When’s the last time you saw a facebook post that was only words? Probably never. Facebook keeps tweaking its algorithm to prioritize photos and videos, because that’s what people like (when’s the last time you heard of a paragraph going viral?), but also because that’s what people create. Pithy comments go down below the image, or perhaps on Twitter, and conversations happen in messenger apps or texts. Facebook is a forum, where we set up for display who we are, what we care about, and the things we create. The average person reads a whole heap of text in the infinite stream of blogs, articles, and books,and generates plenty in comments, messages, and emails. But all of that is noise. Literally, it is talk. Almost no one really writes anything, because the internet is obliterating the written word, and the consequences are only just becoming clear.
Writing is a technology. We don’t think of it that way because it is so old and so fundamental, but writing is not the natural state of language. It’s something that took a long time to develop over many iterations. For unknown thousands of years, language was only spoken, and the ability seems to be hardwired into the human brain. Each person must be laboriously taught to read and write, but children absorb the ability to speak without any intervention. Like any technology, writing shapes the way we are able to interact with the world, opening up new possibilities while obviating older methods, sometimes completely and irretrievably. For to use a technology you must acclimate yourself to the thinking required for its use. Driving a car, for example, requires you to think about places as points connected by roads so that you can work out an appropriate route without running over lawns and into buildings and across other lanes of traffic. You cannot just point yourself in a direction and go, dealing with obstacles when they arise, as you could with walking. If all you could do was drive and never leave your car, the world would look very different to you. If some place didn’t have a road leading to it, you might as well just forget it exists.
What writing changes the way we think about words. To understand, you need to have some understanding of the nature of sound and the purpose of writing. Sound is ephemeral. By the time you hear it, it is already gone. You can remember it, but you can’t play it back again. Even if a person repeats themselves, if you didn’t hear it clearly the first time, you can’t really be sure they said the same thing, because how can you check it with the original, which is gone? So memory is very important in an purely oral environment, and literalism (think about that word for a moment) is irrelevant, if not outright impossible. The only way to make sure you remember something is to repeat it often. If you ever stop repeating it, you will forget it, and once it is gone, you can’t ever get it back (unless someone else keeps repeating it). Only very few, very important important sayings can get that treatment. Also, words are not objects that can be seen or contained or analyzed. Words only come about as actions, as active speech, which exist only in the present moment and which can come from all directions at once. And so thought, too, if it is to use words, must become action-oriented, present-focused, and nonlinear. The past isn’t unknown, but it is hazy and often unreliable, like your own early memories or the stories your grandfather tells you about the glory days. Even if you believed them to be completely accurate, you could never confirm it, because the words don’t leave any physical evidence. Naturally, then, since perfect accuracy is impossible, perfect accuracy is not valued or attempted.
Writing, as a technology, does exactly one thing: store information. Prior to writing, the only way to store information was in memory, by repeating phrases and passing them down to others, or by pictures or sculptures or other physical arrangements, all of which are extremely inefficient and limited either in scale or precision. But with writing, anything that can be said can be saved. Precise instructions or accounts can be preserved and read by anyone, even those with no connection to the original speaker. The technology opens up a new world of possibilities. The burden on human memory is relieved (aka destroyed), because you can store information outside of your mind and reference it when needed. No longer only the most important wisdom but also the most trivial facts, if written down, can be remembered forever. And since remembering is not as crucial, you do not have to write in repetitive, formulaic styles which are easy to remember. Writing allows for idiosyncrasies, originality, what we now call creativity.
With writing words become durable objects, something you can see on a page, and they do not come from everywhere at once but are arranged in a line and read in a certain order. They have a beginning and an end, contained within a finite space, but they are not locked in any moment. Words read could have been recorded a thousand years ago. They require no other person to speak them, so they can be consumed in isolation without making a sound. They can be re-read and repeated without any loss of accuracy. A wide body of knowledge that would not be possible for any one person to gather can now be accumulated over time, and from this mass of data, categories can be derived. Recording results and later comparing and verifying them is possible and therefore expected. Long, complex, systematic arguments can be formulated and preserved that would otherwise be impossible for anyone to remember. Thoughts, too, in order to accommodate the written word, become more visual, more linear, more exact, more abstract, and more complex.
The advantages of this technology are obvious, but it also creates new problems. The spoken word (before recording devices) always occurred between two people who were within hearing distance of each other. So they automatically shared a context, inhabiting the same physical space, able to interpret body language and environmental factors, and most likely sharing common cultural assumptions of the day. But a writer cannot always know his audience. A piece of writing might be read a hundred years in the future by people in a world the writer could never have imagined. Even if he writes for a specific person he knows well, that person is not there (otherwise, why write?), and therefore he cannot know the mood of his reader or her reaction to it. He must imagine the person to whom he is writing and their mental state when reading it. He will, as much as he thinks necessary, include details of his current position and the state of the world, drawing the context into the writing itself, details which no one would say to someone standing next to them. Writing and reading are both often done in isolation, in your head, without any sound exchanged or people to share and react to it. The practice brings more conscious awareness of inward, psychological states, which now can and must be examined. But this makes it prone to misinterpretation and misunderstanding and, crucially, when such mistake is made, the author or reader is not there to correct it, and so it goes on unchallenged, often completely unnoticed.
