“Perhaps I am deceived by old age and fear, but I suspect that the human species—the unique human species—is on the road to extinction, while the Library will last on forever…” —Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel
Let’s face it: humanity is doomed. Probably sooner than we’d hope, this thing called human existence will end. At that moment, 6,000 years of civilization will be wiped out. This will include, of course, all known human languages—spoken and written. Or, will it? In the last few decades (maybe the final few decades) of human civilization, we have invented many new written languages specifically for visual communication with machines. From barcodes to QR codes to Augmented Reality markers to more specific location and information symbols, our physical world is filling up with written languages that aren’t meant be read by humans at all.
When We’re Gone is a series of typographic investigations that explores tensions between machine vision languages and typography. The project modifies the 128-B barcode system, which uses ASCII characters 32 to 127: “0–9,” “A–Z,” and “a–z.” Typography is produced within the rigid stroke-and-space system. By amending the vertical strokes with horizontal strokes and spaces, this machine-only language transforms into a hybrid that is legible by humans and still can be read by barcode scanners.
The proportional requirements of stroke to space in the barcode insists on a monospace structure. However, this parameter offers variable widths of horizontal strokes and spaces—ignored by the machine reader—that directly affect the level of human legibility. Meanwhile, the height-to-width proportion of the barcode system is highly flexible and allows for new hybrid forms as extended or condensed weights, producing the opportunity for an entirely parametric system.
This new typographic system, only partly developed so far, is applied to a single poster demonstrating a range of opportunities to reveal, hide, and distort the barcode system into human language. The embedded quotation comes from Albert Einstein: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.” These haunting words are accentuated by images from humankind’s technological timeline. Einstein’s observation doubles as a plea or maybe a cry for help!
Look closely: Are those the last desperate gasps of a civilization dying or the first fledgling breaths of a new one being born?