The biggest story in the world today is miniaturization. Telephones, computers, batteries: the world of today is the world of yesterday writ small. And yet, writing is the one area where this principle does not apply. In part, this has been because the Internet and handheld devices possess a theoretically unlimited reading area. Web pages [like this one] can scroll down almost limitlessly. An electronic reader can just as easily contain a thousand pages as a hundred. As a result, miniaturization of text has been deemed unnecessary; instead, what has been prized has been readability.
I tell you this because roughly a decade ago I began work on a technology that would permit the extreme shrinking of text. At the time, fonts could be rendered as small as four points in size, or maybe even three, but this was nowhere close to what I hoped to achieve. I confessed my ambition to my wife. “I want to become an expert in miniaturization,” I said.
“You already are,” she said. “If you know what I mean.” She scowled at me. “Anyway, I have to go help a friend with something. I won’t be back until late.”
My ambition, once it appeared, would not fade. I could not acquire funding, for the reasons outlined above, and yet I would not be deterred. I managed to make text that was one point, then even smaller, but I was still far from my goal.
Then, five years ago, Twitter was invented, and my motivation surged. Some may see a technology that restricts all messages to 140 characters as a limit; I saw it as limitless opportunity. “I’m going to start in on this project more seriously now,” I told my wife.
“I’m out of town this weekend,” she said. “Possibly the beginning of next week, too.”
By the time she returned—I think it was a Thursday—I had designed this: .
To the untrained eye, it looks an ordinary boldface period. But the untrained eye, as Tycho Brahe was fond of saying, is an idiot. What appears to be an ordinary period is in fact a TwitDot that contains a message that could never, as a result of its length, have fit within the confines of a single tweet. What message, you ask? “What appears to be an ordinary period is in fact a TwitDot, and it contains a message that could never, as a result of its length, have fit within the confines of a single tweet.” It lacks, perhaps, the poetry of Morse’s “What hath God wrought?” or the urgency of Graham Bell’s “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you,” And yet, it has something just as important: a longer length than either. “I wish you had that,” my wife said.
“What?” I said.
“Nothing,” she said. “I’m going dancing. Don’t wait up.”
That first TwitDot could hold only about forty words, due to electronic emulsification instability. In the months that followed, I labored to increase the capacity of the TwitDot. Then finally, one day, it all came together. I remember it clearly. I had been on my own since early evening, when my wife had gone to dinner with some friends. Tired, my concentration ebbing, I accidentally dropped a negatively charged nanoprong onto a stretched rubber sheet and was shocked to find that the dot that remained had a capacity of roughly ten pages. I could not believe it. I called my wife. “I finished,” I said.
“I’ve heard that more times than I would care to count,” she said. “I’m hanging up. Dessert is here.”
As a test, I sent myself a tweet: .
Again, this may look like a message that consists of nothing more than a simple period, but it is in fact a mature TwitDot that contains the entire Declaration of Independence, with only a handful of minor transport errors (for example, the TwitDot, after transmission, rendered the opening clause “When, in the horse of human events”). I was almost done. I called my wife back and told her we were ready for soft launch. “You always are,” she said. “Anyway, still eating dessert.”
Over the next three months, I tweeted out a series of TwitDots. Here are some of them:
This TwitDot contains the first ten chapters of the Book of Genesis.
This TwitDot contains Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
This one has the lyrics to “Layla” and then nine blank pages.
The genius of the TwitDot, of course, is that it need not stand alone. They are even more useful when set in context, as in this tweet:
The TwitDot, in this case, carries a detailed account of the country, beginning with the Inca and extending through the Viceroyalty into the early years of the Republic. Similarly, consider this tweet:
While the first period is just a period, the second is a TwitDot that compares today’s weather with the weather of similar dates, stretching back nearly a century, with the intent of proving the proposition advanced by the beginning of the message. It was, in fact, a nice day: a very nice day. It was the day I had perfected the TwitDot.
My wife, who has always been the more business-minded of the two of us, suggested that we meet with a lawyer and begin to draw up papers for profiting from the invention.
“I’m not satisfied with that,” I said.
“Now you know how I feel,” she said.
“What I mean,” I said, “is that I want to share it with the world. I’d like to explain to others how to do this.”
“Go ahead,” she said. “No one will understand.” She was right, in a sense: the explanation was highly abstruse, combining mathematics, complete diagrammatic programming, and applied printing. “It would take you thirty pages at least to explain,” she said. “Who’s going to sit still for that? You’ll never find a magazine or journal that will let you publish your research.” I began to object but she interrupted me with a wave of the hand. “I’m spending the weekend with some friends,” she said. “I have a train to catch.”
I sat, alone, and considered her objections. On the one hand, everything she said made perfect sense. The technology was hard to explain. It would take up nearly thirty pages. It was hard to imagine convincing any magazine or newspaper to give me the space necessary to bring my invention to the world. It seemed likely that my research would never be published. And yet, on the other hand …