Everything that writing did, the printing press added to, and everything that print did, the internet multiplies. There are so many more words today than was ever possible with writing or print, and they can be infinitely duplicated, limitlessly distributed, instantaneously transmitted. Everyone is always generating it, at work and at home and at school, on computers and phones and tablets. We use text for so much more than we used to—not only for books, records, and reports, not only for long-form letters but short-form conversations—because we can. We are engulfed in words we can see and touch and manipulate, with all of the implications described above.
But these new words are different. They only look the same, but when we use them in new ways we give them a different form and therefore a different meaning. When you write a text to your BFF, you can expect to be answered instantly (and you’ll probably get worried if you aren’t) in a way that isn’t possible with your pen pal. There are no limitations of time and space on your messages. So a letter is by necessity long, formal, descriptive, reflective, drawing context into itself. A text message is a short, informal snippet, relying on outside context and an implicit understanding between two people, like a quick note might be, if you could pass notes at the speed of light. Sending more than two sentences in a text—sending complete sentences at all—is improper. Better to break thoughts into little pieces so that they can be reacted to separately. There is back-and-forth, so one does not need to imagine as much about their audience even as the audience can be much greater. A facebook post or tweet might be seen by hundreds or thousands or more, but it is always done with the possibility and intention of a response and organized into small bites (e.g. 140 characters) rather than complex thoughts or arguments. Email, which are first appears letter-like, hence the name, supports longer messages in theory but in practice we have little patience for anything more than a paragraph or two, and concise responses are appreciated.
So most of the text we create is short and informal, often lacking grammar, grounded in the moment and present context, communicative rather than reflective, able to gather quick responses, and broadcast to everyone around us who will listen. In other words, it’s a lot like sound, spoken through a really big megaphone. The computer has taken us so far up the path of writing that we are coming back around on orality. Through writing we came to view all of our speech as text. Through the internet we’ve turned all of our text into speech. We now live in hybrid world in between the solid plane of writing and the ephemeral space of sound, where the most trivial, casual conversations take place in text messages, tweets, and blog posts while big, important arguments happen on youtube, podcasts, television, and radio. There used to be a sharp delineation. The written word was the domain of prose, science, history, and order. The spoken word was the domain of lyrics, debate, presence, and chaos. Each has their advantages; we’ve taken the worst of both.
This is the world of alternative facts, of irreconcilable realities, of political and social positions masquerading as truth, of endless conflict where neither sides can agree on basic assumptions or even recognize they are making them. We are comfortable with contradictions within our own thought and have a relativistic view of values and belief. We love the verbal sparring of debate, attacking with quick, emotional hits, preferring to beat and embarrass an opponent rather than work toward a larger, complex consensus. This is necessary to work with our current forms of communication, where information is omnipresent and streaming in from all directions at once, where attention is difficult to get and impossible to keep for long, and every possible opinion is represented. Yet we still cling with scientific certainty to whatever supporting facts we can find, imagining our thought processes as purely rational and linear in the way text implies long after we’ve abandoned them. Think of any online debate. Go to any comment section (if you must). You will find two sides asserting mutually exclusive positions supported by mutually exclusive facts, each accusing the other of the emotional and logical biases of which they are guilty themselves, followed by insults. And they are really enjoying it.
We’ve interiorized our technology and adapted to its use. The tech companies are dealing with this reality right now. They are trying to remove harmful or false information from their platforms, get rid of hateful groups and people. You can’t blame them, but it won’t work. The problem isn’t in the content on the platform, which is infinitely changing, but in the shape of the platform, the medium itself, which they can’t and won’t change. In the same way, the answer does not rely in a greater commitment to books and essays and long-form journalism, because our relationship with text itself has changed. It’s no coincidence that our novels have shifted toward first-person and “voice”-driven works and our journalism has become more opinionated and bloggish, where it survives at all. We carry our basic assumptions and understanding of words into whatever we read and whatever we write.
This is not the only factor influencing our troubled culture, but it is an underexamined one. The first step in any correction is to understand what is happening and how our technology is shaping us. The point is not to return to a previous state, which is impossible anyhow, but to guide our path in a more stable, beneficial direction. When we design our online media without a clear view of its effects, with a naive, idealistic, or greedy vision, with a concern only for technical possibilities and limitations, the worst impulses of our humanity will tend to rise. But we can design it in a more humanistic way. And as users, we can acknowledge the effects, our own assumptions and biases, giving up a measure of our certainty for doubt and reflection, and treating others online with generosity and grace. If we are moving back toward an electronically oral world, we need to create a new online public with appropriate standards of interaction and decency. There will be debate and conflict—that’s part of the medium—but there can be reason and truth and understanding, too. Otherwise, what’s the point?
*For more reading on the research behind this, start with Walter Ong’s Literacy and Orality.