As a writer I consider words and reading important. But I was also trained in the visual and graphic arts and have longed been attuned to the type and fonts that create the words and make them legible — or not, that can enhance the meaning of the text — or undermine it, that can influence whether we even read a single word — or all of them. I’ve also been keenly aware for some time that we are moving from text to verbal and visual communication. Oral traditions and pictographs gave way to literacy which will eventually give way to voices (mostly computer generated) and images.

So what does this all have to do with Steve Jobs and the iPhone?

On Tuesday, October 4, the new CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, introduced the iPhone 4S. Many Apple fanatics, and less astute reporters, were disappointed that the phone lacked significant physical design changes. They missed the significance of a little feature named Siri. Bascially, Siri acts something like an artificial intelligence interface. You say something natural to your iPhone like “I have a meeting with John Doe on Wednesday at 3 o’clock” and the phone adds the meeting to your calendar and will even remind you that the meeting is approaching. You can ask it something like “Where’s the nearest sushi restaurant?” and Siri will note your present location and return a listing of sushi restaurants sorted by proximity (and provide more information on each). It can do a lot more and you don’t. have. to. speak. slow—ly. and. careful—ly. like you did for earlier voice-activated interfaces.

Just in case you aren’t certain, This (Siri) Is Big.

Steve Jobs With Bondi Blue Mac

Steve Jobs and the Mac made us aware of how fonts and type affect what we read

It’s like going from a manual typewriter to a wordprocessor big. Or like going from hand-copied books to the printing press big. It’s game-changer, life-changer, society-changer big. It’s 1984 all over again. Trust me on this. In a society where less than 2% of the population has ever entered a bookstore, this is going to make epubs eventually seem like the invention of White-Out or the auto-correcting Selectric typewriter. Apple really doesn’t care if Microsoft Windows copies touch-screen technology or Amazon creates a Kindle iPad. The folks over at Joy of Tech got it right — Apple has developed “fusion.”

Tuesday night I started reading the book (in hardcover) Just My Type by Simon Garfield. It’s a book about fonts and their impact on what and how we read. The introduction begins with an excerpt from Steve Jobs commencement address at Stanford University in 2005 where he discusses how he came to take calligraphy classes and the lasting impact of what most considered a useless liberal arts waste of time and money had on him and his business decisions throughout his life not the least of which was the decision to introduce the MacIntosh computer with a selection of carefully crafted, for their day, set of font choices. The book later discusses how the MacIntosh introduced the world to the concept of fonts and font selection, to the idea that how the words looked affected the tone and perception of the message often as much as the words.

Which is one of the reasons I find it ironic that Apple restricts font selection on its epubs.

So I went to sleep with my head swimming with the implications of Siri and a greater respect for yet another way in which Steve Jobs dedication to fine design and detail radically affected my life.

The morning, I awoke to the news that Steve Jobs had died. I wasn’t especially surprised. We all knew he was dying and after a half a year spent dealing with a family members pancreatitis, I knew a great deal more than I ever wanted about the pancreas and pancreatic cancer.

What struck me was the irony of his death the day after the introduction of the Siri interface and the eeriness of my having read about his contribution to text and type and visual literacy just the night before. Obviously, Mr. Jobs knew about Siri and I’m certain he knew of its implications to future of reading and writing and the communication of stories and information.

May Steve Jobs rest in peace. His legacy will live on.

In the near future, because of oral interfaces, the stories that live on will be the ones that sound good with words chosen for their cadence, well-defined characters with distinctive voices and plots that make us ask “What happens next?” These are the stories that live on now, in printed text, that we read again and again and pass along to our children whether it’s Winnie the Pooh or Pride and Prejudice. 

Next week (Oct. 14-16) my town is host to the Forest Storytelling Festival. Each year the storytelling festival holds workshops in the not-quite-extinct art of telling stories: folks tales, new tales, native peoples stories and all the other oral storytelling traditions. There is always some sort of workshop focused on cadence or rhythm. In the past I’ve only caught a few of the public performances, but this year I may just have to register for the whole weekend and brush up on my oral storytelling skills.

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