An End to the Written Word

A reader asked the other day whether I thought that books (even e-books) would become outdated—that we would no longer need writing. A quick answer to that question would be no. However, the fact is that writing does serve a particular need. It allows for long term storage of thoughts and ideas so that they can be transmitted long distances, shared by those who don’t interact with the writer, and preserved for posterity. Writing is an old and established form of data storage. It actually replaced an even older data storage technique—the story teller.

Today there are many forms of data storage and writing is only one of them. From a convenience perspective, listening to someone tell you about something is easier than having to learn special symbols and then translate those symbols into spoken words in your head. The use of interactive graphics and demonstrations are far more revealing than translating a written procedure into movement by reading the words and then thinking about what you need to do in order to accomplish the tasks described by the words. For many people, hearing someone speak the words of Shakespeare will present not only the content, but the intonation required to actually understand the words at a deeper level. So, I do look for the written word to disappear from common use at some point (fortunately, not today).

However, even the best speaking, graphical presentation, and animation in the world aren’t up to the task of presenting most abstract ideas. An equation requires the use of symbols to represent the various concepts declared, defined, and solved by the equation. The symbols need not represent anything in the real world. Scientists will continue to require some level of writing to discuss, store, and implement abstract ideas. The presentation of these symbols need not be on paper (in fact, it probably won’t be on paper), but it will be writing nonetheless.

The tone of the conversation was such that I knew the reader was actually wondering whether I thought I might someday be out of a job. Writing is simply a tool that authors use to store ideas. Whether the author uses words or some other means of presenting ideas is immaterial, the ideas remain. It may very well be that I’ll eventually resort to other methods to present the ideas that form in my thoughts and that the creative expression of those ideas will take a different form. I don’t see myself as losing an occupation, but of having methods that my predecessors could only dream about to interact with my readers.

In short, it appears to me that eventually not everyone will know how to write because other forms of information exchange will become easier and more flexible. Some people already do all of their banking without writing anything—many other tasks will follow suit. Tomorrow, writing may not even be a part of the curriculum in grade schools. Students will learn some form of symbolic presentation in college as part of their professional courses and only professionals will use writing at all. However, I don’t see writing ever going away completely. Let me know your thoughts about the written word at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.