Tiny hand held screens are soon to be replaced with screens built into glasses, screens on wrist watches like that gadget Dick Tracy used to have, and even screens built into contact lenses. Micro screens are challenged by macros screens with jumbotrons in stadia, billboards which have morphed into macro screens and advertising screens built into gas pumps, car dashboards, bank terminals and supermarket checkouts.
We use the screen to shop. We use the screen to play. We use the screen to work. The screen is ubiquitous but is the screen iniquitous? Public performances are prefaced with pleas to turn of the gadgets and public places are increasingly personal places as everyone has their nose stuck to their screen. Parents insist that children put their personal electronic devices away during family meal times only to check their own texts and emails when there is a beep or a buzz, and every day another reporter tells us a tragic story of a driver who was maimed or killed because they were watching the screen and not the road.
Skype and FaceTime have finally given us picture phones like the ones that made us wonder and want one at the World’s Fair in 1964. Furthermore to talk face to face electronically is free if you have WiFi or a decent cellular connection. The screen has aided social communication in amazing ways even if it has challenged conventional skills like having a conversation, a dinner party or a heart to heart.
In my opinion the ubiquitous screen is not necessarily iniquitous. It is an invention, that’s all, and one that is as revolutionary as was the printing press. As a writer I am interested in what a book is and why it is. A book is typically about 60,000 words of text put together at about that length for a certain reason. Publishers figured out how to most efficiently cut the paper, set the pages then print and bind a book. As train tracks are a certain width because of the width of Roman chariot axles, so a standard sized book has depended on what was efficient and economical to print in large numbers.
Now, with computerized print on demand all that has changed. Machines exist that print just one book from a digital file, cut it, print the cover and bind it and pop it out the other end ready for delivery. Shazam! Just like that! No more need for big print runs, warehouses, picking clerks, shipping clerks, trucks and distribution warehouses. The book can be any size. Just write it, upload it, market it, and the customer picks and clicks and pays and it arrives in two days. Even more quickly, and cheaply it can come through his screen and he can read the e-book.
The computer and the screen have revolutionized the book production, but the prophet in me sees another more radical revolution, and it has to do with the nature of language itself.
With the predominance of textual language we forget that language was first meant to be spoken not written and read. In the beginning was the Word and the Word was spoken. Stories were told. Instructions were given. Then the stories and instructions were memorized and passed down not in scrolls and scriptures, but by word of mouth. Stories were dramatized and then became dramas that were acted out. The actors memorized and passed the text on to the next generations through the formal traditions of drama, storytelling, teaching and memorization.
Then alphabets were developed and our ancestors began to write down the stories and the plays. The Scriptures became sacred. The written word could be kept on the page not only to be read but also to be studied and analyzed. Books were written about books and books were written about those books. Step by step, through the wonder of the written word, language became more and more abstract. Thought and analysis became increasingly theoretical and cut off from reality.
Now, however, our children and grandchildren are un-literate. They can read, but they don’t read. Why should they read even an e-book when the stories are acted out so much more entertainingly on the screen? Why should they read when they can listen to a story through audio while they are doing something else? We are used to stories being told through text by skilled writers, but stories used to be told verbally by skilled storytellers. Stories were told and songs were sung. Now we gather information from non-fiction books written by skilled writers. Once we gathered that information from teachers and tutors.
Before long we will realize the true impact of the screen revolution, and it will be the disintegration of written language. Already we are seeing this with the prevalence of text messaging, email and disappearance of cursive writing, penmanship, and the basics of grammar, usage and spelling. The disintegration of written language will lead to the disappearance of textual communication altogether. Because of the new technology we will remember that language was first meant to be spoken, not written and we will move more quickly than we imagine to a predominantly spoken communication instead of textual communication.
It is now possible for anyone to produce an audio or video form of communication and distribute it globally in an instant at virtually no cost. Audio and visual forms of communication can do everything and more than a text communication is capable of. Indeed, as I write these words for The Imaginative Conservative website I am asking myself why I am not speaking these words to a camera to post my real face to face spoken communication.
When this happens—and it is happening now and will continue to increase—books will become as obsolete as typewriters. Why should we read and write when we can send video and audio messages? What value will there be in written language? When this revolution happens what will be lost and what will be gained?
I leave the reader to ponder these questions, and I myself will come up with some thoughts on how communication, literature and education might change in next week’s column…
…which will be in written form and not on my YouTube channel.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in the Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.