Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Post-Textual, Post-Literate World

Last evening, Jen and I watched a PBS documentary about the history of superhero comic books in the U.S. Near the end of the third hour, the documentary was discussing the current state of comic books and the growing importance of electronic texts and video games in the industry. Todd McFarlane, an artist and one of the founders of Image Comics, commented that he doesn’t care if comic books move to digital forms. He said something like “comic books are simply text and pictures, which we’ve had since the cave paintings. And we’ll always have that.”

Respectfully, I have to disagree with him on that point. I don’t think we’ll always have a union of text and visual materials because that claim isn’t supported by human history. The cave paintings I think he’s referring to are the ones in Lascaux, France. While he’s right that they represent a longstanding human interest in telling stories, those paintings are visual only. That is, they have no text associated with them and were created before our species had written language.

When I was a doctoral student, my focus was medieval English literature. A good bit of the material I studied was created in a mostly illiterate society. In that society, those who had the ability to read, create, and interpret texts were a select class of people. Textual literacy wasn’t available to the masses, and it wasn’t a skill they actually needed to function on a daily basis.

I’m an avid reader and aspiring author, so I would like to think that Mr. McFarlane is right about the longevity of texts. However, I have to say that I think we’re rapidly approaching a time when textual literacy will no longer be needed by the masses. Indeed, I think we’re on the cusp of this new era.

What are the reasons I say this? I was recently emailing with my niece, and I mentioned I was thinking about writing some letters to her kids. She told me they wouldn’t be able to read a handwritten letter and certainly wouldn’t reply to it. She said their “text” messages aren’t really texts at all. They mostly communicate in emoticons, GIFs, and other visual cues via their phones’ messaging feature.

That got me thinking about how people interact with information in today’s society. As many people know, polls indicate a growing number of Americans don’t read even one book a year. I think most people probably get their information from some form of visual media, like a TV, movie, Internet video clip, etc. Newspaper, magazine, and book publishers have seen a decline in the number of printed texts sold. Some of their business has moved to digital forms, but even digital texts aren’t selling as well now as printed materials did in the mid-20th century.

Since so much of our information consumption is via electronic screens, I think we’re rapidly approaching a time when blocks of text (whether printed or formed electronically) will be passé. That is, I think we’ll soon live in a post-textual, post-literate world. Like the medieval world, our coming society will need a small, specialized class of textual experts. After all, some needs to create, read, and interpret the scripts to our video games, movies, sit-coms, and “reality TV” programs. However, I predict the people in that field will be a small, select group of specialists, and most consumers of those forms will be completely unaware that a text is the foundation of the visuals they see. Most people simply won’t engage with blocks of text in any meaningful way.

I think we’re already starting to see that trend. How many people see a movie because the person who wrote its screenplay wrote the screenplay for another of their favorite movies? We simply don’t think that way about writers of screenplays. And yet, we will see a film because of its stars, director, or producers.

New technologies like Google Glass and other coming products make it possible for people to track their daily movements in a visual way. Hardly anyone bothers to write a daily journal in this era. I think that trend will only grow as new technologies make cutting-edge visual media easier for us to create and consume. Those of us who love text-based items will become a small group who get our products from vintage or antique stores specializing in textual media.

As much as I hate to say it, I think text is already dead. We just haven’t erected its tombstone yet.

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