A dismissive shake of the head. An arched eyebrow. A warm, familiar smile. An indifferent, rolling shrug.
So much of how we communicate relies on non-verbal cues. Writing may be the most resilient and portable form of information in history, but it lacks the rich context of face-to-face communication. It wasn't until the advent of recorded audio and video that we could imagine conveying the subtleties of personal conversation at a distance.
But video is not perfect. As a passive, non-interactive medium, recorded video could be slow and boring, and 'videoconferencing' was saddled with the expectation that participants would commit their full attention to a real-time conversation, whether or not it was required or justified. Even near-perfect telepresence failed to solve these fundamental problems.
One odd convention from the late 20th century offered a way forward, though: emoticons. Try turning your head sideways to look at the following punctuation:
Though undoubtedly clunky, it's easy to see what they represent, and in those input and bandwidth-restricted times, emoticons were a simple, cheap, and highly effective means of expressing non-verbal cues in text.
Through the early 21st century, emoticons remained popular online and were soon joined by a broader range of vernacular graphics known as 'gifs', 'animated gifs', and ‘emoji’. From these roots came glyphish, a new medium that would soon exert a startling dominance over long-distance communication.
Glyphish began as a very basic system to convert physical gestures into symbols by means of electromyograph sensors woven into active clothing. These sensors, like the ones I'm wearing right now, detected the precise movements of wearers' fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, and facial expressions, and abstracted them into glyphs that would accompany silent text messages (SMSes). Let’s turn it on. Ah, and there I've made the glyph for 'amused tolerance'.
While the abstraction process was automatic, users always had the option to omit or alter the generated glyphs, placing them in total control of the message content — in other words, preventing their bodies from betraying their true emotions, as frequently happens in face-to-face conversations. This manual approval process tended to be used mostly by older or less-confident users who were worried about what their interlocutors might think of them, but 'glyphish native' users preferred to bypass it in order to accelerate their conversations. Indeed, many glyphish natives would find it suspicious to be conversing with someone who took unusually long to reply, believing that it signalled dishonesty rather than a lack of confidence.
Glyphs evolved rapidly. Some originated from widely known symbols and images such as an upraised hand or the Mona Lisa, while others might draw on short videos of celebrities or cats.
At first, glyphs were displayed on recipients' glasses or lenses as simple line drawings, much like earlier emoticons (although obviously not sideways). Over time, they grew in sophistication as people customised their glyphish systems to recognise a wider variety of gestures. Instead of performing a one-to-one mapping of gestures to glyphs, they could modify glyphs with the flick of a finger or the wrinkle of a nose to turn an angry human-faced glyph into a frustrated cat glyph — all in a fraction of a second. Skilled users could incorporate their glyphs into shared AR environments; a faux pas at a dinner might elicit a dust devil bouncing down the table, visible by all.
Unsurprisingly, these more advanced gestures proved easier for some to pick up than others, leading to a balkanisation of communication — although many commentators argue that it was ever thus.
Glyphish blossomed in other ways. While it was initially designed for private conversations between individuals, it was also used in one-to-many and many-to-many conversations. This unnerved inexperienced users, who might receive thousands of glyphs in response to words they'd uttered only seconds ago, but they eventually learned to view them as useful feedback, or else simply ignore them. Likewise, glyphs could be broadcast to massive numbers of people, crossing language and cultural barriers.
Most profoundly, glyphish became incredibly influential for non-human communication. Even as uplifted animals and AIs made significant strides in their Turing scores in the 40s and 50s, many people remained deeply uncomfortable with talking or writing to them. Glyphish helped provide an intermediate language that allowed machines to express instructions or even 'feelings' in an intuitive manner. It's for this reason that many elderly people have a strong affection for 'cleaning fairies', which were one of the first household drones to use glyphish as a primary mode of communication.
By the early 30s, glyphish was in daily use by more than half the world’s 8.5 billion population. As an open protocol, it was put to use in every way imaginable, including real world environments — with glyphs being 'thrown' into the air at parties and mass gatherings — games, stories, schools, sims, and, inevitably, adaptations of Shakespeare.
Inevitably, though, glyphish's time in the sun came to an end. Advances in neural laces in the 40s made it possible to converse at even faster speeds, and in richer and more intimate ways, and the near-universal use of AI agents as intermediaries meant that visual glyphs came to be regarded as stiltedly formal.
Yet like all other media before it, glyphish refused to die. Its combination of the written word and visual design led to a flourishing in new forms of illustration and graphic design, reminiscent of the beautiful flowing style of Islamic calligraphy. To this day, glyphish continues to inspire new generations of artists — just as it was inspired by previous generations.