Tools vs expertise: A conversation about writing, processing words, and setting type

A couple of years ago, this tweet was pinned to the top of my timeline for a few months. I still quite like it:

Last night my good friend Brandel Zachernuk picked up on this and no, I have no idea why he was sitting around pondering things he’d seen on Twitter 23 months ago. Whyever that was, we had a good chat and came up with a few things that are worth keeping, so here’s a transcript (edited for grammar and to remove chat about children, radio, SpaceX, and macroeconomic psychology). (The two of us aren’t very good at staying on track.)

BRANDEL: I just had a neat thought, related to your Keanu moment about ‘word processors’
Microsoft Word and its ilk never started as being tools for writing.
They were tools for typesetting
That’s a different task you do at a totally different time.

MAX: I suppose the typewriter had already combined composition (i.e. authoring – choosing the words that you use to express your ideas) and typesetting, but by incident of their mechanics they had limited almost every possible design decision to choice of 1 option.
You buy a typewriter and it comes with a single font. You choose a paper width and the margins are built in, etc.

B: That’s true, typewriters fit in there too as an uneasy middle ground. I guess there was such a ‘bright line’ between publishing and everything else for a long time.

M: Typewriters took away typesetting decisions which word processors then gave back, but they handed those decisions to authors rather than designers.

B: It’d be great to talk to people who did information work in earnest before computers made all the phases and distinct disciplines so muddy.
Get the tangible sense of what proofs and drafts were, etc.

M: Yes! It’s funny to think that disciplines or sets of skills were mixed up with control of machinery – e.g. you must be the visual designer if you have access to all the little metal letters
…and if you don’t have any little metal letters, you’ll never get to set type in your lifetime.

B: But then the task of setting those letters into a line of type was so arduous that you couldn’t really be expected to manage any editorial decisions too.

M: And now that we’ve built machines that reduce the labour and take away the physical objects, we stress about the wrong people making bad decisions. People are never happy!

B: People misidentified what’s hard about a lot of stuff. [They] mistook the physical things as the hard parts [when the hard parts are actually the seemingly] incidental things also done by people doing the physical work.

M: I reckon that designers have done a much better job of reclaiming their expertise, and redefining it for modern tools, than wordsmiths.

[…We get distracted and end up making jokes about what Karl Marx would make of modern-day space exploration, before Brandel drags us some of the way back to our original track…]

B: Yeah people in liberal arts and humanities haven’t done a great job of seizing the systems of digital production for their own ends.

M: Do you mind if I blog this conversation? There are some useful things in there that I want to have written down somewhere, and a transcript on a blog is as good as anything else for now.

B: Fine by me! It’s really interesting to be surfacing what computers aren’t doing, or haven’t been set up to be doing properly. It’s so easy to lose sight of the way into the present moment and which values were prioritized.


That’s as far as we got. Interesting? I hope so. I think so, too. But I think that of pretty much anything Brandel comes up with. (Seriously, have a look at what he’s done on Codepen.)

Inter-city content strategy meetup love is quite possibly the world’s purest, and greatest, form of love

At CS Forum last year the three of us who organise Auckland Content Strategy Meetups met a lot of out counterparts from other cities. Briefly, we even shared a stage with them all. They were, and are, all lovely and brilliant people. And since that conference, a lot of inter-meetup activity has followed. Continue reading

Webstock speaker wrap-up: Clive Thompson

For Webstock 2014, BNZ Digital sent a big crowd along. It was, of course, great. Now we’re writing a ‘Webstock Speaker Series’ for the rest of the team. Each day we’re covering a single speaker from the main conference. Here’s my contribution from today.

Today it’s the misleadingly-boringly-named Clive Thompson, who rocked day two of the conference with a talk he called The New Literacies. This after he spent the previous night rocking, or at least blue-grassing, the BNZ-sponsored Start-Up Alley. Clive’s the guy on guitar. (Photo credit: some rando on Instagram called jacobbuck).

He also writes. I’ll definitely be reading his book Smarter Than You Think, half because he’s a clever guy who would no doubt write good books and half because I love a good title as much as I love confirmation bias. Speaking of confirmation, the proof that he’s a good writer is his blog, Collision Detection.

But let’s turn to The New Literacies. Clive spots patterns between new media and old (as in his latest blog post, Why 18th century books looked like smartphone screens), and this is the basis of a presentation about “technology to think with”.

The set of technology that we think with starts with the written word and includes images, video, games and even manufactured objects. (There’s probably more, but he only had half an hour.) As Clive sees it, each of these has evolved (so far) in similar ways.

Take the early days of the written word. Not only did it have old people up in arms about how it would ruin young people’s minds (how you lookin’ now, Socrates?), it was also very expensive. When something’s expensive, we use it for one-to-many communication. Even when you fast-forward from clay tablets to the Gutenberg press, which made creating written words miles easier than ever before, still only a few people actually had their writing distributed. It was a broadcast medium.

Over time another use emerges: one-to-one communication. It’s still wasn’t easy – George Washington would write letters on the back of old letters, so scarce was writing material, and if you wanted to buy a ballpoint pen in 1945 you would have needed about $100 in today’s money – but technological improvements shifted our use of the written word. It became more disposable, to the point today where we’ve gone beyond 1:1 communication and even use it for writing notes to ourselves now. Think of this third step as the “Post-It phase”.

So there’s the pattern: Technology is invented, expensive, and used for broadcast. It improves, cheapens, and we add 1:1 communication to its uses. Finally it becomes almost disposable, and something we also use just for ourselves.

You can see the start of the same pattern with photography, videos, and even games, each of which have moved beyond an expensive broadcast-only beginning to also having 1:1 uses. (Clive himself has written a game for an audience of one.) 3D printing is shifting the creation of objects from something that “broadcasts” many copies of the same thing all over world to something much closer to a one-to-one model as well.

So, what’s next? The question Clive ended with invited the Webstock audience – “an audience of hundreds of makers” – to work out what the Post-It phase will look like for digital media like videos, games, photos and 3D-printed objects. It’s a good question.

Clive Thompson, ladies and gentlemen!