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death of textWe 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.

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10 replies to this post
  1. Whatever emerges I doubt that in the hole it will maintain a proper literacy. Images rule, Books are at best for common entertainment, mystery novels, things like that. Children in school today learn little history and literature, usually their teachers are incapable of a better grasp themselves. We are left with it seems an era almost of a pre-Homeric illiteracy.

  2. Ode to a Nightengale as a text message? Immersion in the anglo-Irish crazed splendor that is Ulysses through a cheap you tube video? The brilliance of the Encyclopedia Britannica, with its onion skin and stately scholars, versus the not-altogether -trustworthy Wikipedia? No…more premature death reports, I’m afraid. Nothing will replace the intensity and intimacy of the book experience. Those constantly writing of the “death of text”/books/novels (this is a common, almost over-wrought, theme these days) somehow do not take into account the potent psychological factor of reading (the real kind–not today’s “glancing”). They predicted the death of magazines—they are flourishing and multiplying all over the place; books too. Literate individuals just love the feel of a publication in hand. I would even like to see a print version of this great site one day.

  3. I will miss text when it is gone. I have no patience for sitting through a half-hour or more of talk when I can read through the same content in five minutes. If this had not been presented in text form I would have ignored it.

  4. Neil Postman said this and more in 1985 in his prescient book “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” His son produced an update I believe in 2001. His hypothesis rests on a core factor in the replacement of print by image, first television and now the Internet is the irrepressible drive of technology, from Gutenberg’s movable print to the telegraph, the telephone, the camera, radio to some extent, and, of course, television and the Internet. Print promotes the logical thought process. He spends a whole chapter on the roots of the American Republic in print and its consequence, the most widespread literacy and books and newspapers in history. Now we are overwhelmed with information that is deconstructionist and has no relevance to the receiver. Information has been reduced to stimulation, which the listener responds to passively and in mental and emotional disconnect. That is why it is now impossible to engage in rational debate, which has emptied all politics of relevancy. But Postman’s most powerful argument is the old one between the vision of Orwell in “1984” and Huxley in “Brave New World.”. For Postman Huxley is the winner hands down. Our liberties, our moralities and meaning will not die as in Nazism and Communism by force against and unwilling people but by a willess people who crave the soma (Microsoft Word insists on coma, which isn’t a bad synonym) that hides them in a childish fantasy that frees them from the responsibilities and fears of reality.

  5. I love the content of this article. The ending of the article brings to mind the very end of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, one of my favorite works of fiction. Seriously, the similarities are freaky (and if this wasn’t intentional, freakier).

  6. I think you’re worrying for nothing, Fr. D. Either civilization will adapt to a new way of reading and writing or more likely will divide their mediums. Writing on paper will never go away. Typing with a key board will never go away. Oral communication in whatever form will never go away. Students and humans (Yes, I know students might not quite be full humans -P) will require more skills than ancient humans to full express themselves in civilization. I still prefer a paper book over my Kindle, though I sometimes use a Kindle.

    • We are conducting our dialogue on the Internet. As Marshall McLuhan argued “the medium is the message.” How ideas are communicated is more important than the ideas themselves. Sola scriptorum was the “invention” of movable type. Protestantism is inherently literal. (Please, I am not saying that there is not a tradition of the literal is Catholicism. The Scholastics anticipated print.)

      Russell Kirk’s traditional conservationism is being processed now overwhelmingly visually and not in print. The website is not situated in a sober library. It is awash and surrounded in a sea of superficiality, paganism, pornography and ubiquitous subliminal advertising, which even invades its very sanctuary. It has always worried me that even the most orthodox Catholic sites are visited not by good persons prepped for piety and rational reflection but who have arrived via surfing the Internet, a very different predisposition.

      Our message is being distorted by the prevalent background noise. I fear the time is not long off when Mass will be celebrated on line and the host will be delivered over a 3-D printer. Already the Popes have been disfigured into Hollywood superstars followed by the sensationalist media interested in selling copy and not faith and millions of loyal “fans”.

      • The printable type didn’t destroy Catholicism. Catholicism adapted. How ideas are communicated is NOT more important than the ideas themselves. With all due respect, that’s ridculous. That would mean the true and noble ideas are time and medium limited. No, they are eternal.

  7. I never implied that the ideas don’t have their irreducible and eternal truth. What is uttered remains unchanged. It is how it is heard that is contextual. St. Paul did say that when you speak to the Athenians, etc.speak in a manner they are accustomed to. But there is a tipping point where the mesage becomes so distorted that it conforms to the world rather than transforming the world. Debaters know that the side that defines the form of the question to be debated has won the debate before it begins.

  8. I’ll quote you: “How ideas are communicated is more important than the ideas themselves.”

    No, that is patently wrong. The medium does not distort the message. The medium is not part of the message. Debaters don’t know such a thing. Debaters, at least good ones, make themselves clear and use the medium to transmit the message. I wholeheartedly disagree with you. True and noble ideas have remained true and noble no matter what the medium they have been communicated. The eternal ideas have NOT been distorted by the evolving technology.

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