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Modern Hieroglyphics: Writing Fluidly in a Picture Language


What must the world be like in order for a person to understand what the phrase “copy and paste” means? As we look about us, we can distinguish between those things that can be “copied and pasted,” and those things that cannot. That bunch of flowers growing in the pot in my garden cannot be copied. I can grow similar flowers, but I can’t grow identical flowers.

While mechanical reproduction at the industrial level creates many seemingly identical products, the pen I write with, or the coffee mug from which I’m sipping– these things cannot be “copied and pasted.” As we continue to look about, our inclination would be to skip directly to the digital; for surely that’s the world from which “copy and paste” comes. But in our haste, we would be passing over vast continents.

“Copy and paste” makes sense to us because its most common usage is not digital. Its basis is in our language– both spoken and written. Language, words, can be quoted. I can copy a phrase, a prayer, a poem, a joke, a hint, an expression of emotion that I overhear somewhere and paste it into my speech. I can copy something identically, or I can make it my own by saying something similar. Our laws regarding copyright establish a legal and economic framework for the copying of language.

One of our primary activities as humans is to pass along news. “What’s going on in the world of politics today?” We scan through all the news we’ve consumed during the day– copying and pasting to create the story we want to tell. The filtering that takes place as we scan is both the discovery and creation of the value of information in the context of specific audiences.

As we turn to the digital, the obvious first stop is the editing program– the word processor. This tool augmented our ability to copy and paste text, to rearrange it, to treat it as a plastic medium. There’s a kind of flow to building and constructing that text editors make possible. Think about the much more mechanical process involved with using a fountain pen, typewriter, scissors and a glue pot.

The metaphor of editing has been extended to image, video and sound manipulation; and if we think about it, to the local file system itself. The desktop is an editor for pointers to files– here also, we copy, paste and delete. It’s with that editor that we’ve created ambiguity around the ownership status of digital media.

To preserve a particular economic algorithm, there’s an attempt to limit the file-system editor’s ability to “copy and paste” certain kinds of files. These kinds of limitations don’t exist with any other editor. Imagine a text editor that was prohibited from copying and pasting copyrighted material. Imagine a language that didn’t allow quotation.

When Ray Ozzie surfaced for a moment before being consumed by the organizational, political and directional turmoil of Microsoft, he developed and demo’d “copy and paste” at the level of the web. Live Clipboard was aimed at employing a simple metaphor for moving microformatted data from one place to another. Programs like Evernote allow me to copy sections of a web page with very loose HTML formatting, and paste them into my digital notebooks. In the world of social media we look at the social graph we’ve built and we’d like to copy it from this service and paste it into that service. Instead we find ourselves in the position of Medieval monk copying a manuscript with a quill pen.

We capture our thoughts and impressions through text, we scribble it in notebooks, we type it on sheets of paper and on to glowing screens. Our text becomes hypertext and the exoskeleton of structured markup encapsulates our language. Capturing sound, image and video used to be the province of professionals, but now most “telephones” can do this. Body language, gestures and intonation can now provide color to the messages we pass back and forth.

This is the point in time we need the pencil that Marc Canter created. Copy and paste are functions of an editor and they operate on pointers and abstractions to the world around us. We now have the Network and bandwidth to return to early days of multimedia and the toolsets that were developed for the production of CD-ROMs.

On the professional end, these tools have become more and more sophisticated. Apple has done a nice job providing tools for the consumer. Where Brian Eno had the insight that the recording studio could be a compositional tool, we now need a recording studio we can carry around with us and that resides on our (i)Phones. An initial model is the way the Flip Video Camera includes editing software on the hardware device. As we capture sound, narration, and still/moving images with our “telephones,” we need to be able to dash off a note in a picture/sound language. That device we carry around should be able to read, write and transmit over the Network. Actually, it already can. It already does. But there’s so much more.

Of course, literacy will always be an issue. But that’s why there are pirates:

Published in digital education hci reading writing zettel


  1. Landscape Rocks Landscape Rocks

    Interesting post, thanks for sharing!

  2. these language think is understood by the citizens who live in that country also. even they are drawings, they understand it and it has meanings.

  3. Funny i blogged about this once too! but anyhow check out my website if your interested in learning about flowers and gardening!

  4. I wonder how other understand those graphics well the designs are nice ..

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