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From A to Screen: the Migration of Letters

Johanna Drucker

How do letters appear on our screens, these exquisite expressions of design, our Baskerville so clearly differentiated from the Caslon and Comic Sans that we recognize instantly what font families we are inviting into view? […] Our concepts of what the letters are, as well as their literal forms, have migrated from scratched stone and inked surface to screen. […] What are the letters? Did our ancestors ask this, as they formed their proto-Canaanite glyphs in the early part of the second millennium B.C., as the alphabet emerged in a cultural exchange between cuneiform scripts and hieroglyphic signs? If they did, they left no trace of these ruminations. The earliest recorded reflections on the letters, their origins and their identity, come from the Greeks almost a thousand years later. […] They were indeed aware of the differences among sign types and systems. Plato had been to Egypt, and his investigation of self-evident signs and the myth of mimesis, The Cratylus, bears within it a mistaken conviction that the hieroglyphics he had seen on monuments abroad had a capacity to communicate directly with the eye. […]

The alphabet was not invented but emerged […] from the same common root, which tracks to the lands of Canaan, Accad, Moab, Byblos, Sinai, and other realms whose names haunt the biblical history of a region of the Middle East that stretched in a fertile crescent from Mesopotamia to northern Africa.11
Seth Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009).
Its origins are intertwined with the histories of nations and peoples whose inscriptions provide a piecemeal record of the first appearances of a system of signs that was neither cuneiform, nor hieroglyphic, nor syllabic, logographic, or ideographic, but alphabetic (letters used to represent phonemes). […]

But the question that guides our investigation into the paradox of letters on the screen, the tension between the atomistic and systemic identities of these forms, remains much as it has been for centuries—not simply “What is the alphabet?” but “How does the alphabet function according to the ways we may conceive it?” […] Thus the answers have implications for our current condition, for the unacknowledged hegemonic hold of the Western alphabet on computational processing, on its infiltration into the very structure of the networked world in which its ASCII, Unicode and BinHex systems operate. […]

The development of contemporary modes of production, that is, the design problems of technological migration, could be studied by looking at the career of an individual designer. One example is the justly renowned Matthew Carter, who began with lessons in stone carving from his father, accompanied by exercises in calligraphy, before becoming involved in each successive wave of design production, from hot type (lead) to cold (photographic), and digital, from the earliest pixels wrangling to programmable fonts (variable fonts) whose variants are produced through an algorithm generating random varia…