I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we’re headed for a post-text era, but here are some indications that — according to some — text will decline as we are able to talk instead: to cameras, to each other, and to machines.

I’ve been listening to Jeff Gomez’ Print is Dead (the fact that I’m listening instead of reading is not, itself, intended to be a commentary… but maybe it is…). When faced with fears that we are becoming a post-literate society of nonreaders (see below), Gomez makes the arguments I do: That we still do read, more than ever, it may just not be so much in the forms we used to; that is, reading online is still reading. But now I see two predictions that reading online will also decline.

Robert Feinman says in this comment that video is taking over:

I think this was the year where video replaced words as the most popular way for people to express themselves online. This fits with my feeling that we are entering the post-literate age. Youngsters have little interest in reading or writing, but understand all the nuances of the visual language used in TV and film. YouTube may be the next place to be.

Now add this prediction from today’s Times about the impact of much faster processing on our communication with machines:

Microsoft executives argue that such an advance would herald the advent of a class of consumer and office-oriented programs that could end the keyboard-and-mouse computing era by allowing even hand-held devices to see, listen, speak and make complex real-world decisions — in the process, transforming computers from tools into companions.

I’m not ready to declare text dead or our intelligence ruined because of it. I don’t see one medium as inherently inferior to another — that is, a movie can be a great way to tell a story and a book is not, our snobbishness about print aside, necessarily better. Still, I take the point that these changes do move us past text and that will have many reverberations, some good, some not.

  • This reminds me of the old argument: Which was better? The novel or the movie? Use ‘Harry Potter’ as an example. If text is dead why then are people (or were, as it is with that particular case) flocking to get the latest book before it’s even printed?

  • I didn’t make any kind of value judgment about whether video is “worse” than print, although I think many do.

    Perhaps I’m a bit sensitized because I find that many of my blog postings (elsewhere) are misunderstood. Things like irony, hyperbole and metaphor don’t go over at all well. (Of course, it’s possible I just don’t express myself clearly.)

    The problem I have is that complex issues require detailed exposition and, for whatever reason, this doesn’t work well online. What we see instead is that such issues get turned into sound bites and bumper stickers. This makes public opinion highly susceptible to manipulation, one only has to look back at the “daisy” ad used against Goldwater to see how this all came about. Modern advertising techniques are much more sophisticated.

    Personally, I find I can get more information per time spent when reading rather than viewing or listening. One of my complaints about TV news is that they only cover stories that can be augmented by visuals, even if the visuals add nothing. When gas prices are mentioned the image is always someone filling up at a gas pump. It’s equivalent to avoiding dead air on radio.

    As a contrast, look at the Bill Moyers show. He sits and talks with someone for an extended period of time. The fact that he and the majority of his guests are from older generations is, I think, a sign of how out of step this mode of presentation is with the younger generations.

    Interactive media can serve two different purposes. The community aspect seems to be developing nicely on its own, the one coupled to original, investigative journalism, not so much.

  • Contemplating a world without text is a common theme in sci-fi literature. (Fahrenheit 451 is the archtype — or maybe 1984 is.) I recall a few decades ago lots of pundits declaring that we’d lost the “art of letter writing” because we all talk on the phone for exchanges previous generations used letters to carry out. I don’t write many letters, but I dare say the majority of my conversations are text-based these days. No doubt, video will replace some of this (I use video iChat to communicate w/ co-workers and my children, for example), but I think it’s going to be a text-heavy world for a long time to come.

  • Which would you prefer when cramming for an exam? 45 hours of video, or a PDF file you can search through with keywords?

    Even assuming we can index video the way we can index text, video is still more expensive to produce (takes more time, harder to edit) and is slower to digest. I can read much faster than I can listen.

    So, in science and education, I do not see text going away. I see the opposite happening: students leaving the classroom in favor of web sites and IM.

  • chico haas

    : P

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  • Robert

    I don’t see video replacing text, for the reasons Daniel Lemire gives above. Except in a very limited number of areas.

    Text is an accurate and highly effective means of expressing yourself. Quick to create and fast for the person receiving to absorb.

    How many hours (maybe even days) of video would be needed if a presenter read out the contents of your favourite newspaper? That’s leaving aside the production time involved to integrate the images.

    Sorry, but despite the kind of hype seen above, that isn’t going to change. Every medium has its place and particular benefits.

  • Indeed, there are several points to recognize here. The speed at which you can consume the medium. The detail a given subject requires. The medium used in context.

