Not handwriting

At first glance the photo above may look like something from the past. A closer look and you see it's a marriage of the essence of the past with more modern technology. A mechanical arm holding a vial of ink attached to a pen nib writes out religious text in angled gothic letterforms. Descriptive text tells me that "as a person approaches the sculpture the machine becomes 'distracted', making textual errors as it copies". Eventually it transforms the Gospel of Mark into a different text.

Is this handwriting? There is no hand. It looks like what was once traditionally called handwriting.

Across the room over a dozen machines wielding ball point pens write out texts from a programed search of the internet beginning with — America is not... Germany is not... Norge is not... Canada is not... — they stop, they stagger, they spit out more and more paper with variations of cursive handwriting in the dominate language of the country. Again, is this handwriting?

These images are from an exhibit at the Museum of Craft and Design. The art installations in the room are by Chris Eckert. He's created elaborate machines to highlight and automate the tedious which even includes a machine to pray the rosary.

At one time all the words on the printed page were hand typeset individually with lead letters forming the word. Now we tap out those same letters on keyboards that hold the memory of a typewriter. Our keyboards have the same configuration of the typewriter that was designed to slow the typist down just enough so the arms thwaking at the page didn't get tangled and caught in each other. When handwritten passages were handset, cases to hold the loose type were designed so the typesetter could quickly get at the letters used most often. It was about speed. It is still about speed. And say it in 140 characters or less.

A couple weeks after seeing the Mechanical Parables exhibit I read an article on Wired about Bond. It's a company with a writing machine not dissimilar from the one in the exhibit. Originally is was designed to write out personal messages to recipients of high end gifts. The company created it as a solution to their own problem. They wanted to include a personal handwritten note with each of their shipments but found they couldn't keep up with the demand... [because writing takes man hours]. Still wanting it to be personal they came up with the solution of having a machine write the sentiments from the gift givers. Their machine is also programmed to make errors, though these errors are in the letterforms themselves. So it's not exactly a pen plotter with a fancy nib. Ultimately their solution has become their business and they seem to have forgone the gift curating aspect. You can now compose and send your own messages in the mail through Bond.

When I first read about Bond I was a little grossed out. [People can't even write their own cards anymore!] And I still have mixed feelings. If the gift component was still there, making it an upscale version of Amazon I agree it would be adding some intimacy to an online buying experience. For centuries pen to paper has emphasized the sentiments of messages, but what does it mean when you separate the tactile element coming from the one giving the personal sentiment? Is it handwriting?

Currently the handwriting [or robot writing] choices available are created from real handwriting samples. They're not the elaborate copperplate calligraphy I've been practicing. They are perhaps a neater version of what anyone could write if those muscles aren't to atrophied from texting and typing. Sending this style note could be confused for a truer version than what it is. You might not realize your neighbor didn't personally write the note thanking you for a fundraiser donation but wouldn't it feel weird if you got a note from your mom written in Nikola Tesla's handwriting? 

So, yes, I still have mixed feelings. When I watched the video from Bond it's so ernest that I kept having to remind myself I was watching in February and nowhere near April 1. This was not a joke. That earnestness is hopeful because at the root it it about keeping connection and making it easier for people to stay connected in our socially networked saturated world. You also have the option of having your own handwriting scanned making the whole experience a high tech version of yourself. I definitely see how this could bring some intimacy to business correspondence.

Ultimately I do not think this is handwriting but it doesn't mean it can't evoke the same emotions. It's allowing those who no longer write handwritten notes anyhow to have an alternative and of-the-moment fun way to do it. Ultimately the words being written are still coming from a singular human. [I think therefor I am?] We'll start to worry when the Hallmark of the future as depicted in Her becomes a reality.

What do you think?

Links of related interest
Museum of Craft and Design. The Chris Eckert installation along with another equally compelling exhibit called Data Clay will be available until April 19th, 2015.
Wired article about Bond

Blog post I wrote about the calligraphy trend
Blog post I wrote about the design trend of handmade