There is a scene in the Canadian movie Black Robe in which a Jesuit priest displays the power of writing to one of his Huron guides.
The priest asks the guide to share with him something personal, something no Jesuit could know. The Huron does so, the priest writes it down and hands the note to another Jesuit, who reads it silently. The Huron is shocked to hear the second Jesuit repeat the secret, even though no spoken words were exchanged between the men.
The power of writing.
The printed word changed people and the way they communicated. The typographical system for recording and distributing knowledge combined with mass means of distribution led to revolutions that dramatically changed societies.
Typography is powerful technology. But it is not perfect; the written word is limited, too, in its abilities. The nature of the medium restricts the kind of information that can be shared. It is not an innate means of communication; it must be taught and learned, and some are better at it than others. Text is slow. Printed texts largely enable one-way exchanges of information. Most of subtleties of expression possible in oral communication are lost in print. It is, at best, two-dimensional.
It has also set us up for a trap.
Our society is in the throes of another revolution — a digital one — that also uses the printed word as its core means of information transmission.
The Internet and the profusion of devices, software and social media enabled by it allow us to share texts at speeds never before possible. We can converse with text now almost at the speed of oral communication.
And we fail miserably at it.
The digital word, while faster, delivers information less ably than the printed version, and nowhere is the failing more apparent than in the realm of personal communication.
I watch my daughter and her friends with their devices. They are linked through their smartphones to each other by digital textual connection. They converse by combining the 26 letters of our alphabet in ever shorter and more limiting combinations. LOL OMG :) — acronyms and symbols designed to impart emotion, meaning and context to conversation.
Are we fooling anyone? The ability of text to convey information — as limited as it is — has been thwarted even further.
Of course, it’s not just our children doing this. The “grown-up” world has embraced the digital revolution with equal fervour, and the risks are more dire.
Our society now governs itself by means of digital text.Facebook dominates and structures social conversations and relationships. Politics and the formation of public spheres of influence have become the realm of Twitter, websites and online comment sections.
Miscommunication and misunderstanding abound. Fear, anger, ignorance and apathy seem to have gained ground in step with the advent of digital communication. Coincidence?
We are losing the means to talk to each other. People are oral, visual and tactile creatures and we are very quickly losing our ability — desire, even — to use those senses. We won’t be better for it.
The answer? Stop typing and start talking. It’s not too late to be real. To be human.