Death of the Written Word

The written word is dying. I don’t know when it will die, but the day is rapidly growing closer. As a writer I decry this fact often in this blog, but as a scientist (at heart, if not by training) I recognize it as inevitable and not an inherently bad thing.

First, let’s examine the evidence for it. Go online anywhere, e.g. Facebook, Nextdoor, etc., and see how people write. In a word: badly. In two words: very badly. In third world countries where illiteracy has always been high, even poor people have cell phones. They can communicate with others without ever having to learn to read or write. They’ve skipped the written stage and are none the worse for it. Technological advances like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant have become very popular and very good. It is now possible for me to talk to my phone and get a good answer or action. Now that I have arthritis in my hands, I should probably use it more, but I am so used to being on my keyboard, I haven’t really gotten on board with that. People in the first world are more and more likely to communicate by posting photos or videos. People read fewer books than ever before, at least printed books. Audiobooks are increasingly popular and, of course, video media such as broadcast television, discs, and streaming are the standard form of entertainment now. Newspapers are dying.

It’s easy to blame technology for this, and indeed it is the main driver of the trend. But the word blame carries a negative judgment that I think is undeserved. Take a look at human history. Man in his modern form, homo sapiens, evolved around 100,000 years ago. Although it is hotly disputed when spoken language evolved, or even what constitutes language among primates, most scholars seem to think it reasonable to say that by the time homo sapiens arrived on the scene, so did spoken language. So we’ve been talking for 100,000 years. We evolved with the ability to speak and understand others’ speech, and those abilities evolved with us. On the other hand, written language first appeared about 5,000 years ago. In other words, for 95% of human existence, especially the time period when man evolved into a modern “civilized” creature, he only needed to be able to speak and understand speech. Even before that, man’s predecessors had learned to make and understand sounds to communicate various things such as warnings of predators, or even joy. The written word was a great invention that allowed for permanence and consistency, but wasn’t used by most humans until very recently. The prevalence of dyslexia and the well-established fact that many or most students learn better from oral instruction than from reading are evidence that man really hasn’t evolved as a reading being, but as a speaking being.

Now that technology is making it possible, I believe the written word will fade into antiquity much like the abacus, slide rule, and chiseling on stone tablets. It will always exist in some form, of course, but will be a subject for historians and archaeologists the way Latin and cuneiform are today. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so picky about bad spelling and grammar. I believe written language is unnatural from an evolutionary standpoint, but bad grammar in spoken language is still bad. It leads to misunderstanding and to being relegated to a lower class. Learning to write well, and to be able to read difficult material, is still important to be able to lead a full and rewarding life.

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