How The Written Word Has Changed In The Last 200 Years
How We’ve Embraced A Brave New World
It’s the end of 1984 and the world is patting its collective back for having avoided George Orwell’s infamous predictions. And while we congratulated ourselves for avoiding cultural and political tyranny when it was sniffing at our doorstep, another dystopia quietly snuck in the back door.
Let me give you a picture of what 1984 looked like. We were nearing the end of the Cold War. Within the next ten years, the Berlin Wall will fall and Ronald Reagan will forever be known as the man who defeated the Soviet Union.
But right now, we don’t know this. We have a celebrity president. The TV is king of our world and entertainment has replaced true public discourse. The written word barely factors into daily life for the average American.
If it doesn’t entertain, it’s not interesting.
American communications philosopher Neil Postman, in his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” claims that sure, we avoided 1984, but we landed in a Brave New World. And in the next few paragraphs, I’m going to show you how our current affinity for the written word hasn’t actually changed our position in this dystopia.
1. The Celebrity Status of the Written Word
Before the invention of the telegraph, our world was tiny. The only portal to the broader world we knew was the written word.
Sure, you could read a newspaper about what had happened months prior in other parts of the world. But why would you care? By then, it’s history.
But books, those contained knowledge. And knowledge was the only worthy pursuit outside of a life of hard work and toil in the 18th and 19th centuries. If you wrote books, that’s how you were known. And if you wanted to be known, you would write books.
As an author, I envy those who wrote books and published them in the 18th and 19th centuries. People like Mark Twain could travel the world and speak at various engagements. His writing made him a rich and prosperous man.
I digress. The celebrity status books afforded an author is not the same celebrity status a film or TV show affords today. If you were known by your books, you were known by your intellect.
Nobody knew or cared what you looked like. No matter if you were the President of the United States or a well-known novelist, it was your words that defined you.
Logic prevailed. If you did not have a long and arduous argument laid out, then you would be laughed out of the Senate or even the White House.
Debates Back Then and Today
Neil Postman talks about a debate between Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln (before he became president). Each person was given four hours on stage to make their case. And then each given an hour at a time to give rebuttals. If this were a debate format today, ratings would drop, people would hardly care.
But according to Postman, this was the fare of the day. Bands would play between debates, people would drink and eat. It was a great an officious event.
And if you thought the Hillary Clinton/Donald Trump presidential debates were raucous, you need to find a time machine. People would get involved quite loudly. And in Congress, during other debate debacles, Congressmen sometimes ended up crippled on the floor, but the printed word reigned supreme.
While images existed, to print an image required time. Printed images were carved out of wood and then later rubber before set in a press. It wasn’t until the invention of photography that everything changed.
2. The Diminishment of The Written Word
Don’t get me wrong. The printed word never fully died. And it never will.
Humanity will always need a way to communicate outside of voice, video, and sound. But how we communicate with words has changed and will continue to evolve.
When Joseph Nicephore Niepce snapped the first photo in 1826, nothing changed right away. It took another century to flash by before photography became the new way to communicate.
Before this, radio and other forms of audio technology began to compete with printed words. And as we moved away from reading as our main way of interpreting ideas, we moved away from logic and began to entreat emotion.
Fast forward to the 20th century. Radio and photography had already changed the landscape of communication. And while reading remained an important aspect of culture, we were already losing our capacity to tolerate long and arduous public discourse.
Words on paper were slowly being replaced with pictures and radio broadcasts. And once the first television came into existence in 1927 (over 100 years after the first photograph), we were already a visual and auditory driven culture.
It now mattered what people looked liked. Celebrities now graced the pages of magazines and advertisements. Advertising culture wasn’t yet the monster it is today in 1927, but we already cared more about how something made us feel over how it made us think. Television sealed the deal.
3. Emotions Override Everything
Aldous Huxley introduced us to The Feelies. An entertainment experience light years beyond any film you could watch. When you sat down in a theater, what happened on screen happened in your body too.
You felt every emotion and every sensation.
Today, this is the goal over every advertisement and every commercial. You watch a car commercial and you don’t learn about the specifics of a car but how the car should make you feel. Getting a new car is like Christmas or your Birthday.
You don’t learn a long treatise on how your Ford Focus is designed to absorb certain road conditions and increase aerodynamics. You instead learn about, maybe, how many awards its won and how it makes people feel cool when they drive it.
The written word lost relevance in our age of video, film, and sound bytes. It was more suited to questions like, “Where do I drop off my 1099 form 2017?” But with the invention of the internet, it seems to have made a comeback. Or has it?
4. The Age of the Internet
If you’ve made it this far into my article without skimming, I applaud you. Only 10-20% of readers will make it this far in a post at all and most of them will skim.
I’m writing this content knowing it’s going into the biggest slush-pile in the history of mankind. That slushpile is the internet.
People just don’t have enough time in their day to read everything that comes across their screens. And really, I don’t blame anybody for skimming my content or any other content. It’s just a fact of life in the year 2018.
But my generation “reads” more than any generation before us alive. But as I pointed out at the beginning of this section, that fact is skewed by the practice of skimming. I content that we skim more content and spend more time using that content than previous generations alive today.
We probably actually read just as much or even less. The glorious days of the internet still appeal to our emotions. But with longer strings of sound bytes.
To please the Google algorithms, I have to keep my sentences short. My paragraphs must be skimmable. This means that this sentence is the last one I write in this paragraph.
And before I lose you to the meta, I’ll begin to adieu. I think I’ve made my point. So, now you’re free to go skim more of my content here on Atavist.