Monthly Archives: November 2013

Creating versus selecting: A shift in expression—and cognition?

The use of type not only revolutionized the scale of book production, but marked a significant conceptual change in the way writing was done. The original process of writing by the creation of letters became a process of writing by selection from a preformed set of letters. The human hand creates infinite variety. Different people have different handwriting, and even an individual’s handwriting will vary from one writing session to the next according to mood, fatigue level, posture, etc. Movable type changes all that. Individual Mycenaean or Carolingian scribes can be still identified by their work; not so the modern writer. Within a single font, the e in one word will look just like the e in the next, no matter who originally authored the individual words. How many people’s words, for example, have been uniformly recorded in Times New Roman type?

Inevitably, there were some who objected to the sterility of the new process. How could the spiritual value of a printed Bible possibly compare to that of one crafted by hand by a praying human soul? Equally inevitably, perhaps, the new technology won the day. The invention of movable type by no means halted to the activity of handwriting, but it did mean that most public texts thereafter were written by selection rather than by creation. At first the privileged domain of print shops, writing by selection has only become more dominant with the invention and widespread use first of typewriters and then of personal computers.

From The Writing Revolution, by Amalia Gnanadesikan

I came across this passage while researching for my thesis, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it: The idea here calls into question our very perception of creativity.

After all, we think of choosing among the different typefaces our computers offer as exercising our creativity, but it is really merely selection from the choices that the computer has to offer. Very few of us go to the lengths of designing our own typefaces, and I’m not sure anyone has done so for something like an essay.

For another example, let’s consider the place of handwriting in our society today. First, it’s not taught in schools anymore, possibly because of computers. My generation, for example, has horrible handwriting according to yesterday’s standards, probably because we type more than we write by hand.

How many other aspects of our lives has this touched? Certainly it goes beyond word processing. There are a million examples: Nowadays we’d rather choose between two flavors than create our own. We’d rather select from a list of topics for an essay than come up with our own. Art students invariably find it easier to work when they’re given some parameters rather than free reign over what they create. Teachers select from rather than create their own materials. Could the Enlightenment—the shift from alchemical to empirical science—also be a product of this movement? (And the worst part of it is, if we’re presented with too many choices, we find ourselves paralyzed. An excellent book on the subject is The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz.)

I know I said “merely selection” above, as if selection were a bad thing. But is it? Certainly if we frame the question as choosing between coming up with our own ideas (creating) and stealing others’ ideas (selecting), then we’d probably say creating is nobler. But I don’t think it has to be. For instance, selection allows us as a society to focus our attention in different places. If we had to spend all our time designing typefaces or even just writing things our by hand, we wouldn’t be able to devote our thoughts to other things. (Though there are some who’d say that by speedily typing up our thoughts, we fail to think them through completely.)

And contrary to what Gnanadesikan says, writers must have selected to some degree before the printing press came along. Though the exact shape of the letter might vary from one instance to the next, it had to be recognizable. If I were a medieval monk transcribing Bible pages, for example, and I decided to replace the letter with a pictogram of a little zebra—and for good measure, sometimes I’d make it a lion or giraffe instead—I’d truly be creating. But people would have a harder time reading what I’d written.

Does that mean, then, that communication must be an act of selection in order to be successful? We do, after all, have to be familiar with the codes that our interlocutors are using or we won’t be able to decode their messages. We can’t invent words willy-nilly or transcribe our speech into senseless strings of characters if we want to be understood. The conclusion: Movable type and our modern propensity for selection, rather than creation, has aided the communication process. After all, in a communication system, consistency is a boon.

But what has this done to us outside communication? In art, for example? It’s an oft-asked question: Do artists or thinkers truly create, or do they select from things they’ve seen and heard? In other words: Are they creations, or permutations? If we really are only rehashing old ideas, is it possible that we actually created before the invention of the press? (It’s an intriguing idea; after all, around the same time that the press debuted, our artists returned their focus to Antiquity with the Renaissance.)

Is innovation truly possible? Did the invention of type change anything? Is selection inherently good or bad? Can we channel our creative roots by returning to handwriting?

What do character count limits really mean?

