympia and Italy's Olivetti going is the demise of many manufacturers - there are no Remingtons made any more, no new Underwoods - so there are fewer makers sharing the smaller pie.

And where Olympia manufactures typewriters - Mexico, India, Indonesia, and China - is also a reflection of the kind of countries where the typewriter still holds its own. Olympia makes all of its high-labor but low-profit personal typewriters in China, for example, where the average laborer earns 25 cents an hour.

First-worlders might be surprised to see the number of typewriters still in use in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, in government offices, schools, hospitals, private companies, and homes.

But they simply reflect the wide economic chasm that exists between wealthy countries and poor.

In Mexico City's Santo Domingo Plaza, public writer Jaimes says he does a short letter of recommendation for 10 pesos (about a dollar), a one-page official form for 15 pesos. "That's about what people can afford," says Jaimes, who has been working in Santo Domingo Plaza for 36 years, following in his father's footsteps. "If I were charging enough to try to pay off a computer," he adds, "the people who come here couldn't afford me."

The truth of that statement is evidenced at fellow public writer Edith's table, when an electrician walks up and asks how much it will cost to type up a job bid he has to submit. When Edith says 15 pesos the electrician whistles and frowns and asks if it can't be done for 10. Edith accepts and begins click-clacking his keys.

No more feather pens in the plazas

"A century ago the people doing this work in this plaza wrote in longhand with big feather plumes," says Edith, talking while typing. "Then the typewriter came in, and we still perform this important service at an accessible price. I suppose some day you'll see computers here," he adds, noting that printing businesses behind him already offer computer services. But patting his Remington, he says, "It will be a long time before all of these are gone."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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