I recently read an article called “Facebook is wrong; text is deathless”. It mentions a Facebook employee who thinks the platform will “probably be all video”. This person goes on to say, “It conveys so much more information in a much quicker period. So actually the trend helps us to digest much more information.”
Technology has come a long way. Mobile bandwidth is fast. Phones are pervasive. Cameras are in every pocket. With the monetization of attention and the profitability baked into distraction, our society has invented many ways to digest much more information. Apps and companies exist to share pictures and video. They make it dead easy. But, as a person who has consumed too much beer will tell you, it’s not all about how much of a thing you ingest.
I agree wholeheartedly with the article’s last paragraph:
Nothing is inevitable in history, media, or culture – but literacy is the only thing that’s even close. Bet for better video, bet for better speech, bet for better things we can’t imagine – but if you bet against text, you will lose.
What is it about text that makes me so certain it won’t ever be obsolete or replaced?
Packages All the Way Down
We think in packages of neural firings — thoughts. We communicate verbally in packages of sound waves — spoken words. Speech has long been the de facto way to share your thoughts with another person. For thousands of years, the closest approximation of that verbal communication was packages of marks — written words. Speech is marks in your mind. Writing is marks on other things. Writing transitively makes marks in your mind when it is read.
Written word closely mimics the way we verbally communicate. You lose the performance and inflection, but gain durability and replication. It’s no wonder the written word is popular.
And powerful. Instead of being there to hear it, you could read an approximation of it later. Untold numbers of people can read it later. Then forget it, and re-read it. Writing has permanence. It can outlast entire civilizations. The meaning of an alphabet can be lost and rediscovered. Secrets reclaimed from the void. That’s mind blowing.
Feel free to skip the speaking part and only write it down. I haven’t given a speech to anyone on this topic. I’ve gone straight to making marks on a thing. Seeing the marks lends one a perspective on their own internal machinery. Gives form to nebulous and fleeting thoughts.
Drawing has also existed as long as humanity. But it’s not become the cornerstone of our society and technology. Something separates paintings, carvings, sculptures, photographs, and video from written words. Perhaps that thing is language. An alphabet, grammar, syntax, and agreed-upon, shared representations of ideas.
Can one accurately convey a thought-fragment like “governments are legitimized violence” in a non-written, non-verbal language? Is it possible? Perhaps. That may be a form of language we later invent. But, for now, the written word is as accurate and compact and faithful a representation of thought and verbal communication as we’ve managed.
Take a picture of a book page, compress the hell out of it, and a person can extract the original text with good precision. Take a picture of a flower, compress the hell out of it, and not even a computer can extract the original pixels with precision.
Vision is another important aspect of the human condition. Imagine the feeling of seeing a loved one’s face or an expansive view or some harrowing violence. Drawings, pictures, video all convey ideas. A movie or photo can certainly convey something words never could. “A picture is worth a thousand words”. But the thousand words would still only be an approximation of the image. There’s a difference between what words are good at conveying and what pictures are good at conveying.
Now realize we have other senses. Hearing. Touch. Taste. Scent. Each of these inputs exist because the relevant information cannot be accurately represented through another sense. The chill of an ocean cannot be described with scent. The smell of grandma’s house cannot be described with touch. A song cannot be described in taste. Written words and pictorial representation are two other input types, for which we have two different sensors. Now, it feels more natural that words and images have unique capabilities.
We’re a collection of sensors, though not an exhaustive collection. Bats use echolocation. Birds use magnetism. Butterflies use ultraviolet light. Snakes use infrared light. We can only imagine what those senses are like, and we do so by starting with a sense we already have. Seeing infrared is like what the Predator movies depict. Echolocation is hearing really high pitched noises. Magnetism is following a string you’ve gripped in your hand. It’s a poor approximation. In a pinch it’ll do, but there’s gross oversimplification and misunderstanding too.
It’s difficult to imagine a language to communicate the ideas of written words in visual form. Then I wonder what other forms of language could exist to communicate the information of those completely alien senses? The universe is large, and I am small.
Text is Pivotal
To communicate is to be human. Communication involves many senses for many data types. Written words are good at what they do. Pictures and video are good at what they do. For a time, cultural preference may swing to favor video over text. It’s novel and powerful and marketing dollars are behind it. But text will always be pivotal to humanity. Text too closely emulates thought, with no other equal, for us to leave it behind.