Tom Hanks’s dumb typewriter app and the uncanny valley of celebrity tech

electa typewriter flying through the air

There’s a reason that the “Hanx Writer” went to number one on iTines, and it’s not because it’s any good.

BY CHRIS OSTERNDORF

Tom Hanks: Actor. Philanthropist. Unofficial Mayor of Hollywood. And tech guru?

Maybe not yet, but Hanks did shoot to the top of the iTunes store this week, with the release of Hanx Writer. Ironically, the app is a celebration of a relic from before the times of hi-tech. As Shirley Li writes at The Wire, the,“two-time Academy-Award winner, beloved star of Nora Ephron rom-coms, tweeter of messages signed ‘Hanx’—is following the footsteps of Kim Kardashian and entering the 21st century of app-making by releasing an app for… typewriters.”

Before going any further, it’s important to note that this isn’t the first time Hanks has declared his fondness for the typewriter. Last year, whether to promote interest in his upcoming app, or just because he loves them so much, or some combination thereof, Hanks wrote a whole essay for the New York Times about them.

Flash forward to today, and the Hanx Writer has been greeted with cheerful skepticism. David Pierce, on behalf of The Verge, summed up what appears to be the general consensus on the app in his review.  

Hanks, the typewriter aficionado himself, says the app is designed to make you slow down a bit as you type, forcing a clarity of thinking he says is powerful. I’m sure not going to judge Tom Hanks—whatever he’s doing, it’s working—but this app is kind of impossible. It’s loud and slow and loud and complicated and loud. It’s a little easier to use with a Bluetooth keyboard, but then all you really see is a blur of a thing pressing letters onto a page and your words moving right to left as you type. At least the font is nice, I guess?

…If you miss a typewriter, sure, get Hanx Writer. It’s free. It’s weird. It’s fun. But after using Hanx Writer for a while, I’m pretty sure we’ve improved the typing process since the last time we all hammered loud keys onto paper. If nothing else, fifteen minutes of using Hanx Writer and the sound of typing on my laptop keys suddenly seems like perfect, harmonious silence.

The true story behind the Hanx Writer, however, isn’t about nostalgia tech, or individual writing processes, or even memories of the typewriter itself. The true story behind Hanx Writer is Tom Hanks.

According to TechCrunch’s Sarah Perez, the Hanx Writer must have some appeal all on its own, Hanks’ likability aside. Comparing it to another “famous person app,” Perez observes, “Lest you think that the app’s appeal comes only from the celebrity backing, and America’s fondness for Mr. Hanks in general, that may not necessarily be the case. After all, look at Justin Bieber’s selfies app Shots (previously Shots of Me), for comparison: even the singer’s massive fandom and ‘selfie’ trend-riding can’t seem to get the app ranked as a social-networking favorite, and it never made it to the top of the App Store at any point in time, including just after its debut and buzzing press.”

But the main difference here is that while Bieber does have legions of fans, pretty much everyone likes Tom Hanks, whereas there are plenty of people inside of Hollywood and out who can’t stand Justin Bieber. So although likability may not be the only factor in the Hanx Writer’s pleasant reception, it is the key one.  

A celebrity’s image impacts virtually everything they put out into the world, whether it conforms to that image or not. This holds as true for what celebrities put out into the tech world as it does for anywhere else. But not every celebrity has the inherently likable brand of Tom Hanks, and that’s where things get tricky. Take Blake Lively’s GOOP-ish lifestyle website, PRESERVE, for instance. When the site launched earlier this summer, most people were confused: What was the chick from Gossip Girl doing trying to be the next Gwyneth Paltrow? And more importantly, why would she want to be Gwyneth Paltrow?

Besides calling it derivative, others characterized PRESERVE as pandering, hipstery, and occasionally kind of funny. But the overwhelming narrative has been that PRESERVE is plain old silly, a strange attempt at identifiability from a minor celebrity. Entertainment Weekly’s Darren Franich took the utmost pleasure in making fun of it. “You know that whole plotline on Arrested Development where Charlize Theron plays a character who seems like a Manic Pixie Dream Girl but actually has a serious mental disability?” Franich asked. “I feel like Blake Lively’s website has inadvertently crossed an equivalent uncanny valley, where the artisanal movement suddenly becomes a LARPing party that actual LARPers would refuse to participate in.”

