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Dr. Christopher S. Baird

When will the written word become obsolete?

Category: Society      Published: May 31, 2013

cell phone
The fact that many people prefer to use their phone to send text messages, which requires typing clumsily on a little keyboard, rather than use it to simply talk, demonstrates that there is more advantage to the written word than technological simplicity. Public Domain Image, source: Christopher S. Baird.

Despite advances in technology, the written word will never become obsolete because it has many advantages besides the fact that it is technologically simple. Of all the ways to convey ideas and communicate, the main two methods are the spoken word and the written word. The written word has long dominated over the spoken word for communicating at a distance because it is much simpler to implement technologically. For person-to-person communications, hand-written notes were invented millenia before the telephone was invented. For mass communication, books and newspapers were far easier to invent and implement than radio and television.

One of the reasons for the technological discrepancy between the written and the spoken word is the difference in information compression. The written word is a highly compressed, coded form of the spoken word. Converting a verbal dialogue to a written transcript does cause it to lose the tones of voice, inflections, and background noise, but this is what helps the written form be so compressed. For example, the full audio of President Obama's 2013 State of the Union Address in CD quality takes up about 1,020,000 kilobytes on a computer. In contrast, a written transcript of the same speech takes up only 40 kilobytes on a computer. Technologies with limited memory and bandwidth will therefore be able to transmit text long before being able to transmit audio. Another reason for the technological discrepancy between the written and the spoken word is the ease of recording. A written note can be scrawled in the sand with your finger, while a verbal note requires a device that can capture sound waves and process them at a high enough frequency to make the sound discernible. This large technological discrepancy may lead you to believe that advances in technology will eventually make the simplicity of the written word meaningless and therefore make the written word itself obsolete. These days, it is easier to download an audiobook version of a bestselling novel to your iPod than to trudge to the bookstore and buy a hard copy of the novel. It is easier, technologically speaking, to give your mother a telephone call than to send her a written letter. The technology is available today to have your smart phone verbally tell you a cookie recipe rather than to thumb through piles of old cookbooks. The written word may seem doomed to the ash heap of old technology.

This line of thinking is wrong because it ignores the fact that there are other advantages to the written word beyond technological simplicity. Among the other advantages of the written word are the following:

1. High Speed of Comprehension. If you listened to the president's entire State of the Union Address, it would take you an hour. If you read the entire transcript of the speech, it would take you much less than an hour (assuming you are a good reader). The better a reader you are, the more efficient the written word becomes compared to the spoken word. If you have ever participated in a group reading (such as when an English class reads a novel together by taking turns reading out loud), you may have found yourself getting bored and reading ahead for this reason.

2. Omission of Background Noise. The squawk of a crow overhead, the cry of a nearby baby, the clang of machinery, and all the other sources of background noise in our daily lives can be distracting in an audio message and often makes the primary audio content intelligible. In contrast, the written word contains only the communications of its author. When you communicate via email or text messaging, you never have to say "What did you say? I can't hear you," or "Let me get to a quiet place first," like you do with a phone call. In areas where accuracy is crucial, such as in scientific reports, medical records, or legal agreements, the written word is the standard for this reason.

3. Privacy. Using written words, the author can much better control who receives the message. While a verbal message can be controlled when in electronic format, the act of speaking that is required at the beginning of the process is harder to keep private. Others in the room can eavesdrop on a private spoken conversation much easier than a written conversation. The enhanced privacy control of the written word is perhaps the reason that cell phone text messaging has become so popular in comparison to verbal phone communication, especially among teenagers who highly value privacy. Many parents have been surprised to find their child and a friend texting each other instead of talking, even when they are sitting right next to each other. This behavior makes more sense when you realize that the friends may not want their parents to hear their conversation.

4. Quality. The written word tends to be edited, revised, proof-read, and fact-checked before being published, while the spoken word is not. This editing leads the written word to have higher quality than the spoken word. Compare a paragraph from today's newspaper to a transcript of your dinner conversation on the same news item, and the quality difference becomes painfully obvious. If a verbal communication does have high quality, such as in a speech or in a drama production, it's usually because the people are reciting written words.

5. Ease of Pausing and Pondering. When reading a written communication, the recipient can pause his reading much more easily than with a verbal communication. This pausing, which is often subconscious, allows the reader to think about the message more deeply. While it's true that an audio work can be paused by pressing the pause button, the simple act of moving your finger to the button requires bringing the pause-and-ponder reflex from the subconscious into the conscious, which is usually too much effort for a fleeting thought. Good speakers know this fact and will deliberately pause throughout their speech to give their listeners time to digest their words. When reading a written work, the reader can skim quickly through the paragraphs with straight-forward concepts and then slow down or even reread passages that are more complex. While scanning, skimming, and rewinding are possible with audio formats, they are cumbersome enough to destroy the organic nature of pondering. Reading a book tends to be much more cerebral than watching a movie partly because of this pause-and-ponder advantage.

6. Low Sensory Stimulation. Compared to the audio-visual version, the text version of a work engages the senses much less. This low-sensory nature can be bad if the work is artistic in nature, such as is the case with musical performances and dramatic productions. On the other hand, the low-sensory nature of the written word can be an advantage if the work deals with abstract concepts such as physics or economics. For such works, adding extra sensations makes the work less useful. For instance, if you want to learn quantum theory, you'll get much further in your efforts by reading through a quantum textbook than by watching an MTV episode on the subject. The flashing graphics and popping sounds of television may make a subject more entertaining, but they make it harder to concentrate on the meat of abstract concepts.

Topics: books, privacy, texting, written word