This post is speculation. Just something I’ve been mulling over the the last few months.
Until about five thousand years ago, the primary method of communication among our species, the method by which we did what Alfred Korzybski characterized as time binding—storing and transmitting information, was speech. When you wanted to know something, you asked someone. When you wanted to give information to other people, you spoke to them. Around five thousand years ago we developed an additional method of storing and transmitting information: writing.
The written word has a number of advantages over the spoken word. It’s more durable than speech and less subject to loss. We don’t have a single thing that was said 200 or 2,000 years ago. We have quite some little bit of what was written down about what was said.
It was also cheaper and easier to transport the written word than it was the spoken word since transporting the spoken word required moving people while moving the written word only requires moving fairly small, durable things. Indeed, it’s been suggested that the most ancient ancestor of writing consisted of small clay images of things to be bought or sold wrapped in clay and transported that way. Sort of a prehistoric shipping document.
However, writing also had some disadvantages over the spoken word. It was expensive both in materials and in the investment in education and, although practically everybody learns to speak, not everybody could or did learn to read and write.
As the technology of writing developed this changed. Writing on parchment was cheaper than writing on clay, stone, or wax. Paper was cheaper than parchment. It was easier to learn an alphabet or syllabary than pictograms or ideograms.
Speech, obviously, has never vanished but it was supplanted by writing as the primary means of communication in any number of fields including mathematics, philosophy, and, at least to some degree, business. History, by definition, is written.
Almost 150 years ago we began to develop the technology to transmit and store first writing then speech. And a little more than 100 years ago we began to store and then transmit visual imagery.
I wonder if there are signs that visual imagery is supplanting the written word, at least in certain areas, the written word just as the written word supplanted the spoken word in some fields.
Ambient devices utilize pre-attentive processing to display information, the ability for the brain to perceive information without any apparent cognitive load. The New York Times Magazine announced ambient devices as one of the Ideas of the Year in 2002 on the heels of a start-up company, Ambient Devices, releasing their first product Ambient Orb. The Ambient Orb maps information to a linear color spectrum and displays the trend in the data.
Is this just a curiosity or the cuneiform of a newly-emerging means of communicating information?
The transition from an oral society to a literate one had implications that extended far beyond just the means of communication or the costs of transportation for an unexpected reason: literacy reorders consciousness. I’ve written on this subject before. Communicators in an oral society tend to be additive, agonistic, redundant and repetitive, empathetic, and situational. Communicators in a literate society tend to be subordinative, analytic, objective, and abstract.
Will a transition to a visual imagery society result in an analogous reordering of consciousness to that of the transition from oral to literate? I think there’s reason to believe that there is, it’s happening now, and the visual imagery society resembles the oral society more than the literate society that it supplants. Consider the political blogosphere.
Whatever the political blogosphere expresses it does not have the features of the expressions of a literate society, using analysis, abstraction, and objectivity to communicate and persuade. It is polemic not reasoned discourse. That’s part of what the post Endarkenment at QandO Blog comments on, lamenting the declining ability of people to think critically and logically.
Certainly there are exceptions. I hope that I am one.
What I find most concerning about this trend is that developments in government paralleled the transition from oral to literate societies. Divine and semi-divine chiefs and monarchs were replaced by representative government. Is bureaucracy the analogue in government of visual imagery as a dominant communication modality? Chaos? Autocracy? The only notable developments I’ve seen over the last couple of decades are an increasing tendency in the Western democracies towards bureaucracy as the operative form of government and a greater tendency to follow charismatic chiefs, the societal modality that John W. Campbell characterized as barbarism.
I’ll conclude this speculation with questions rather than answers.
- Is visual imagery overtaking the written word as the dominant form of communication, especially for communicating new knowledge?
- If so, what are the cognitive implications of the change?
- What are the social and political implications of the change in cognitive behavior?