Text’s Future, seen from 1993

Ev recently reminded me of a bit of information archaeology I wrote back in 1993. At his suggestion, I’ve reproduced it below.

Hot New Medium: Text

(reprinted from Wired Magazine, September/October 1993)

Littera scripta manet — the written word remains. Though it was recorded almost exactly two millenia ago, Horace’s maxim echoes a surprising fact lurking in today’s digital revolution. An ever-growing media palette has failed to dislodge the centrality of the written word from our lives. We talk endlessly about new techarcana like video and virtual reality, but the conversation orbits around the stuff of this page — text.

In fact, the written word doesn’t just remain; it is flourishing like kudzu vines at the heart of the digital revolution. The explosion of e-mail traffic on the Internet represents the largest boom in letter writing witnessed on the planet since 18th century England, when Samuel Johnson thought nothing of despatching a voluminous epistle to a friend next door. Today’s cutting-edge infonauts are far more profligate epistomaniacs than Johnson, flooding cyberspace with gigabyte upon gigabyte of ascii musings.

But we hardly notice this textual explosion because, mercifully, it is largely paperless. Vague clouds of electrons to’ing and fro’ing over the Net have replaced crushed trees lugged by postal couriers. This has spared our landfills, but it has also obscured a critical media shift. Words and text have been decoupled from their parent medium, paper. Like the stuff of Horace’s affection, text is still comprised of twenty-six letters, but freed from the entombing, distancing oppression of paper, it has become as novel as the hottest new media.

In fact, our electronic novelties are transforming the word as profoundly as the printing press did half a millennium ago. For starters, we are smashing arbitrary print-centric boundaries among author, editor and audience. These categories did not exist before the invention of moveable type, and they will not survive this decade. Just as monk scriveners at once wrote, edited and read, information surfers browsing online services today routinely play all three roles, selectively scanning, absorbing, editing and creating on the fly in real time. The printing press gave life and reach to the word, but at the terrible cost of creating an artificial separation between author and reader, making text formal and immutable. Printed words became as immobile as flies in amber, and readers knew that they could look, but not change. This separation would have startled the monk scribblers who took their medieval quill-based interactivity for granted, and they would be heartened by the textual intimacy rekindled today by our new media.

Text has become a new medium that combines print’s fixity with a manuscript-like mutability. Flick a key and volumes of text disappear in virtual smoke, flick another and they are replicated over the Net at light-speed — countless copies are squirreled away in countless data vaults. It is a delicious irony that through its powers of replication, the most evanescent of electronic conduits — the Net — should also emerge as the most permanent repository for the word in human history. Severed from unreliable paper, text has become all but inextinguishable. E-mail passed between Oliver North and his Iran-Contra conspirators survived numerous attempts at expungement and now resides in the National Security Archives for all to inspect, even as historians lament that the switch to electronic media is depriving them of important research fodder. They needn’t worry; paper may be on the skids, but text is eternal.

Immortality may be the least of the surprises that this new medium of electronic text will deliver. Video enthusiasts are quick to argue that images are intrinsically more compelling than words, but they ignore a quality unique to text. While video is received by the eyes, text resonates in the mind. Text invites our minds to complete the word-based images it serves up, while video excludes such mental extensions. Until physical brain-to-machine links become a reality, text will offer the most direct of paths between the mind and the external world.

Video suffers from a deeper problem, one of ever-diminishing reliability in the face of ever more capable morphing technologies. By decade’s end, we will look back at 1992 and wonder how a video of police beating a citizen could move Los Angeles to riot. The age of camcorder innocence will evaporate as teenage morphers routinely manipulate the most prosaic of images into vivid, convincing fictions. Clever image hacks of advertisements and news footage will become a high art form. We will no longer trust our eyes when observing video-mediated reality, and will seek out external indicators of reliability. Text will emerge as a primary indicator of trustworthiness, and images will transit the Net as multimedia surrounded by a bodyguard of words, just as medieval scholars routinely added textual glosses in the margins of their tomes.

Of course words can be as false as images, but there is something to text that keeps our credulity at bay. Perhaps the intellectual labor required to decode words keeps us mentally alert, while visual stimuli encourage passivity. Studies conducted during the Gulf War hinted at such a possibility: researchers found that citizens who merely read about the war’s events in daily publications had a far better grasp of the issues than avid real-time TV news junkies.

Another proof of text’s persistence lies in its continuing power to move entire communities of readers. Salman Rushdie learned, to his regret, that a few brief passages tucked away in a 600-page book was sufficient to trigger a holy death sentence that keeps him in hiding to this day. Meanwhile, the moans and protestations of politically correct language zealots demonstrate that even in the hip nineties, words can hold all the power of a medieval incantation.

Proof of text’s persistence is everywhere. I encountered the strangest instance of electronically incarnate text in a Tibetan Buddhist institute located in Northern California. Inside its sanctuary were enormous prayer wheels filled with mantras printed in state-of-the-art microtype onto tightly rolled sheets of paper. My host explained that their motorized spinning spreads an aura of beneficial energy outward, and the more mantras the wheels contain, the bigger the benefit. Imagine the consequences when someone concludes that the Internet amounts to a globe-sized virtual prayer wheel, just waiting for the right virus to pack mantras into its interstices. It is just the sort of immortality that would please a good God-fearing Roman like Horace.

This essay originally appeared in the September/October 1993 issue of Wired Magazine.