Newton Diaries

In 1993, Apple released the Newton MessagePad, the first so-called “Personal Digital Assistant”. A kind of forerunner to today’s smart/i phones, the device worked as a kind of virtual notepad, allowing free-form entry of both text and drawing mixed together on the same virutal page. The user wrote with a plastic pen-like stylus, the movements digitized and converted into “electronic ink” and each note stamped with a date and time. The devices handwriting recognition converted the user’s writing into text on-the-fly, a famously buggy process that became (to Apple’s chagrin) synonymous with the product. However, with some practice and patience, the device was said to “learn” from its user, and (more effectively) a compliant user could adapt his or her own writing to the device. Erkki was a natural for this kind of digital symbiosis and gave himself over fully to the machine.

2/24/94 11:45 pm
Home again. One glass and one attempt to install Newton software on Mac.
Tammikuu 1994
Oh shit, the software is on high density floppies. Which means I shall instead
take Newton to bed with me to see if it fulfils the basic need, why I bought it in the
first place..”

5/9/94 8:26 pm
Good that I masturbated already. I must take the particle sheets and consider each case separately again. Have thought about calling the cannabis supply. A fax went, I hope, to Mr Fantini. The beard is somewhat unpleasant. She closed the far side kitchen door. Newton seems to replace smoking. I can imagine a backlit colour Newton. Maybe a short walk after they leave. Both have pissed now. The blonde…

Today I intend to buy a bottle of wine. Very slowly I am beginning to understand
the page layout logic of Newton.

Between 1994 and 1996 Kurenniemi wrote copious notes on the Newton. Between business meetings, on trains, in bed at night, Kurenniemi pushed the portability of the device to the edge, despite it’s somewhat ungainly size and lack of backlighting (he talks of needing a new bedside lamp to help him to note at night). Clearly the device excited Kurenniemi and his use is at least in part driven by this excitement. The messages are short, typically written in between his other activities in the day and often commenting upon them.

Reading Kurenniemi’s Newton notes reminds the reader of Kurenniemi’s prescience. Not just on surface details (like his anticipation of a backlit color screen which or course maps neatly to todays “retinal” smartphone displays), but also in terms of his use of the device, literally taking it to bed with him, and a ritual use, like cigarettes, to compulsively document in short notes mixing personal and public. The texts have a clear analog with today’s “tweets” or micro-blogging practices.

It’s also striking how the Newton fits in to Kurenniemi’s compulsions and substances; use of the Newton is itself a kind of “new drug” (replacement to smoking) in addition to a tool to procure more (he’s using the Newton’s capacity for sending fax documents to arrange some cannabis delivery). At times, the line between substance and software, device and user blurs: “Newton had recognition problems, hangover I must have changed settings last night Now a few more pages.”

Grep is one of the basic “command-line” tools provided in GNU/Linux; one “pipes” a file into it with some textual pattern to search for and the program outputs only those lines containing the text to the screen, highlighting in color the matches. We use the tool on a text dump (itself obtained by another utility that extracts just the text content from the PDF), and search for the term “Newton”:

As with many technologies, at some point the excitement fades and another comes to takes it place. In 1996, the rising tide of the Web seems to overtake Kurenniemi’s attention.

11.4.1996 21:05
I got the sick idea of writing everything, from now on, in HTML. For security I shall not put my name anywhere here. Juuso visited. We searched all boxes at the attic, for leads and dates for his book. Very little was found. I took down all calendars and promised to scan them for relevant dates. I’ll begin that now.