Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Undocumented Irrelevance of the Written Word

Imagine – “Would we still be ‘writing’, had we invented a sound recording device before we developed the alphabet?”


I suppose the primary objective of the written word was, and still is, ‘to Record’. But then, isn’t it surprising that we still learn to read and write, when we can ‘record’ in many other, and much more efficient, ways?

We invented the written alphabet before the audio (and then a video) recording device. Had it not happened in this order, what we would have had today as language, would have been aural sounds & symbols as denotations. We would have been communicating and recording information by using sounds and symbols in place of writing letters and words.
We can argue, however, that characters or words are also symbols of a certain kind. No matter how correct this may sound, it actually is not. The fundamental difference between symbols and characters is that characters and words are a representation of meaning that may or may not resemble ‘that’ what it is representing. As Christine Kenneally writes in ‘The First Word’, a word is an arbitrary association between sound and meaning. There is nothing in the sound of a word that tells us what it means or what it does. So the word “Apple” does not look like an apple, does it?

May be it would be a good idea to try and step back in time and ask ourselves - out of all the, equally potent, senses that we as humans possess viz. the sense of touch, smell, sight, taste, & hearing, why did we consign the written word to the sense of sight?
The reason once again, perhaps, was that it was the best possible way of recording things for others to be able to see in the absence of the person who recorded it.

But this choice, to depend on verbal and visual mode of communication through written words, perhaps came at a huge price, a price that we as a species have paid in the past and are still paying, without actively realizing it.
The price is being paid in the shape of poorer development of our other senses for the purpose of capturing information, understanding information and acting upon it. What follows might not be the best example but I would still like to cite it in order to illustrate the point I am trying to make. I was amazed by how animals were warned much in advance of the disaster caused by Tsunami that struck many Asian countries a few years back. We as humans, with our ‘sophisticated’ early warning systems (based on written words and symbols!) were caught almost unaware, many of the other species were observed to be more prepared without any technology to back them.
Has our reliance on languages, especially the written word slowed down the development and evolution of our ability to sense things?
From the above example it does seem to have had a negative impact. It’s impact is such that many of the ‘lesser species’, as we hitherto believed them to be, are seemingly ahead of us in sensing & processing critical information about our environment.

Although I do not have empirical evidence but everyday observation tells us more about another weakness of the written word. Writing perhaps is among the most unnatural things that a child learns as he grows up. To me it seems that we are not biologically coded to write. Just observe how a child learns the spoken language effortlessly; however the maximum punishments that he gets are to do with memorizing & writing the written word. This is in sharp contrast to the seeming effortlessness with which he learns to speak, hear and understand the language.
The need for memorization through the written word slows down the process of learning. We easily forget that memorizing the things we learn, viz. spellings, dates, facts, formulas etc are not really critical. These are just facts and facts can be looked up. What really matters is how things stack up; or fit with each other - the stories, the frameworks etc. These frameworks become the operating system of our thinking, our point of view and basis of our judgment. Imagine how much better we would do for ourselves if we were not forced to memorize with written word as the guiding paradigm.
Even after having learnt to read and write, we spend a large proportion of advanced learning hours and years towards memorizing things. It is only when we leave the college and schools behind; when we start our lives at work that we really begin to unlearn that what we have remembered and start using the associative faculties of our brain viz. how things and concepts are interrelated, and thus what is the bigger picture.

The human brain has marvelous associative processing capabilities, however I believe that written languages, sub optimize its true potential. Could it be that we would have been a better thinking race had we developed a more natural approach to learning a language an approach that could have complimented our almost limitless ability to think?

To me, among others, one of the most important roles for language is communication. And in my understanding, communication is a subset of sensing. It is a way of being in touch with the world around us. However the very act of developing the written word seems to have discounted the importance of sensing.
In our desire to standardize and simplify things we have lost a lot of, those things that could not be written or read. This reality assumes ironical significance when we acknowledge that “large and perhaps the most critical part of all communication, is nonverbal.” Despite acknowledging the importance of ‘sensing’ that what is not being said or written, we are still stuck with the ‘written model of language’.

Having shared my understanding about the importance of sensing over listening and reading, I would now like to share with you a related observation, it is about everyday challenges that some of us experience but never really get to think about actively. Worst still, this challenge is often lost in the rough and tumble of our everyday work.
I am talking about the pace of our thinking. Doesn’t it occur to us sometimes that our speed of writing with a pen or pencil or using the keyboard is way behind the pace of our thoughts? Don’t we sometimes get frustrated when we lose thoughts and ideas just because we could not ‘document them’ when they occurred, only because we did not have the time to ‘put them down’ on a piece of paper, or a PC or our PDA.

Given these constraints of the written word, let us now look where we are in terms of progress that can potentially help us free human ability from the grips of the written model of language

1. Today we have both audio (and video) recording devices
2. However we still have large scads of ‘illiterate’ populations in different parts of the world
3. At the same time we also have people who are thinking fast enough to find the written word cumbersome and sometimes frustratingly redundant

Why then are we still unable to rid ourselves from the grip of the ‘written word’ paradigm?

