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The Way We Write

Greg Niemeyer, Professor, Art Practice and Berkeley Center for New Media | January 21, 2022

Recently I bonded with a friend about how our handwriting looked in that first half hour of school, when we forgot our gloves, and the winter was cold. Our cold-swollen fingers could not quite grasp the pen, and the random slip-tilt of the instrument determined the appearance of our script more than the small alphabet shapes we intended to make. And yet, we pressed on, anxious not to fall behind in our exercises.

There was more at stake than keeping up with the class: Writing, after all, is the foundation of human civilization, and our 10-year old selves would not let cold fingers get in the way of that. Writing, we learned, was where individual thoughts, feelings and ideas take form, define work, influence collective consciousness, and establish the law. It was a good school.

Looking back, I notice that I write far less by hand than I did in grade school, and my own kids mostly use text-to-speech software to “write” their homework. Why? It’s faster.

But writing by hand offers qualities beyond the need for speed. It keeps us closer to ourselves because it is a trace of our human movement. This movement adds dimensions of meaning beyond the text itself. It conveys the mood of the author, and also the author’s identity.

Looking at no more than a fragment of handwriting, we can tell if the person who wrote it is familiar, we can tell what mood they were in when they wrote, and we can glean how much time they had to write.
When we enlarge a digitally recorded handwritten line, we can even see each heartbeat’s trace, almost like a lie detector, as detailed in this video.

Something New Arises from Greg Otto Niemeyer on Vimeo.

Handwriting can convey volumes of performative metadata. Handwriting delivers that metadata to the reader, but also to us writers, while we are writing. When we type, we get no feedback from the letters. All letters look the same, whether we are sleepy, happy, confident, confused, drunk, calm, clear, or caffeinated to the max.

When we write by hand, we can see all these moods. Handwriting is a mirror. Looking at the letters as we form them, we can glean if we are tired, angry, calm, honest, fake, meek, bold, bored, scared, or inspired. That information can flow into the next letter, the next sentence, and the next paragraph. It is an unparalleled kinesthetic experience unfolding exactly at the speed of our consciousness. Mind and hand form an intricate duet, a feedback loop flying across the page.

This intimate duet of mind and hand is a closed loop dialog with our own selves. The public language use and the person we imagine writing for can be part part of that loop, if we so choose. We can leave out the target audience, as in when we write a journal, we can even leave out the public language, as in when we write in a language of our own invention.

In his work, artist RETNA uses a novel script that makes sense to him, but is difficult to decipher casually.

In his work, artist RETNA uses a novel script that makes sense to him, but is difficult to decipher casually.

Leonardo da Vinci famously developed a unique, private writing style which matched his left hand dominance. He adapted the “normal” writing system of his time, designed for right-handed people. He mirror-flipping the entire system across his body: Leonardo wrote across the sagittal plane, from right to left, in mirror script, inventing from the ground up.

His handwriting reflected his entire body. His way of writing was a foundational element for his way of thinking, which in turn became a foundational element for the people of his time, a foundation that endured in some ways to this day.

Handwriting also reflects our communities and upbringing. We usually learn to write from our parents, our siblings, our teachers, and our ancestors. Many writing styles are matrilineal, because it is often mothers who sit down with their children to teach them how to first draw, and then write their name, when children learn that letters are not pictures but rather signs: The building blocks of language and of civilization.

Handwriting also reflects the history of human consciousness. Every letter has in it the wisdom and experience of writing in sand, in wax, in clay, in stone and on paper. The letters evolved from what our human hands could do with the resources we found around us.

When we write with a brush on paper, we invoke the history of the Chinese language, which flows for over 5000 years. And all along, we are bound by power structures, but we are also free to do what Sappho did in her open slate. We are free to invent letters, coin words, voice feelings, demand better communication, share visions and spell out rules for future worlds.

So when we write an “a”, we physically connect our bodies back to the flowing forms of Greek letters that evolved from writing in the sand with a stick. When we write a “1” we connect back to the marks in clay tablets our ancestors used to count sheep, years, and yes, taxes. When we write a capital A with serifs, we invoke the history of Romans chiseling capitals in stone.

Historically, The way we write both reflects and propels human fates. In the history of writing, we can identify three basic phases: First, the “Scribe” phase, where writing was conducted by trained professionals only and the most educated elite, similar to the way stunt drivers do things with cars today that non-professionals should not attempt. From that time, we remember the secret power that words held over the illiterate: words could cast spells, and from that, we still have the word “spelling” to indicate the art of writing correctly.

