Monday, October 8, 2007

The end of text?

With help from friends, I finally tracked down the piece I said I was looking for. It was written in 1994 and, ironically enough, there only seems to be one copy of it on the web, or at least the Google-searchable part.

The thesis is that in 2020 a nine-year-old would have had no reason to learn how to read. The written word, after all, is just a technology for conveying ideas, and by 2020 video and other rich media will do the same job better.
The written word is a means to an end and not an end in itself. We use it to communicate with large groups and to preserve ideas, but we prefer the spoken word. In 2020world, with the ability to create, store and send audio and video as easily as written words, why would we need to read and write?

Look inside your own head. Do you store information as written words? Do you dream in written words? No, you don't. Visual images and spoken languages are our natural form of information. Writing is nothing more than a technology. It can be replaced by something better.
Clearly this is missing something. At the very least, the timing is off. If they're going to stop teaching reading in the schools in the next ten years, I'd expect to see serious signs right now that writing was on the way out. Perhaps a blog post written about an newspaper article is the wrong place to look, but I see no such signs. It's a separate question whether schools would change their curricula that quickly even in the face of irrefutable evidence.

So let's suppose that the date should have been 2050, or 2100. Technology predictions are notorious for assuming things will change faster than they really do. Is text really doomed to be obsolete?

Text is a means of recording words. True, we don't think in text. But neither do we think in words, at least not to the extent we sometimes say we do. Words, whether written or spoken, represent ideas. They do so digitally. Text is a sequence of discrete, arbitrary symbols. To a first approximation, so are spoken words. Otherwise text wouldn't work. Hand-copying of written text is among the oldest forms of digital data processing.

Text is compact. This post takes a small fraction of the space that an audible version would. Even in an age of abundant bandwidth, a difference of orders of magnitude will matter. Since text represents words digitally (as opposed to representing the waveforms of one particular utterance of those words), it is easily searched. At the very least, a usably searchable database of video and audio would have to use something much like text behind the scenes.

Text is faster for people because vision has more bandwidth than hearing and well-formatted text is tuned to take advantage of that. I can skim this post much faster than I could read it aloud. I can skim backwards easily. I can skip sentences and paragraphs easily and precisely. If I want to make a minor change to the second sentence of the third paragraph, I can easily locate that and I can easily change just the words I want to change. Text is thus more easily editable.

Since text can easily (from a human viewpoint) be accessed both randomly and sequentially, it is easier to organize. This is probably one reason speakers so often work from notes. Another is that the mere act of committing something to text encourages the writer to pay attention to its structure.

There are probably a few other relevant features of text that I've left out. There are also some that may not be particularly useful but whose implications are probably still worth understanding. For example, writing text is generally much slower than reading it, while speaking and hearing happen at the same speed.

In any case, my bet is that text will be around for quite some time, particularly on the net. If this still seems unlikely, consider how often text appears on TV. Video and text are by no means mutually exclusive.

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