Does Text Have a Future?

You can argue that civilization got its start with the invention of written language. With this tool, ideas now could be spread across geography and over time. They became artifacts instead of ephemeral experiences. Most important, we found that writing enabled us to focus on producing more and more refined generalizations based on experience (experiences morph into experimentation when results are shared more easily). This accelerates our ability to gain knowledge about the universe around us. This theory is buttressed by the story of the re-discovery of ancient Greek manuscripts that inspired the renaissance. More recently, the reduced costs of publishing via books, pamphlets, magazines, etc. helped further speed up societal learning. And we now give this generalizing system a nice fancy name, scientific method.

So text is precious, right? Well, it turns out that text is not as powerful as the visual image — whether moving or still 8though it appears that moving images are more engaging than still ones). Chris Anderson makes this point and his idea is starting to percolate. Roger Martin reflects that given the stronger effect that video has, the future of text is murky.

So what about it? The odd thing is that while Chris and Roger may be onto something, the internet is still awash in a tsunami of text. So much so that it is hard to sell even high quality text. We are all “messaging” like crazy. Is that because we re not skilled enough to do TED talks ourselves?

Hmmm … I don’t think so. We might keep in mind that we are the children of the “broadcast century” – the 20th century. This was the time when broadcasting via radio, movies and then TV came into its own. Broadcasters found out that these new technologies gave them incredible power to entertain — and even better, to sell stuff. We all got hooked on media and we still are. So it is no surprise that as internet gives us all the chance to broadcast, we all do it and over do it. We dream of making millions by blogging or becoming a YouTube star. But broadcasting does not add a lot of value when everyone is broadcasting and no one is listening. That idea will gain traction over time.

So what is the way forward? We have not totally forgotten that conversation works. Exchange of ideas works in the same way. There are at least two elements to make it work. First it is channeled back and forth between actors in the network. This channeling requires a location (real or digital) devoted to the exchange. And second a “thread” of thinking evolves from agreement on details. That is what gives the exchange value over time. Pretty simple, right?

Here is the funny thing. We are pretty good at conversation face to face. But we are not very good yet at creating channels and threads in digital space that facilitate exchange rather than just broadcasting. I suspect that clever platform builders will help us do this in ways that multiply the value of our web exchanges many times. And as in conversation, we will continue to use words to make the exchange work. Video has its place too, but we don’t always need to see someone on stage lecturing us, as in TED.

This may explain, btw, the curious ongoing power of search as a web tool. Search works because it is pretty good at facilitating exchanges. I ask a question and I get answers that I can use on just about any topic. Can we go beyond search? To do that, we need to see more clearly where search is limited. In my view, the limit is the ad hoc nature of search. It does not help me generate ideas. It merely helps me access more information and connections about ideas that I already have. A tool that goes beyond search will empower my ideation.

So what will that tool look like? Ideation is the connecting link between what I want to do and how to do it better. So, we can look for upgrades in helping us figure out how to make those links more systematically. We see part of this already in the flood of “how to do it …” platforms on the web. But these are still primarily broadcast based — not as much exchange based. The advent of the “sharing economy” takes us a step closer to systematic exchange. So, let’s say I like cooking. An online recipe database tells me how I can make stuff. In other words, I will only use the database after I decide on an agenda —- the database is not as efficient as helping create an agenda. But let’s say I join a meal sharing network.Now I am committed to an activity over time with other people that takes place on a regular basis. Ideas flow from that need to upgrading my performance more efficiently because I need to satisfy the people I share with. The learning agenda is set.

It is interesting to notice how we are limited by our vocabulary. We see sharing platforms take off (like Airbnb, Uber, etc)and assume that its main foundation is that people like to share. They may, but sharing is more than just a new way to make money. More important it is about developing a more systematic learning agenda. But developing a learning agenda sounds pretty boring, right?


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