Second, the “Industrial” phase, in which machines enhance the reproduction, storage, and circulation of text mechanically, and literacy becomes a near-constant, imperative element of human experience. In that phase, people started to write more and faster, as if to keep up with the machines. Every human interaction required text: passports, letters, love notes, contracts, deeds, orders, receipts, prescriptions, recipes and reviews.

Third, the “Data” phase, in which machines, specifically computers, take over not only the representation, storage and circulation but also the analysis, manipulation and generation of writing.

We can associate each of these three phases with a kind of power structure: The Scribe phase with monarchy, the Industrial phase with bureaucracy, and the data phase with corporations.

When we choose to write one way or another, we affirm the power structure associated with that form of power. Of course, what is true about how we write is also true about what we write, and how we use language, but here we focus on how we write, the medium of writing itself.

If we leave a hand-written note to set up some family plan, we affirm hereditary power structures, be they matrilineal or patrilineal. If we write with a fancy pen, a swag ballpoint or a self-made quill says much about our family’s class and ethos.

If we fill out a form for the nth time, we submit to the rule of bureaucracy. We check boxes and fill in the blanks to become the subjects of bureaucratic power, subjects of a nation. If we share our preferences for watching movies with a streaming company, we are donating data which they can use to optimize product, and we are also donating data about ourselves which the streaming company can analyze, market and sell to other corporations.

In each case, we strengthen power structures through the way we write. Just looking at the speed with which we write illustrates that historical path. Let’s define write speed in terms of how many characters a writer can mark down per second. One character requires 8 bits of data, so write speed is defined in bits per second.

When we apply that measure to chiseling in stone we get 0.13 bits per second, if we assume a character to be worth 8 bits of information, and if we assume a skilled craftsperson chiseling one letter per minute.

A scribe may write around 6.2 bits per second. Although not a calligrapher by any means, I achieved about 6.2 bits per second in my birthday card writing. When I scrawl, I achieve about 27 bits per second, at the expense of legibility. When I type, I achieve 40 bits per second on a good day, at least according to my resume.

Handwriting styles and their respective speeds

What blows all this out of the water though is digital speech-to-text transcription, which runs along at about 137 bits per second in zoom meeting closed captioning for example: At least someone is paying attention. Even faster than transcription, though is the mechanized generation of text. Machines write far more than humans ever did, if we just think about the light transcribed into numbers by a digital cameras, the sensor data of jet engine monitors, and all the metadata our smartphones generate about us.

While this kind of writing does not really involve composition the way human communication does, it is staggeringly fast and vast: Readily available SSD memory devices write 8 billion bits per second. That puts even the most well-trained scribe to shame.

Machines also learned to compose coherent texts faster than humans. Answering my question to “Say something about themselves” as a prompt, a leading text generation tool, generated the paragraph below at a rate of 2328 bits per second. The speed of AI composition is almost 17 times faster than a human speaking, let alone thinking.
I’m a relatively young student. I’m attending college for engineering. I’m studying computer science. I’m studying computer science. I think that the skills I’m learning in school are very important. I’m working with…
The last sentence is incomplete because I asked to stop writing after 64 tokens… they do charge by the word.

OpenAI expounds on the subject of handwriting

We write with AI when we text by phone, type on the cloud, and search online: Auto-correct, Auto-complete, Grammar check etc. are all are contributing our writing and thinking to vast corporate machines. They give us a form of language that is more organized, structured and suitable for mining.

AI abhors the typo. Typos introduce unwanted ambiguity into computations which are all about converting the massive uncertainty of all possible words into certain, coherent sentences. Thinking machines influence our writing, thinking and feeling as much as we influence the way they work. We write, think and feel in concert with machines. Auto-complete enacts our corporate corporate power, much like the chisel, the brush and the access to literacy itself enacted past forms of power.

But when we write, we create our future. On the blank page, our mind guides the writing hand. That hand guides the pen. That pen shapes the word. That word spurs the mind to keep writing on, and each stroke of the pen holds the potential for a new thought, a new story, and a new world.

The blank page, the open mind and the free hand are unfettered by assistive technology, unfettered by End User License Agreements (EULA), unfettered by forms and conventions defined before we even begin. It is up to us to use, to invoke our blank pages, our open minds and our free hands. It is up to us to determine what future civilizations may spring from that freedom.

So when we write in dialog with machines, we constitute our future world in close collaboration with corporate AI. That’s real power: Who controls the way we write, controls the language, and who controls the language, controls the future.

Thanks to Lisa Niemeyer for the inspiration, to my kids for going the literacy path with me, to Maja Thomas for the conversation, to Brandon Schneider for comments, and to Moleskine for supporting this research.