We use our screens to write and read so much that we have turned the noun “text” into a verb. However, while we read and write with and for the screen, is not the screen better used for verbal and visual communication?
Text is a secondary form of language. The spoken word was first. Because text is derived from the spoken word, why should I sit and write this column and pass it on to screen readers when, with only a little more trouble, I could record my thoughts on a video, upload it and allow readers to hear my words and see me, instead of only reading what I have written?
Already many communicators use both text and video-audio. They do not write. They communicate through podcast, YouTube channels, online radio and instant TV. The audience accesses the audio-visual content through every gadget that can go online. They do so globally with the same portability and with easier access than toting books, magazines and papers. The question is not whether the revolution from text to audio-visual will take place, but when and how fast.
I wonder how this technological revolution will change our education and culture. Compare what is happening to the invention of movable type. With Gutenberg there was not only a communication, but a cultural revolution. Suddenly books were cheap and the motivation blossomed for universal literacy and education. Not only could everyone own a book, but before too long everyone could read the book. Ideas could be spread cheaply and quickly through the printed word. The Age of Revolution and Reformation hit hard because the ideas of revolution and reformation could be disseminated easily and cheaply.
With the predominance of textual communication, writing developed as an art form of its own. Good writers not only recorded oral history and stories, but they developed their own stories and style. Poetry was no longer the written version of the minstrel’s song or saga. Poetry on a page was something new and offered fresh possibilities. With the rise of text, writing could be clever, beautiful and moving in itself. In fiction the rise of text not only demanded a clear and powerful writing style, but through the written text a unique transaction of the imagination blossomed between the writer and the reader.
As audio-visual communication becomes more, inexpensive and ubiquitous will we witness the death of text? Already the screen has all but killed the daily newspaper, the and the weekly news magazine. What will become of the novel, the short story or even news stories and written opinion? Movies tell the stories in a livelier manner without the need of text. Current television series extend over many episodes delivering the same drama, conflict, romance and adventure that readers used to glean from reading fiction. What of textbooks, biographies, encyclopedias, resource books and for that matter, cookbooks, travel books and all non-fiction? Why should these text-based media not be communicated as well or better through the audio-visual technologies which are already available and which are cheaply and effectively delivered through the internet?
When this happens what is the effect on education? For more than five hundred years education has been text-based. Teachers assign books to be read, lecture on the contents, give written exams and assign papers to be written. Could not the same content be delivered audio visually? Why read Shakespeare when you can watch the play on the screen? Didn’t Shakespeare write it to be performed in the first place? Is a screen version of Jane Austen necessarily inferior to Pride and Prejudice? Could not documentary-type programs deliver the content now contained in a history textbook more effectively? Why write a term paper when one could produce a Powerpoint presentation or a short film?
How will this revolution affect teaching methods? If communication shifts from text to audio-visual media perhaps teaching methods will return to the tutorial, the discussion group and live interaction. Are not languages better taught in this way? Do not the best math teachers make the subject come alive by taking noses out of books and into real life? Is not science better taught through experimentation and exploration? Would not philosophy be better learned through a discussion group with questions being posed and answers explored? Would not Socrates be pleased?
How will a predominance of verbal communication affect our institutions? Will religion move away from the dominance of the written liturgy, canon law and Scripture and back into more vital personal and communal religious experience? Will the Scriptures and liturgy become what they should be—the set structures for a wider, more fluid religious l experience. Will Protestantism’s over emphasis on Scripture because of sola Scriptura morph into something even more subjective, personalistic and ephemeral? Will Catholicism with its emphasis on community, sacraments and faith in action therefore flourish even more?
As text dwindles what will be lost? In fiction the most important loss will be the activity of the imagination as the reader engages with the text. Screen storytelling leaves nothing to the imagination, but audio-visual communications may, on the other hand, spark a renewal in storytelling. As text dies, poetry—now completely textual, may become spoken and sung once more. The bard may rise again.
While we cannot predict the future we can read the present and understand the direction we are headed. The new technology may mean the death of text; the written word may burn down and smolder, but from its ashes may rise a new era of verbal communication in which tutors, orators, storytellers, actors, debaters and preachers will flourish.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.