    The speed. I don’t have much time to listen to podcasts, be it audio or video. However when I do have some time, I consume my feed reader, which leads me to reading blogs. I often skip over blogs after a quick glance, or skip sections of the post that I can’t make the time to consume in full, but would rather take that same time to 1/2 consume more blogs, thus pulling in more information for my time given. If a subject presents itself that it required a more in depth review, then I do just that. Which is part of my second point.

    The detail given. Details are more difficult outside of text. Clearly some things are best discussed in video and you can have visual references which can greatly enhance the spoken word behind the video. Just like graphics can greatly enhance the words written down. That is also part of the context of the medium. But many things excel as text. They can read slowly, reread, referenced, hyperlinked, skipped over if necessary, or however you need to handle that text. Much more flexible in that regards then audio or video.

    The medium used in context is also an advantage of each medium. If I’m driving, I love to listen to audio podcasts. If I’m sitting at my computer, I love to consume text as well as watch video. I rarely listen to audio while at my computer unless it is in the background and I’m doing other things… which means I’m not getting the full value I could from it. Video forces my attention, just as text does. Something like Seesmic is fantastic as it is a conversation in video. But in my mind, the video format of Seesmic enhances the text. What I mean by that is I know a lot of the people on Seesmic from their blogs, from Second Life, from Twitter, from listening to the podcasts, or from Facebook or who knows where else. But when I see them in video, I get a much deeper understanding of who they are, how they talk, how they move their hands, how and who they are. It is much more personal then text. But it end up enhancing the text. Many others have said it, and I agree, after Seesmic, I hear twitters in peoples voice. I visualize them cocking their head as they said that smarmy comment. I get jokes that I missed before.

    So it all has its place. Nobody disagrees with that. But for some reason some people want to prophesy the end of text. Text isn’t going anywhere. It is only getting consumed more and more and in new formats.

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  • Cooler Heads

    This is sort of hilarious, “The Death of Text.” What kind of arrogant idiot would attach his name to such a grand pronouncement?

    Interestingly, we DO read and write more now than we did twenty years ago because of computers and the internet. My children are quite literate, are better writers, than I was at their age because they can so easily write and manipulate text.

    The other key aspect of text is editing. You can quickly scan a paragraph and revise in order to make your point more clear. Editing video is much more time-consuming. In fact, video when used to communicate something other than a simple message or soundbite or bit of entertainment, is really time consuming to watch or work with because of the structure, form, and content.

    That said, video is enormously important in other ways. For example, until the advent of film and video, choreographers had no way to capture their work for later review. The same is true with any performance-based endeavor, such as teaching. Athletes rely on video to show them the strengths and weaknesses of their performances. This kind of work cannot be as powerfully archived as text.

    Wasn’t TV going to make America illiterate? Radio was going to kill performnce? The telephone would eliminate letters and cards? Oh, and Y2K was going to bring an end to civilization as we know it. I’ll add the end of text, and global warming to this list of silly predictions.

  • Different types of information are best suited for different types of media. I enjoy podcasts while I’m driving or flying long distances. Then enable me to get information when reading is not possible. And although I enjoy videos for getting info, I just don’t have the time to sit and look at them.

    I love to read, but my attention span is getting ever shorter. A book or article has to not only engage me from the start, but keep me engaged. I’ve put down too many books without finishing them, simply because they weren’t interesting enough to me to take up my time.

    It all comes down to time. How can I make the most of it? The media I choose is the one I think is most efficient to get the information across.

    But I do admit that I’m worried about younger folks. More reading means better writing. As young people get through the school system with less and less reading, fewer of them are developing good writing skills. Whether print dies doesn’t matter much — we still need writers. (I’m sorely missing The Daily Show because of the current writer’s strike.) I’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  • Jeff:
    Perhaps next semester you can poll your class and find out how they get their information.

    As others have indicated there are different sorts of information so the questions would also have to elicit this as well.

  • Rob

    There is no doubt in my mind that text will always be around. You know, it was once the case that only landed gentry knew how to read and their serfs understood only voice and imagery. I’d bet that as the middle class continues to dissolve, this manipulated and complacent new proletariat will manage to rob themselves even of their literacy. And then it will be all kings and servants again, society having come full circle from the dark ages.

    Well my kids will certainly know the value of the written word. Personally, I find listening to most people’s voices – save, of course, my own – for very long rather irritating anyhow.

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  • Cooler Heads

    Rob, that is one of the most astute observations on the text/video topic I have ever read.

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