Text Post Redacto

by John McGrath on December 17, 2007

Jeff Jarvis has a provocative piece on BuzzMachine, titled Post-text?, in which he speculates about the waning of text as it becomes easier for computers to handle audio and video. It reminded me of a comment made recently by my old friend and professor Andrew Lih, that he now listens to the web as much as he reads it.

I love movies. I love This American Life so much that I’ve considered stalking Ira Glass. Last winter we went on a bender and watched all seven seasons of Buffy in three months. But I’m re-reading Neil Postman’s Building a Bridge to the 18th Century right now, and no other medium could possibly convey the depth and breadth of ideas Postman achieves in that slim volume. If books were to be relegated to the same Siberia as, say, epic poetry–a quaint form read in school and by a few eccentrics–it would be a great loss. Not just for nostalgic reasons (though I’m as susceptible to those as anyone), but because the richness of information in a book, and the particular flow state possible when in the thrall of a good one, can’t be equaled by other media.

I think Jarvis and the sources he mentions may be on to something: a lot of the pithy nonsense text on the web is being replaced by pithy nonsense audio and video, which is tantamount to replacing twinkies with snowballs.But long-form narrative is still best conveyed textually.

And for that reason I’m not actually too worried about the fate of text, at least not in the form where it matters the most, in books. There, it still does what it does best. And I know too many kids who are as possessed by books as they are by the rest of the media constellation. But if, God forbid, a text-less dystopia does comes to pass, Wordie is going to be like Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck in On the Beach: the last holdouts, singing “Waltzing Matilda” while we wait for the world to end.

Robert Seddon December 18, 2007 at 3:29 am

As the kind of person who scrolls through hundreds of syndication feed headlines every day, and reads through a lot of those articles with varying degrees of attention, I need to have a pretty sound expectation that listening rather than reading wll be worth the time it’ll take to slow down to someone’s speaking speed and lose the ability to skip around easily. (Also, I often already have music on in the background, and won’t want to accommodate another sound stream into my schedule.) Forsaking text in favour of spoken audio, or video where the images don’t hold attention, makes it more likely that I for one will ignore you.

That sounds terribly like the sort of thing a power-luncher might say… but bluntly, audio can be simply inconvenient when it isn’t necessary. To make things worse, I sometimes have to use dial-up…

John McGrath December 18, 2007 at 6:58 am

Robert, I agree. Other charms aside, reading can be more efficient.

Immediately upon finishing this post I got in bed and read this story in the New Yorker, about the decline of reading. It documents the decline of reading in detail, but somehow I’m still not too worried.

I think people used to read more because it was the only game in town. Then came radio, movies, and television, and each claimed a portion of our time. Now the web and games are taking a share, which is ok with me. I can live in a world where books share the stage.

Erin December 18, 2007 at 7:39 am

Frankly, an online video needs to be pretty damn compelling before I’ll click on it (and by “pretty damn compelling” I mean “needs to include David Tennant as Dr Who”). Video has a lot worse signal-to-noise ratio than text, and, for me, is way slower (not computer-bandwidth-wise, but brain-bandwidth-wise).

However, that said, certain kinds of humor really need images or video. I wouldn’t want to read a scene-by-scene description of slapstick, or that skateboarding dog, or LOLcats …

seanahan December 18, 2007 at 8:01 pm

Isaac Asimov wrote a hilarious essay (I can track down the title if so requested). He posited the existence of a perfect video player. It would self-contained, so you didn’t have to plug it into anything. You could jump to any part of the video that you wanted, and you would never have to waste time rewinding. A deaf person would be able to enjoy this ideal object, with it’s advances to allow usage without sound.

But wait, I just described a book! Of course, recent advances, like the Kindle, sort of take away the beauty of this, as VHS is a very different medium.

As to the topic at hand, I’m fairly certain that our eyes process information faster than our ears, unless that’s just from practice. And reading text seems to be a fairly efficient representation of abstract ideas. Obviously, descriptive text would be better represented by images, but really, I think if you actually saw Gregor Samsa, it would take something away from the story.

SD-Knex October 2, 2008 at 4:16 pm

“[...] watched all seven seasons of Buffy in three months.”
Two weeks. ^^

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