1999 : WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT INVENTION IN THE PAST TWO THOUSAND YEA

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Professor of Psychiatry, UM Medical School; Professor of Psychology, University of Michigan; Co-author, Why We Get Sick
Professor of Psychiatry, Director, ISR Evolution and Human Adaptation Program, The University of Michigan

Text is Special

It seems to me, as it will no doubt to many others, that the printing press has changed the world more than any other invention in the past two millennia. But why has such a simple technology had such a huge influence? And why, after 500 years, has no one invented a superior replacement?

I suspect it is because text has a special relationship to the human mind. Printing is the third wave of the biggest innovation, the one that started with the co-evolution of language, thought and speech. Speech makes it possible to share and compare internal models of the external world, a capacity that gives huge selective advantages. But acoustic vibrations are ephemeral, fading in moments into questions about who said what, when.

Writing, the second wave, is like a blast of super-cooled air that freezes words in mid-flight and smacks them onto a page where they can be examined by anyone, anywhere, anytime. Writing makes possible law, contracts, history, narratives, and poetry, to say nothing of sacred texts with their overwhelming influence. Printing transformed writing into the first mass medium, and the world has never been the same since. In the half-century that followed Gutenberg's 1446 Bible, over a thousand publishers printed over a million books. Suddenly it was worthwhile, and soon essential, for even ordinary people to learn to read. Now, people whose brains have trouble with this trick are at a severe disadvantage, while some with particular verbal felicity can make a living just by arranging words on paper.

Is text merely a temporary expedient, necessitated by the previous inability to record and transmit speech and images? We will soon see. In just a few years, sensors, storage and bandwidth will be so inexpensive that many people will be unconstrained by technical limitations. This affords a fine opportunity to make bold predictions that can be completely and embarrassingly wrong, as wrong as the predictions that said that e-mail would never catch on. In that spirit, I predict that voice and video attachments to e-mail, "v-mail" and "vid-mail," will be the next big thing, and they will create all manner of consternation. At first they will be hailed as more personal and more natural, thanks to the increased content carried by intonation and exclamations. But soon, I predict, the usual human strivings will give rise to problems.

Many people who previously were forgiven as "liking to hear themselves talk" will be revealed as actually wanting to hear others listen to them talk. Some, especially bosses, will send long soliloquies to hundreds of other people in the expectation that they will be listened to in full. The wonderful veil of privacy in which a reader considers a text will be rent. You won't be able to jump around and skip whole paragraphs in v-mail and vid-mail, as you can in e-mail. Time and attention will be revealed as the valuable resources they are. Many people will post electronic notices equivalent to the one a friend has on his answering machine, "Leave a message, but please KEEP IT BRIEF."

To solve this we will, of course, turn to still more technology. V-mail will be transformed automatically into text so we will have a choice of mediums. What will we choose? It will depend. For emotional endearments, and many narratives, v-mail and vid-mail. For simple facts, and subtle ideas, however, I think will we choose text, at least, that is, until our brains are changed by the selective forces unleashed by these technologies.