THE RED LIST

The Pencil, the Printing Press,
and the Future of Writing

terena-bell

Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

terena-bell

Tim Brookes

Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of Endangered Alphabets. His current project is to create a Red List of the world’s writing systems, identifying every script currently at use in the world and assessing its degree of health or vulnerability.

I’m at my desk, sketching in pencil. The project is an Endangered Alphabets sculpture that says, “The right to speak,” in the Osage script, developed by the Osage Nation between 2000 and 2020 to represent their language in a way that is legible, learnable, yet uniquely their own.

I’ve been emailed the phrase in the Osage language, printed it out, and want to transfer those characters to the wood.

But I don’t want to transfer them exactly. The Osage text is in a font called Noto Sans Osage, which like all the Google Noto Sans fonts is of great value for enabling the digital transmission, the preservation, and even the revitalization of many of the world’s minority alphabets. But it doesn’t look as though it has been written. It looks as though it has been designed and printed.

I want my carvings to look written. I want the texts to look alive, used, expressive. If possible, I want them to look beautiful, as though they were written with love and care. That they are an extension, as well as an expression, of the human hand, and the human mind.

Which is why I’m working in pencil, sketching and erasing and sketching again. The pencil is so important to the Alphabets that I have an entire drawer full of them, and an electric pencil sharpener plugged into the outlet behind my desk. And as I sit down with my slice of wood in front of me and draw out the letters I’m going to carve, it becomes clear how intimately connected the pencil is to the project, to writing itself, and even to the act of thought.

It’s at this moment I find myself remembering the sudden, brief, intense vogue that sprang up in 1999 for choosing the most important inventions of the previous thousand years.

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The overlooked pencil

In January 1999 the Wall Street Journal chose the invention of printing by movable type by Johannes Gutenberg between 1445 and 1455.

It was a questionable choice, frankly. For one thing, movable-type printing was invented some 400 years earlier in China by Bi Sheng; and for another, the importance of the printing press declined first with the introduction of the personal desktop printer and then through digital information sharing.

Nevertheless, the printing press was a generally popular choice, along with the electric light bulb, the car, the telephone, the computer, and the aircraft.

Pretty much everyone overlooked the pencil.

It’s hardly surprising, I suppose. The pencil is so low-tech, it seems virtually sub-tech, barely qualifying as an invention at all. In terms of intellectual status, it seems more or less a kindergarten toy, at best a learning tool, like a bike with training wheels. This is partly because it has a provisional quality we don’t expect in a technology: unlike the printing press, it doesn’t create a solid, complete, finished product. Something drawn or written in pencil strikes us as only a partway step toward something more polished, more important, more complete.

And yet, as I say, the pencil is vital to the Alphabets, to writing itself, and even to the act of thought. And that’s largely because it is an elegant extension of the human mind.

The human mind in a single line

One thing we can take as given: The mind does not work like the printing press, or the computer. In fact, I submit that we are fascinated by such great inventions because we want to believe that’s how the mind works. Input leads to output. Problem solved. But the mind is like neither the printing press nor the computer. The mind is a darting tadpole. It goes in so many different directions, so quickly, with so little apparent sense of purpose, we are a little ashamed of its flightiness. We would like to believe we can think better than that: more crisply, more purposefully, so we admire our inventions that show more single-mindedness, more productivity. In misunderstanding the way the mind works, we habitually underestimate it.

As humans, we do an awful lot of tadpole-swift thinking, but most of what we think, I suggest, races around in our heads, barely noticed and seldom captured, and is ultimately lost.

The pencil helps us to think, first by capturing a thought and then by making us look at it. It makes us see what we are thinking. And as soon as we do, the darting tadpole of the mind offers another thought, which the pencil dashes onto — or the eraser dashes off — the wood, and the tadpole is away again.

Working with the Osage text, I sketch in the letters very roughly, just to get a sense of balance and spacing, of relative dimensions — and also of the way in which the shape of the letter responds to the natural curving motion of the wrist. I’m looking to find what comes naturally, and also what looks unnatural.

