This is the era of images. Writing is doomed

The power of images has never been so big:

This is the era of images. In a world of short attention span, their power has never been so big.

Patrick Chappatte, “The end of political cartoons at The New York Times”

It is so big in fact, that a single cartoon can completely blow up an editorial space in a major media outlet like New York Times, which is a source of concern.

We are in a world where moralistic mobs gather on social media and rise like a storm, falling upon newsrooms in an overwhelming blow.

It is noticeable that Patrick stresses the power of images in the context of a very troubling moral setback, yet I don’t think we can blame images for it. However, there is another tech driven, so far invisible trend looming in the horizon, which is directly related to the rising dominance of images.

For quite some time, I have been speculating that, as long as we continue our steady technology march without any significant disruption, it is only a matter of time before writing dissapears. Once we can store, retrieve and search audio recordings as easily as we do today with text, writing will be over in a couple of generations. It will become a specialized tool for some very specific activities.

So far I had not found a lot of thinking along the same lines, but last week glorious Mary Meeker’s report on internet trends points clearly in this direction.

For centuries, people have learned to write and share words, mainly offline and one-to-one or one-to-some. Writing made ideas transportable, simplifies concepts and enables learning. For two decades people have been increasingly telling stories via edited images and videos, sharing them online and often one-to-many.

Mary Meeker quotes Instagram co-founder, Kevin Systrom:

People have always been visual – our brains are wired for images. Writing was a hack, a detour. Pictorial languages are how we all started to communicate – we are coming full circle. We are reverting to what is most natural.

I fully agree. Writing is a hack, a detour. What we don’t know is how we and society will change, once we fix the hack. We must admit that we are not very good at projecting long term trends, and for the time being we have no idea.

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Featured Image: La Pileta (Malaga), Wikimedia Commons

3 comments

  1. I Have a comment to your nice thought-provoking note: for a trained reader (something that may not exist in the future), in many contexts, it’s much faster to consume information by reading than by listening or watching in a video. Reading is efficient. You can filter as you read, you can skip, you can guess, you can look for the keywords among the text. It is true that the next generations might probably lose the ability to read at high speed, and therefore, it will be only about images. But for us, reading will be most of the times more efficient than any other way of absorbing information. What do you think?

  2. I Have a comment to your nice thought-provoking note: for a trained reader (something that may not exist in the future), in many contexts, it’s much faster to consume information by reading than by listening or watching in a video. Reading is efficient. You can filter as you read, you can skip, you can guess, you can look for the keywords among the text. It is true that the next generations might probably lose the ability to read at high speed, and therefore, it will be only about images. But for us, reading will be most of the times more efficient than any other way of absorbing information. What do you think?

    • Thank you very much for your comment. Juancho. I think I can add very little to what you say. I fully agree with you.

      For most practical purposes, today reading is a much faster and efficient way of looking for and consuming information… for the trained reader. That’s how I feel myself, a trained reader and writer, and I am pretty sure that won’t change. But as you also point out, young people seem to be changing and training their brains in a different way.

      When I think of a possible future in which searching for audio, images (and video) is possible and as efficient, and when I think of the effort (years) to become fully trained with written language, I have to conclude that writing might eventually disappear as a general way of communication. As far as I know, while language seems to be part of our self, writing is a relatively recent technology (∼ 5000 years). Some specific languages (e.g. maths) will continue to exist and some people will continue to use special purpose writing (like today’s computer programmers or musicians).

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