1. The illiterate need to be literate first, before they can use technology, which of course, is predominantly language driven

2. Even those who are at the leading edge of technology adoption and are faced with impact of language as a pace retardant, still need to use the classical languages (English or any of the remaining 227 languages as options)

I see tremendous opportunity to enhance the role of technology as an enabler for people both at the bottom and the top end of the human development index.

On one end are number of technology-dark, illiterate communities across the globe. They can in fact reap the benefits of mobile personal technologies if they are given a chance to interface with these technologies, through a new standard of symbolic interface. This new standard would free personal mobile devices, among other, from the shackles of classical language(s) that hinder the ease of adoption.
This would help a large section of the third world to leapfrog into a technology integrated world that can enable, empower and consequently elevate the quality of their lives.

We need to ask ourselves what is easier and faster–
Waiting for the whole world to be literate before they can start using personal technologies that enable and empower and finally uplift quality of human life?
Develop a new standard that helps these people bypass the digital divide, and make the human race more progressive?

On the other end of the human development index we have another set of technology users who can have the pace of their thinking unshackled from the tardy classical languages that constitute the standard interface for most of the personal computing technologies.

Computers and human brains process much faster than the speed at which we write or use the keyboard. This high speed processing can be utilized best by shifting to a more efficient language interface that is suited for high speed cerebral and microprocessor functioning.

Today we can only think of an interface driven by aural prompts.
We have seen some of these software applications being bundled & marketed as ‘added features’ in the personal entertainment and communication devices. Most of this voice recognition software has not proved to be robust or cost effective enough to attract large-scale adoption. But speech is once again only incrementally better than the written text.

The ideal interface that can do justice to the high speed processing is neural prompting. Perhaps what can be called interface at the speed of thought.
With the technological developments happening in area of understanding how exactly our brain functions (deconstructing regions in brain that are responsible for specific tasks), we might not be very far from actually mapping out the key functional areas of the brain which in turn would help us interface with the digital devices around us and do that much more efficiently.

Though this may be way too far in the future but as I see it, speech and text is not the destiny of language. The languages of future could well be neuro-impulse traveling effortlessly to and from digital processors around us and the neuro-biological cerebral processing inside us.

I am not building this case to garner support & throw the written word out of the window. However I believe that this is an honest attempt to try and sensitize many of us about the inherent weaknesses of the written word and the imperative to develop something better.

Today the written word has become a convention that nobody questions. Little do we realize that in a future integrated with personal technologies, the cumbersome nature of classical languages would retard the growth of mankind from becoming a more efficient race.

The written word or ‘Classical Languages’ as I prefer to call them, are a model from the past. -a past when ‘documenting’ was the only way to record. But as we move into a technologically enabled future, we would need to develop new languages that deliver greater efficiency and versatility - a new standard of interface that can do better justice to users at the two ends of the development spectrum.

In future language might have a bigger role to play than just ‘to record’. In the future language might as well be helping us create ‘new records’ as we reach new frontiers of human development!

Are we ready, already?

Saurabh Sharma

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Of mobisapiens, impulse & HiFi of tomorrow

Future of all HiFi is Wire Free Connectivity (high speed and low - bloody low - cost).

1. As people move around geographies, and leave behind their emotional anchorage, they would want to reconnect, recreate, share the times gone by, with people who are closest
2. This is also linked to another universal truth – as people grow older they tend to have fewer and fewer friends. As a result, the reliance on emotional bonds formed at a younger age increases

This desire to stay private (fewer newer friends), stay connected (feeding older bonds formed earlier in life), clubbed with the new technologies, that virtually allow us to be in touch with anyone, any time, anywhere and all the time, makes a compelling theme for, what I call, nostalgia in real time.
(In its extreme form ‘nostalgia in real time’ is known to have broken marriages, for ‘her boyfriend was much more available, on ‘scraps’ and through ‘text’, to listen to her, than her husband!’)

While a large chunk of Web 2.0, through social networks, is exactly this – staying connected all the time. And also exploring new connections around old passions (from miniature cars to the city one belong to). Its real potential would be unleashed when it becomes the substitute for what we see today as the Short Text Messaging (SMS) mobile hand-held devices.
In other words, when a girl listening to James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful” can scrap (or ping or poke) her friends about how they felt about the same song, back in the college dorm..
The key difference, among others, between the SMS days of today and on the move Scrap days of (not very distant) future would of course be
1. Unlimited Text and Picture and Audio and Video capabilities (in contrast to the Short & Text Messaging of today)
2. Cheaper (if not free) connectivity
3. Not needing to boot the computer to do it

HiFi in future, would have to be driven by WiFi (or WiMax should I say) because the real frontier for all devices and interface designed for the mobisapiens (mobile mankind) of tomorrow, would be seamless connectivity everywhere (space) and always (time).
In other words for a device and interface to win the ‘is intuitive’ vote it would need to be ‘impulse compliant’.
Devices and Interfaces that would successfully erase the gap between what is felt by one and is shared with many others, almost anywhere instantly, would be the HiFi of tomorrow. (I assume that this would happen without any ‘transmission loss’ that results from poor connectivity and prohibitive pricing).