A sketched line, then, is a series of ideas, or perhaps of suggestions. What the pencil does is to externalize those ideas, so we can see them and test them. In fact, the pencil line is a constant series of small challenges to the writer: Is this it? Is this it? Does this look saggy? Does this curve too sharply?

This is how we think.

No matter how much we like to think of thinking as a single leap of genius that goes from zero to the automobile (or the printing press, or the computer) in sixty seconds, thinking is actually very much like sketching.

When sketching a curve, I often can’t see the needs of the smaller shape until I see the larger shape. I’ll often sketch around a curve in an untidy and almost random fashion, and it’s only when I see the shape and possibilities of the curve as a whole that I can go into the finer level of detail and fill in or erase tiny arcs, sometimes less than a millimeter long, blending them into the whole. I couldn’t do it the other way around; I couldn’t draw those tiny arcs and hope they would add up into the satisfying curve, because I haven’t yet seen that curve. It is revealed only by the apparently haphazard act of sketching.

And just as writing or drawing in pencil is a series of acts of revelation to the writer, the same revelations are clear to the reader, or viewer. Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings are astounding in the ideas we see taking shape. It’s not just the final product that testifies to the guy’s genius; it’s the fact that we can see genius in action, being worked out, moving from the unreachable dark recesses of the mind to the bright visibility of day, getting tweaked and refined and made more workable, each tiny line being an added thought, an improvement.

A pencil drawing, then, may not have the crisp quality of the printed page, but it has something far more penetrating and authentic. The genius of the pencil is its lack of permanence and finality: in tracing an erasable line, it runs along the borderline between right and wrong, between success and failure, redefining and co-opting both as it goes. Like flame, it flourishes on the cusp between one state and another. And in doing so, it embodies and supports the hypothetical or provisional nature of thought itself. It is the thinking person’s perfect tool.

Yet it isn’t a form of artificial intelligence. Artificial intelligence is in a sense an externalization and even an abdication of thought: We design devices to do our thinking for us. The pencil is the opposite, and as such it’s something more sophisticated. By showing us the workings of our own minds and enabling us to make those workings steadily richer and more intentional, it’s a device that helps the user to be more intelligent.

The future of writing

All this has a great deal to do with our understanding of what writing is, and is not, and where writing seems to be headed at this point in history.

The printing press made writing and literacy much more widely available. It also introduced the then-new idea that writing was a mechanical product, capable of an infinite number of identical iterations.

The nature of type also changed the shapes of letters. Because the letters themselves were now made by a mechanical process, they were biased towards mechanical forms — straight lines, sharp edges, symmetries, parallels. Both the production of writing and the aesthetics of writing were changed — slowly at first, and then more and more widely as other mechanical forms, such as the typewriter, reinforced the dominance of the type paradigm. Writing has become less and less an extension of the human body, more and more an extension of our machinery.

The future of writing is that, even while it becomes more diverse and more expressive of the many and varied cultures of the world, it will also become less of a physical human act. All of those ghastly industrial terms for writing — output, product, content — are self-fulfilling prophecies, and we will expect and want writing to have those mechanical qualities. Like an endangered alphabet, writing by pencil will seem old-fashioned, quixotic, unprofessional, even primitive.

In going forward, then, in some respects we will go backwards: We will return to the age of the scribe, and only those who have good reason to write by hand — calligraphers, artists, graphic designers — will write skillfully.

Yet back in 1999, the top-10 list-making futurists missed one vital quality: The pencil is a survivor.

The pencil will survive because it costs so little, requires no power, can live indefinitely at the back of a drawer without drying out or running down. Like an earthworm or a cockroach, a pencil can survive being decapitated. Like a virus, it can withstand freezing.

When the printing presses and the internet have been seized by rebel forces or imperial stormtroopers, the pencil will come back into its own. Come the zombie apocalypse or the nuclear winter, the pencil will be ready.

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