nothing has changed in 3,000 years 04.01.2005, 11:18 AM
posted by kim white
Our exploration of digital technology and the revolution it has provoked in our reading and writing practice, tends to focus on the latest gadget and the newest software, but we are also concerned with the things that don't change and the aspects of human communication that are so deeply a part of our nature that they can not be removed from our reading and writing systems. The first "Information Esthetics" lecture at the Chelsea Museum brought this to the fore last night. Robert Bringhurst spoke about hand-lettered manuscripts, and about typography that respects and preserves the texture and uniqueness of the hand-made mark. He argued for the humanity of fine craftsmanship. He even managed to convince me that slight variations in the shape of letterforms can serve as metaphors for our own individuality.
He also made the point that the devices in our writing/reading systems are physiologically based. The average page is a size that can be held easily in our hands and read at arm's length. Bringhurst showed a slide of an Egyptian manuscript. The size of the papyrus was very similar to page we use today, and the text was composed in blocks around images. Very much like magazine layouts. As I was admiring the beauty of the manuscript, Bringhurst said, "as you can see, nothing has changed in 3,000 years." That shouldn't shock me, but it did. I've been so absorbed in thinking about the next new thing, I'd forgotten that reading and writing is a very very old thing.
Interesting to think that whether we are reading something written on stone, papyrus, paper, or a computer screen, we need the same things we've aways needed: legibility, context, and "texture." I'm radically summarizing Bringhurst's lecture (hope I'm doing it justice). The way I understand it, texture is Bringhurst's way of describing the particular kind of beauty we look for in cultural artifacts. Texture, is evidence of complexity, information, meaning and the imperfect human hand at work.
So, I'm thinking about how this "texture" manifests in digital manuscripts and it seems to me that it does so in several ways including: the craftsmanship of the digital document itself (which includes the code, the interface, and the composition), the richness of information/meaning that resides in virtual layers or as "links" within the text, and the way beauty can be crafted out of the physical material itself--light emitted by a computer screen.
(photo by Alex Itin)
Posted by kim white on April 1, 2005 11:18 AM
gary frost on April 3, 2005 10:31 PM:
Another thing to mention is that the conventions of page layout that Mr. Bringhurst describes are not as old as the propensities to identify and read pattern in the nature world. Actually exemplars of the papyrus page, beautiful Greek letter Coptic on the half square page, that are millennia old are only recent instances of pattern interpretation.
A much older convention of reading left no such trace. It initiated text interpretation and text sharing and helped to set the conventions of the page. It also diverted the hominid series from a strict behavioral path to a path of literacy. This early literacy was the identification and interpretation of animal tracks. This literacy of great works has disappeared.
What is odd is that we still know the exemplar of the papyrus page. We know it and have it in our catalog of pattern depiction because the exemplars actually survive to the present day. This is really odd. All of the conventions of writing and typography interrelate because the exemplars survive side-by-side.
I wonder if the exemplars, the conventions and esthetics of screen based reading best compile into a literacy similar to animal tracking. This would then be a literacy lost within each generation and conveyed only as a temporary exemplar without context in a persistent physical medium.
kim white on April 5, 2005 4:31 PM:
I love the idea of animal tracking as an early form of literacy and as a model for ephemeral "searches" in the digital medium. I often think of my online research activities in hunter-gatherer terms, "tracking" ideas through Google or Yahoo. Aspects of the digital writing process, like email and instant messaging, are also disposable, and these literacies will disappear when the technology outmodes.
The idea that all exemplars of digital forms will disappear like animal tracks provoked a long discussion at the institute. Permanance is important. Culture can't build without some persistance of memory. We wonder if the rapid change in technology that causes this ephemerality is just an early growth phase that digital media is going through before it settles into a more permanent form, or will digital media continue to evolve at a rate so rapid that the software or hardware used to access cultural artifacts becomes obsolete within a generation?
sol gaitan on April 5, 2005 6:11 PM:
As long as software and hardware retain their commercial character, I'm afraid that cultural artifacts derived from them will become obsolete in less than a generation. Permanence is elusive, but the desire to attain it is a very human trait. The cycle seems to go from hunting-gathering to husbandry, to storing and preserving (to, alas, accumulating.) Are screen-based products some sort of mandala or will they be able to remain, not so much as products, but as stored concepts?