Category Archives: Technology

An episode from the history of typography

But they could afford typesetters. It’s hard to realize nowadays what that meant.

If you’re like me, you spend much of your time with electronic type. I was struck by how strange a state of affairs this really is recently when my brother sent me a video about a curious episode from the history of typography.

In the advent of computing, Bell Labs was instrumental in developing a lot of computing technology. As part of AT&T, Bell was a monopoly, which meant it didn’t have to be as cut-throat about its bottom line and could afford to allow a group of researchers to follow their curiosity even if their work didn’t appear to yield short-term profit. From this arrangement we got things like Unix, which is most likely at the root of the operating system you’re presently using; Bell Labs also helped bring about the democratization of type.

Before the 15th century (at least in the West), of course, nobody did typing. After Gutenberg, typing was a specialized skill. Not only did it demand extensive training, but the equipment was expensive. Fast forwarding to the 20th century, Dr. David Brailsford reports that in 1979 the newest, most affordable typesetting equipment would cost $50,000—enough to buy a nice house.

A team at Bell Labs managed to get a hold of one of these machines, a Linotron 202. Fonts were provided on floppy disks, at great cost and in proprietary format by a company called Mergenthaler. The Bell team reverse engineered the fonts, which were in an obscure format, to create their own.

The video details a modern-day project hearkening back to the past. In 1980 the Bell team wrote a memo describing how they reverse engineered the fonts, as well as the problems they encountered with the 202 machine, but the memo was suppressed at the time. Today the “authentic” memo only exists as a photocopy of a photocopy, and so in 2013 Brailsford decided to recreate it using modern software but mimicking the functions of the original software and processes to make it as authentic as possible.

Today we take it for granted that a given computer has dozens of fonts and new ones are obtainable for free or very cheap. Even professional type families in the hundreds of dollars are vastly cheaper than they were a few decades ago. Thanks must go, in part, to the Bell Labs team.

(Thinking about this over the past week has got me a bit sidetracked—I even decided to typeset my dissertation proposal in Latex.)


Questioning the written word

Question marks on the pageSometimes the most baffling truths are hidden within seemingly pointless observations.

In the throes of putting together my doctoral dissertation proposal, I’ve been mentally twirling one such observation: Writing always says something. That is, a given piece of writing always says the same something. And, seeing as writing is free from many of the limitations of speech and has considerable fixity (or “persistence”), a given piece of writing will be saying that same something for quite some time. What are the implications of this?

Many people are familiar with Socrates’ critique of writing, levied around the birth of the written word in Ancient Greek, that it may lead to impoverished memory. But Socrates had much more to say about writing than that. One of his key concerns was precisely what I wrote above. As he says in Phaedrus, transcribed by Plato:

You would imagine that they [written records] had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.

I’ve written before on how, because of this constancy, we put our trust in the written word. We privilege written forms of knowledge; if something is written down, we’re more inclined to believe it; and if we see something over and over, we’re more likely to take it as true.

But beyond this, there’s another vulnerability that the written word opens us up to: It gives us the answers. When we get easy answers, we don’t seem to work as hard to integrate new information with what we already know. That’s because doing this—building understanding—requires that we pose questions, that we have a back-and-forth, a conversation. If you’re diligent, you can have a conversation with the written word; Ron Day writes in Indexing It All that before the 19th century people regularly thought of reading a book as having a conversation with a  friend. But nowadays, we seem less inclined to question the things we’re reading. Concomitantly, many of us now read more than we interact with live people: We’re getting swarmed with answers, and we’re forgetting how to ask questions. As far as I can see, this is the real dark side of information abundance.

We need to keep asking questions. It’s what makes us human. This is what futurist Kevin Kelly argues in his new book The Inevitable, which explores several trends that will shape the technology of the future; Kelly argues that, for all the smarts and efficacy of future technologies, coming up with good questions will continue to be the sole purview of humanity. And in a world where more and more jobs previously done by humans are getting couped by computers, this is no time to forget how to ask questions.

So what can we do? Some advice in this regard comes from public speaker Michael Gelb’s books How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci and Creativity on Demand, which offer a framework to increase the quality of your creative output—this involves, inherently, getting good at asking questions.

But we also need to stock our toolbox for getting better at asking questions of the written word. To me, this comes down to improved literacy practice. In the information sciences, there’s a lot of talk of different kinds of literacy—information literacy, digital literacy, media literacy…—but it all comes down to building questioning skills. As researcher Jamie McKenzie writes in her book Beyond Technology:

Without strong questioning skills, information technologies contribute little to understanding or insight. There is even some chance that they might dilute understanding and interfere with thinking.

The urgency of building such skills for questioning and understanding has, for me, come to the fore in the recent election season. Much of the political information we deal with these days comes through the written word. In such a climate, poor questioning skills can have grave consequences for our country and planet.

There’s no better time to start than right now—you’ve been reading the written word for the past few minutes. In the spirit of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. Spend some time today questioning what you’ve been reading.

“It’s handwritten, but not by me!”

Ah, the personal touch of a handwritten note.

Ever since the dawn of type, people have been talking about how special handwriting is. In type, the English alphabet has only 26 letters (make that 52, counting lowercase and capitalized forms), but in handwriting, there are infinite letters. Just think of all the ways you can write the letter g and have it still be recognizable. (Indeed there is an entire blog dedicated to this letterform.) When we read something handwritten, we get a sense of the personality and emotion of the writer. This is why, when printed Bibles came along, people found the words a bit lacking in spirit. And it’s why handwritten letters are so special for us, even today (if a bit sloppier).

With digital technology, we’re no longer limited to keyboards and mice for input. With trackpads and touch screens, we can combine some of the personality of handwriting with the capability of electronics. The latest update to Apple’s iOS on the iPhone and iPad takes advantage of this, giving people the opportunity to send handwritten and drawn messages. Recipients can even replay the drawing to see how it came to be.

iOS 10 handwriting feature

While exploring this feature, I was struck by what seems to be an absurdity: It comes loaded with a number of pre-written messages—hello, thank you, happy birthday, etc.—that you can simply tap and send. That is, you can send a handwritten message without actually having to write it. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised—it turns out ghostwriting love letters is a sustainable business (and I feel like it figured in the plot of a novel I read once, but I can’t remember what it was).

Still, this seems tremendously weird to me. Wouldn’t a recipient find it disingenuous to receive the exact same text again and again? Though, then again, will people actually use these pre-made messages? For now, all I can do is speculate.