The importance of being a 'normal'

A woman wearing a Google Glass computer Image copyright PA
Image caption The Google Glass wearable computer is currently of little use to "normals"

A useful new word jumped into my inbox the other week and it deserves a wider airing.

The word in question is "normals" and it describes the bulk of technology users - those of us who definitely don't queue up outside gadget shops for the midnight launch of the next new thing.

Instead, we normals wait and see; we don't need to buy a new device just for the sake of it; we need to be just a little bit convinced.

The word was recently used by US tech industry commentator Shelly Palmer in explaining how the Google Glass wearable computer was still a highly specialist piece of equipment.

She said this was due to both the high price tag of $1,500 (£878), and because of the natural reserve of normals confronted by a consumer device rather outside our comfort zone.

lt set me thinking about the days when technology was targeted much more at the modest aims and ambitions of the normals.

Before photocopiers

That train of thought was the strange result of being copied in to an email addressed in the first place to the Radio 4 programme, News Quiz.

Comedian Jeremy Hardy had mentioned the Roneo printing machine on the show a few weeks ago.

It immediately prompted memories from the correspondent Tony Emmerson, who had worked for the company in the 1960s - one of 3,000 staff based in Romford, Essex.

He included me in his reminiscent email because he must have sensed my interest in old tech as well as new. How right he was, and thinking about Roneo printing of 50 years ago brought up some striking comparisons between technology now and then.

The Roneo machine was a wonderful example of what Mahatma Ghandi called "appropriate technology". It enabled careful typists to run off multiple copies of agendas, news-sheets and programmes, instantly, and at low cost. The machines were often hand-cranked, not electric powered.

Image caption A Roneo machine in action at the BBC in 1938

My main experience was with a Roneo rival Gestetner. It did a similar job in a different way.

Gestetner users typed on surprisingly robust skins or membranes, and the hammer of the type bar removed a coating of wax from the skin, allowing ink to pass through the holes left by the letters, onto the paper.

Those skins - available in every stationer's shop - could be placed on the machine to run off copies the moment the typing was finished. It took a little getting used to - you set the stencil down so that it stretched tautly across the ink pad, but then the machine took over.

Rubber wheels fed the paper past the rotating stencil with a satisfying kerchunk. The waxed surface blocked the ink; but where the typewriter keys had cut through the wax coating, the ink squeezed through, with the letters miraculously held in place by the membrane base.

The process was revealed by examination with a magnifying glass; you could see the slight fuzziness of the letters when finally imprinted on the absorbent paper the process required... like blotting paper, another forgotten artefact of the age of ink.

These duplicators did the job well, and very cheaply, but they could be messy for occasional inexperienced users. I still have a shirt with a cuff indelibly stained with duplicator ink after wrestling with a school magazine 50 years ago.

The Roneo spirit duplicators with which Jeremy Hardy started this train of thought were a different approach to the same cheap reproduction problem. They used a curious chemical method to transfer dissolved ink from the master copy in a distinctive, but limited, range of quietly lurid colours.

Like Gestetners the ink had an unforgettable smell, and Romeo machines were good for reproducing scientific diagrams and higher mathematics. It was a wonderfully arcane and super useful craft: the colours, the smell, the typewriter type bitten into the stencil.

A distinctive feature of school, church or office which disappeared with the invention of the photocopier, even though for years this upstart was more promise than delivery: grey type, greyer images, and endless jams.

The advent of the photocopier - invented in the Rose Reading Room of New York Public Library - began the slow decline of the lovely duplicating machine in Europe and the USA, where similar technology went under the Ditto brand name.

However, the life of Gestetners and Roneo machines was prolonged by their continuing use in places such as India and Africa, where power supplies were unreliable and cheapness was an imperative. The words could be banged out on a manual typewriter, too.

Very appropriate technology, now just a lingering memory for people such as Jeremy Hardy and me.

Limited shelf life?

Vault forward 40 or 50 years, and technology is everywhere. It is now essential even for us normals to an extent unimaginable in the 1950s, 60s, 70s or 80s.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Will Amazon's Fire Phone be bought by the normals?

But what sort of ingenuity is in the driving seat now? Look at the ballyhoo surrounding Amazon's first venture into mobile phones in June.

The Fire Phone was revealed by Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos in front of crowds of cheering devotees at a convention in Seattle. But what is it?

And how does the Fire Phone stack up against the decades of usability which users got out of Roneo and Gestetner duplicating machines?

Well, says Mr Bezos, the Fire Phone has a 3D interface, and the ability to predict what users might want to watch from the company's TV and film catalogue.

Flash the phone at an object (in a rival shop or in someone's home) and it will give them the ability to buy instantly from Amazon or elsewhere on the internet. Push a button, buy.

Since Amazon has already had huge success with its e-reader device Kindle, a phone from the biggest online retailer might have a similar appeal.

Is the world crying out for this alleged advance in mobile phones? Is shopping the main event in our lives?

The Fire Phone shows how consumer technology has evolved a long way from the simple, mechanical kerchunk of the duplicating machines.

But you have to remember that duplicators had nearly a century of life in them. I wonder if that will be true of the shopping phone, or whatever it iterates into.

We normals will be the people who decide.