Thursday, July 02, 2009

Why Write?

photo credit: Graffiti near Borough Market by dan taylor

Google is working to scan every book on earth. There are more than 30 million titles available for scanning. If one person in a million publishes a book, we get about 7000 more titles. Add in magazine articles, e-mails, blogs, plays, movie scripts, advertising copy, annual reports, meeting minutes, and a whole lot more. A vast amount of writing has happened and will happen.

Why write?

It appears that body language and vocalisations preceded writing. There are thousands of languages that have no written version. What did writing bring to the game for the languages that have it?

It is pretty easy for me to imagine situations where a record was desirable: A last will and testament. A contract. A warning.

Prior to the twentieth century, humans could not record sounds. Even more recent is the ability to record sights. Before audio and video recordings, writing was the only option for recording our thoughts, our intent, our desires.

Writing also allowed us to communicate across distances before the advent of telegraphs, telephones, radios, and many newer options.

However, as I write this humans have had the ability to record and transmit both sounds and sights for decades. I see evidence that we might drop writing; current alternatives include voice mail, podcasts and video blogs. What purpose does a written record serve when every vocal nuance and change of expression can be recorded for all time and transmitted billions of miles?

The ability to very rapidly search text is a recent innovation. We can only do relatively primitive searches of audio and video, but once we upgrade our ability to search those records, we may find little reason to convert speech to text. We will need means for filing, editing, and summarizing our audiovisual records, but it is not hard to imagine that we can develop those.

Writing may be nearing the end of its useful life, despite having served us well for thousands of years.

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