However, where Blake Lively’s attempts to insert herself into the digital world were met with bemusement, similar ventures from other celebrities have been subject to outright hatred. Case in point, the uber-hated Kim Kardashian, who launched a much-loathed video game this year that still managed to make a boatload of money.

For The Daily Dot’s Samantha Allen, enterprises like Kim Kardashian’s game and Paltrow/Lively-esque lifestyle websites hold a different promise for female celebrities, who are able to use their business savvy in a way their male counterparts can’t. Allen suggests, “Female television and movie stars like Kim Kardashian have a limited amount of time to do their work before opportunities disappear forever…  Gwyneth Paltrow, Jessica Alba, Blake Lively, Reese Witherspoon, and Jessica Simpson have all turned to lifestyle companies to secure income and maintain cultural relevance in a world that’s eager to forget the last generation of female stars in favor of a fresh crop of pretty faces.”

That said, perception of celebrity tech isn’t just about our differing views on men and women (although given Silicon Valley’s rather unprogressive view of women, that’s likely a part of it). It’s also about how famous men and women accept their position in society. Discussing Lively’s PRESERVE, Nikki Gloudeman of The Huffington Post theorized the website’s main problem was the the idea that “we can treat celebrities like demi-gods, but they can’t tell us they’re demi-gods.”

Likability returns as the dividing line here. If you’re well-liked, you’re not a demi-god. If you’re not well-liked, you are. That’s why some who might see the Hanx Writer as a good bit of innocuous fun from everybody’s favorite, humble movie star might also view GOOP as an annoying assault from a stuck-up celebutante. Think about it: How would we view the Hanx Writer if “Hanx” wasn’t the first part of that name? What if it was an app from the Internet-obsessed, literary-minded James Franco? It’s unlikely that the “Franco Writer” would’ve gone over so smoothly.

There’s also a fundamental distrust of celebrities who decide to go outside their usual bubble, career-wise. And when that celebrity is someone usually regarded as a pompous ass, this distrust is felt that much keener. Again, Franco proves to be the best illustration of this. Expressing a sentiment many others have surely agreed with after going through his writing, Nico Lang, also of The Daily Dot, posited, “For anyone who has read Palo Alto, Franco’s debut novel, it’s glaringly obvious that the book wouldn’t have ever been published if not for its author’s name.”

This is, of course, absolutely true. Literature in particular has seen an influx of celebrity efforts overtime, with a whole subsect in children’s publishing to go along with it. The point is that regardless of whether someone like the multi-talented Steve Martin’s book is any good, the fact remains that it very well might not have seen the light of day were it not for that Martin was already famous in other areas.

Now, the tech world is emerging as the number one place for celebrities to take their hidden talents. It’s different than literature, in that specific elements of the tech world are not necessarily “artistic,” but it is the same in that the system allows for famous people to rise quickly in an area other people spend years working incredibly hard in. Again, this isn’t to say that someone like Ashton Kutcher doesn’t have a natural penchant for this environment. Elite Daily’s Julian Sonny cataloged Kutcher’s impressive resume therein. “When it comes to celebrity angel investing, Ashton Kutcher is the best in the game,” Sonny asserts. “He knows how to spread his seed far and wide, which has helped him reach awesome success investing in startups such as Skype, Airbnb, Foursquare, Hipmunk and LikeALittle, to name just a very few.”

But to reiterate, were Kutcher not the dude from That ’70s Show and a string of mildly successful movies, chances he would’ve played a part in any of these companies’ histories are slim.

Tom Hanks is great. He’s a fantastic actor who also comes off as an all around nice person. But his role in Hanx Writer exists as an offshoot of that, not on its own. Without the guy who played Forrest Gump involved, Hanx Writer would be just another thing to make fun of hipsters for.

Chris Osterndorf is a graduate of DePaul University’s Digital Cinema program. He is a contributor at HeaveMedia.com, where he regularly writes about TV and pop culture. 

Photo via angelocesare/Flickr (CC BY N.D.-2.0)