The written word is one of the most powerful communication tools ever invented.
We can absorb written words faster than we can absorb spoken words. We can transmit words from place to place much more efficiently than the spoken word or pictures. (A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it can be the size of tens or hundreds of thousands of them.)
These words, once written, stay around for as long as the medium they’re written on (which is a point of contention between paper books and e-books). They represent crystallized knowledge or imagination, and a single copy can influence the thinking of many, many people.
Have you ever thought about how miraculous it is that we (or at least those of us fortunate enough to have learned to touch-type) can rapidly produce millions of words and send them out all over the world just by wiggling our fingers in ways that were trained into us until they are as unconscious as walking or breathing?
Since the Internet was first invented for exchanging e-mail, you could say that the written word was the Internet’s first “killer app”. Ever since then, the amount of text e-mail, netnews, relay chat, gopher, veronica, wais, ftp, and web traffic has dwarfed in quantity, if not in bandwidth, the johnny-come-lately audio and video transfers.
The written word allows us to engage in a kind of dialogue with the books we read. Books are a one-to-one-at-a-time communication medium, with the words flowing from the author to us. We then turn around and review or discuss them with our friends, a one-to-several medium.
The Internet makes everything faster, of course. E-books bring the books to us faster and more conveniently than printed books–and we discuss them on the net, a one-to-many communication from us to the public in general. And it is possible one member of those public might be the author.
So why is it that the number of people reading for recreation is apparently declining? Are people just bored with books, or mesmerized by fancy computer games? Do they prefer to spend the extra time to get their news through audiovisual means?
It’s a good question—as is the question of whether e-book devices can bring them back into the fold. If the gee-whiz factor of e-book devices and apps gets people reading again, that will be great.
But what if it doesn’t? Is the written word going to go the way of cuneiform?
It is doubtful that the written word will ever die out, even if books go by the wayside. (After all, it didn’t die when we stopped using scrolls.) Video games and gizmos will always need instruction books, and the written word is simply the most efficient way of communicating many concepts (despite what some dystopian SF writers have imagined).
Its delivery may take on forms we can barely even imagine now, however.
(Image borrowed from “Things Locked in Drawers…”)