Mechanical transformations

Printing has done to manuscript books what photography has done to painting. It has transformed a medium by adding a further layer of technology between the human hand and the artefact.

A book written by hand is as technological as a printed book. The making papyrus, paper or parchment, the mixing of ink, the preparation of the reed pen or the quill, not to mention modern technology of writing like the fountain or ballpoint pen – these are all technological development subject to the same properties like any other technology out there, from the wheel to the microchip. Only that the technology of handwritten books is not mechanical. The mechanics of handwriting show just how un-mechanical writing is. Direct human input is required for the production of each artefact. In printing, the human input is replaceable and, in time, it has been replaced almost completely. Humans may engineer and program machines to produce a printed page, but the machines do most of the job themselves.

The Copernican revolution of the printing press de-centred human input. It relocated the hand from the centre of the book production to the margins. The centre of this newly conceived universe is now the machine, an orb capable of sustaining the entire system. The benefits of this revolution were perceived to be so clear that the handwritten book ceased to be a conveyor belt of knowledge and science and was recognised as art. Interestingly, this coincided with a movement in the West that discovered and promoted the autonomous province of art in human expression and activity.

Handwriting continues to decline. As more and more of our lives depends on electricity and mediated technology, an idea creeps in that this is how it’s always been and that we’ll always have these mediating technologies, iPads, WiFi, 4G, the internet, at our logged-in fingertips. But shut the power down and you’ll scramble for a candle, pen and a piece of paper.

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