There are two questions to ask about a new technology: how many people will it put out of work? How many will it enslave? If the answer to both questions is "very few" it's not worth worrying about. In this sense, computers are not one technology, but many. They do tend to enslave everyone whom they do not put out of work, but each program they run does so in a different way. The spreadsheet, which is by far the most corrupting game ever to run on a computer, is the most obvious example of this process. It is to accountants what the compound bow was to the Huns: a weapon with which to lay waste whole civilisations.

But there are other, less obvious, dangers in the world behind the screen, and chief among them is the font. In the 1960s Professor Donald Knuth set out to write a textbook which would contain all the fundamentals of computer science. Naturally, this project grew into five books; but in the end, they were published, and any serious student has them all and learns from them.

This much of the story is certainly true. But after Knuth had finished the first book, he began to worry about publishing it. He decided that the only way to do this was to design his own font, and took five years off from the main project to learn how to describe mathematically the curves of a typeface. This meant, of course, that there had to be another book in the series, about all that he had learnt; also, that the book, when published, looked almost exactly as he wanted it to. But it's still a story of enchantment and enslavement to spend years, and invent a whole new branch of computer science, just because you want the pages of a book to look right.

The story is comforting on many levels. I don't suppose anyone since then has ever taken quite that long to decide how a document should be laid out by a computer: compared to Knuth's effort, procrastination on a normal human scale will hardly register at all. It also suggests what prisoners we are of our imaginations. Of course, Knuth's invention of computer typesetting would eventually put hundreds of thousands of printers out of work. But it has also brought a strange and captivating beauty into the world, even better, one which is almost completely useless. Some people make fonts to communicate: their job is to clear a space for the words, then get out of the way. But there are also people caught up by the original glimpse of pointless, playful beauty that must have spurred on Donald Knuth.

I first discovered the P22 type foundry in the British Museum shop. There, you can buy a hieroglyphic font made by this small American company. It's difficult to think of anything of less utility to the world of commerce, though I suppose you could use it for advertising in journals of Egyptology. P22 also makes a weathered ancient Greek font, whose characters look as if they have been quietly eroding for centuries. But I fell in love with their almost useful characters: the fonts based on the handwriting of great artists.

Using P22's fonts, you can hire Cezanne, Rodin, Michelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci to inscribe your letters for you. Leonardo, of course, will do it in mirror writing. The Cezanne font is especially gorgeous, because he had enormously attractive handwriting that combined irregular sweeping surges with a disciplined form so the letters join up with each other perfectly. What's more, each of these fonts comes with a collection of extra dingbats, but instead of being - like most dingbats - dull symbols for telephones, typewriters or the euro currency, they are pen-and-ink sketches by the artist of your choice: skulls, little naked women, stuff like that. It is the sort of beauty that was simply impossible without computers. It will put no one out of work, and it will make anyone who uses it feel a little more free. You can even download and buy the fonts straight off the company's website. It almost makes up for the existence of spreadsheets.

This article first appeared in the 22 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Goodbye to all that boiled cabbage