We all know that the Chinese and Japanese writing systems often use a single character to represent an entire word, but how that affects these speakers’ interactions with information technology doesn’t seem to be often considered. So let’s take a moment to do that today.

Everyone who’s ever sent a text or tweet has encountered the dreaded character limit. In SMS messages, we must contain ourselves to 160 characters, and in tweets, 140. Sure, some have achieved impressive economy of their language to express very profound thoughts in such short spaces (for example, the famous six-word novel that Hemingway possibly wrote, “For sale: baby shoes, never worn,” is certainly tweetable).

But for the average Joe, sometimes it’s hard to get everything you want to say in a tweet or text. Often you need to make weird abbreviations or leave out details—or maybe give up altogether and call, or decide not to tweet.

The Chinese and Japanese don’t have it so hard. Ben Summers has calculated that the communication power of Japanese tweets is equivalent to 260 English characters, far beyond the 140-character limit. That seems like a big difference, but what does that mean in the real world?

A recent article on Tofugu quotes a number of Japanese tweets, providing their English translations as well. Let’s take a look at one.

Here’s the original Japanese tweet from user @irispeach, coming in at exactly 140 characters. As you can see, there are even plenty of gratuitous punctuation marks and line breaks, just to rub it in.



And here’s the English translation that the author of the article gives:

The reason why I don’t want to dye my hair black again (or don’t want to look tidy and clean) is because a woman who has black hair and looks tidy and clean can tend to have following problems;

・They tend to be looked down on by guys.
・They tend to be molested more often than women with different hair color.
・Black hair tends to give men the impression that they are gentle, quiet, and obedient.
・They tend to give an impression of yamato-nadeshiko

Ever since I dyed my hair and stopped putting in so much time and effort applying makeup to my face, the number of times I’ve been molested has dramatically decreased. I’m no longer approached by strange men, either. I’m much more at ease now.

That’s 696 characters. Even taking into account more economical possible translations from the Japanese text, you clearly get way more bang from your buck as far as thoughts-per-tweet go.

Can you imagine scrolling through your Twitter feed, parsing such lengthy tweets? It would certainly slow you down; Twitter would feel anything but “light” and “micro.” There’s no doubt that if each tweet had a 700-character limit, the service would be radically different—probably not nearly as popular. Yet that’s exactly how it is in Japan, where it’s actually tremendously popular.

The emoji you never use

Apple seems to love emoji, the Japanese emoticon library, and they’ve played a considerable role in popularizing them outside Japan. I’d like to explore the history and development of emoji in Japan and their spread to the West, but that is quite an undertaking. For now, let’s consider one small aspect of emoji: the weird ones.

We all intuitively “get” what the facial emoji are trying to convey. Just take a look:


Okay, I admit I’m not quite sure when that face mask one would come in handy, but for the most part each of these is pretty clear. But emoji go well beyond little faces: As aficionados know well, there’s a cactus, some leaves, a Hokusai print, a little pile of poop, a dinosaur… Though they’re ambiguous, many of us have found uses for them (sometimes, in fact, because they’re ambiguous).

But there are some emoji we (probably) never, ever use: the ones that just show a Japanese character. For example, you can see some of them here:


For English speakers, these icons have even less communicational utility than a picture of a VHS tape. For Japanese speakers, on the other hand, they do convey something concrete. But when, why and how could they be used? What is the value of using the emoji over just typing the character?

I posed the question to Koichi, creator of a number of innovative Japanese learning tools and arbiter of Japanese culture. It turns out that these icons are handy shortcuts—ways to convey in a single icon what would normally take a few characters. Consider the 申 emoji, for example. Japanese speakers understand it as a shortened form of 申し込み, which means “apply” or “register.” And 祝 is a shorter way to say お祝い, which means “congratulations.” Thus, when under the restraints of time or character limits, or simply to add a bit of style to a message, these emoji can be employed.

Still, they don’t seem to be used that widely. If we take a look at Emoji Tracker, a real-time tracker of emoji use on Twitter, which displays the emoji in order of popularity, we see that the emoji showing Japanese characters fall squarely at the end of the list.