Category Archives: Information

Questioning the written word

Question marks on the pageSometimes the most baffling truths are hidden within seemingly pointless observations.

In the throes of putting together my doctoral dissertation proposal, I’ve been mentally twirling one such observation: Writing always says something. That is, a given piece of writing always says the same something. And, seeing as writing is free from many of the limitations of speech and has considerable fixity (or “persistence”), a given piece of writing will be saying that same something for quite some time. What are the implications of this?

Many people are familiar with Socrates’ critique of writing, levied around the birth of the written word in Ancient Greek, that it may lead to impoverished memory. But Socrates had much more to say about writing than that. One of his key concerns was precisely what I wrote above. As he says in Phaedrus, transcribed by Plato:

You would imagine that they [written records] had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer.

I’ve written before on how, because of this constancy, we put our trust in the written word. We privilege written forms of knowledge; if something is written down, we’re more inclined to believe it; and if we see something over and over, we’re more likely to take it as true.

But beyond this, there’s another vulnerability that the written word opens us up to: It gives us the answers. When we get easy answers, we don’t seem to work as hard to integrate new information with what we already know. That’s because doing this—building understanding—requires that we pose questions, that we have a back-and-forth, a conversation. If you’re diligent, you can have a conversation with the written word; Ron Day writes in Indexing It All that before the 19th century people regularly thought of reading a book as having a conversation with a  friend. But nowadays, we seem less inclined to question the things we’re reading. Concomitantly, many of us now read more than we interact with live people: We’re getting swarmed with answers, and we’re forgetting how to ask questions. As far as I can see, this is the real dark side of information abundance.

We need to keep asking questions. It’s what makes us human. This is what futurist Kevin Kelly argues in his new book The Inevitable, which explores several trends that will shape the technology of the future; Kelly argues that, for all the smarts and efficacy of future technologies, coming up with good questions will continue to be the sole purview of humanity. And in a world where more and more jobs previously done by humans are getting couped by computers, this is no time to forget how to ask questions.

So what can we do? Some advice in this regard comes from public speaker Michael Gelb’s books How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci and Creativity on Demand, which offer a framework to increase the quality of your creative output—this involves, inherently, getting good at asking questions.

But we also need to stock our toolbox for getting better at asking questions of the written word. To me, this comes down to improved literacy practice. In the information sciences, there’s a lot of talk of different kinds of literacy—information literacy, digital literacy, media literacy…—but it all comes down to building questioning skills. As researcher Jamie McKenzie writes in her book Beyond Technology:

Without strong questioning skills, information technologies contribute little to understanding or insight. There is even some chance that they might dilute understanding and interfere with thinking.

The urgency of building such skills for questioning and understanding has, for me, come to the fore in the recent election season. Much of the political information we deal with these days comes through the written word. In such a climate, poor questioning skills can have grave consequences for our country and planet.

There’s no better time to start than right now—you’ve been reading the written word for the past few minutes. In the spirit of LeVar Burton, you don’t have to take my word for it. Spend some time today questioning what you’ve been reading.

Text in images, a reflection of our visuality

We’ve fallen in love with putting text in image formats on the Internet.

On some level, this is nothing new. For as long as humans have been making art, text and imagery have intermingled. To speak only of the computer age: Photoshop has a text tool, after all, and wherefore a tool if not to be used? One of the earliest viral images in my memory, from 2005, is the O RLY? owl, seen below. And then of course, we’ve long had Someecards and Lolcats (both ca. 2007).


Traditional usability heuristics condemn embedding text within images, because text in images can have problems with readability, and it’s obviously not searchable. And, of course, HTML canonically separates image tags from text tags. Moreover, if we close our eyes and are asked to think of an image, whatever comes to mind will likely not include any text. It seems, at least prototypically, that images and text are meant to be separate.

But, if anything, our images are only getting more text-laden. Wikipedia recently enhanced their Android app in order to allow users to share text extracts from articles as images. An example appears below.


On the surface, this seems absurd. What’s going on?

I think it has to do with social media. Platforms like Tumblr have seemed to work best with images, and users on this site have long preferred text embedded within images. For a while I ran a Top Chef–inspired blog, where I published screenshots from recent episodes along with their captions, written as text; a friend urged me to incorporate the text into the image so she could share the images on her own tumblog more easily.

This trend seems to have crept into other social media platforms, too: Facebook’s algorithm seems to favor images over text in constructing your newsfeed. Since 2013, Twitter has automatically shown images within its stream, whereas previously the service was text-only. Thus sharing text in images on Facebook makes them more visible, and sharing images on Twitter allows users to bypass the 140-character message limit.

Whether these things are causes of our text-in-image frenzy or co-conspirators is an open question.

Perhaps it reflects our society’s orientation toward the visual rather than the oral, which seems to be getting stronger and stronger. (Think about how “no one reads anymore” but how “300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute.”)

In a recent interview, social researcher danah boyd discussed that this orientation has had ramifications in other areas of our lives, such as how we now navigate conflict. In the workplace, she says, if there is a problem between two employees, they won’t deal with it verbally, as employees might have done in the past. Instead, they will use a written medium, such as email, to express their arguments—and perhaps protect themselves. The bottom line is that, as our lives are structured, we have more exposure to and comfort with textual, visual environments.

And yet, orality is primary, whereas literacy (and visuality) is secondary. What does this mean for the future?

Visual bias in the characterization of knowledge

We live in a world that privileges written information over oral information.

It’s a bias of the eyes over the ears, and it seems to include our entire conceptualization of knowledge. Just look at the metaphors we use in our everyday language: A bright person is a smart one, as is a brilliant person. (Brilliance has all but lost its meaning except that denoting intelligence.) We talk of the Enlightenment as the birth of modern science and enlightened people as the smartest among us. We say, “Do you see what I mean?” and “Can you picture it?” even when there’s nothing to be really seen or pictured.

Why is this? Of course, it’s an apt metaphor: In the dark, we can’t see, and we don’t have knowledge of what might be lurking. In the light, we can see, and we know. But why privilege the eyes over the ears? Human language is, after all, primarily manifested as sound.

Perhaps this bias has roots in the traditional permanence of records. Things that were chiseled in stone, brushed in ink or set in type were meant to last a long time. The letters couldn’t fritter off into oblivion, get easily erased and be rewritten, etc. But nowadays, more and more of our written information is not recorded in the same way. Electronic information is malleable. Sure it’s redundant over any number of Google-sized caches (and, if you put stock in the 2014 novel Whisky Tango Foxtrot by David Shafer, perhaps being stored at the bottom of the ocean for future nefarious purposes), but in everyday cases, words can be reappropriated, edited and republished with supreme ease. If I change my mind about a blog post, I can revise or even unpublish it. If I am angry with a commenter, I can change their words. On Facebook, if I am embarrassed by something I posted earlier, I can delete or change it. Moreover, we have just so much information streaming by in blogs and social media, that what’s here today can be very difficult to find tomorrow.

Maybe today’s written information isn’t much more permanent than oral information after all. (And that isn’t even to speak of sound and video recordings.) I think that means it’s time to put more stock in other modalities of information transfer, don’t you?