Since the beginning of writing and down to the printing press, writing has always evolved new forms. Across civilizations or within single cultures, writing has changed form and support, but especially form. To confine ourselves to letters – those on wood do not resemble those engraved in stone, which are different from those on papyrus, which are different from those on parchment, and also different from those on Gutenberg’s paper. This holds true for the evolution of writing in most societies which have moved through various scripts over the centuries.
With Gutenberg, this protean evolution has begun to slow down. Since the electronic revolution of the second half of the 20th century, it has stopped altogether. What print has begun and the electronic medium has accomplished is the shutting down of the evolutionary machine of writing. The printing press has enshrined several medieval types as the generic fonts of the West’s printing capital (with numerous, though modest variations). The electronic text slavishly transcribed the printed word into an e-printed word, visually identical though materially distinct.
There is little evidence to suggest that new scriptural types will emerge out of the electronic revolution. Instead, we see a great deal of imitation and simulation of old types – the dismal hankering for a body by the ghost in the machine. Until we bought a Kindle or an iPad, we’d hardly ever paid attention to the gentle, yet automatic flicking of a book’s pages with our fingers. Now, these devices bring that experience into focus in the simulation of a page-flick once we swipe the screen or press a button.
We are trapped in Gutenberg’s iron cage, disembodied and surrounded by the ghosts of the past, like Dante in the vestibule of hell. The future promises a lot, but everything is written in small print.