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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Dimensional Typography

Okay, so this is interesting food for thought. When you think of typography from a conventional western standpoint you probably don't question it as a primarily flat/two-dimensional medium. Hopefully this will change your mind, or at least foil your assumptions.

You may recall from history class or social studies that the Inka civilization kept calendars and other numerical records (crop tallies, census data, etc.) with knotted strings. (I know this was part of Texas public school’s social studies curriculum when I was a boy.) At any rate, these knotted string records are known as khipu.

While researchers have known for some time how to decipher the numerical knots and strings, they haven’t been able to determine why some of the knots and strings don’t add up according to that known system. A few years ago Dr. Gary Urton at Harvard University proposed that the indeterminate knots were not numerical at all, and in fact were narratives encoded in a 7-bit binary writing system.

This is significant for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Inka were the only major Bronze Age civilization that—allegedly—did not develop a writing system. Another significant bit of information is the description of how the Inka read the khipu, which suggest that one khipu could be read in a number of different ways. Something about the structure of the document allows a multiplicity of readings. This is a serviceable description of a hypertext, only applied to a tatty Pre-Columbian textile. That blows my mind. If it blows yours I suggest reading his book: Signs of the Inka Khipu – Binay Coding in the Andean Knotted-String Records.

No known translation has been made of the non-numerical khipu, but work is underway over at the Khipu Database Project to catalog all known khipu. The database will be used to cross reference identical and similar knot sequences in an attempt to break the code. Unfortunately the Spanish routinely burned the khipu when they were discovered, and there is no known ‘Rosetta Stone’ where a narrative khipu was translated into Spanish. Breaking the code without even an indirect translation will be a monumental feat.

As a typographer I’m very interested in how these would function as readable documents, and what the design process would be for constructing a narrative. Applying this sort of breadth to our understanding of typography can only lead to some interesting developments and applications that go beyond mere gimmickry to provide visceral tangible connections to our data.

Anyway, enjoy thinking about writing a term paper like this: