Last week, there was a heated discussion on the 1600-member Yahoo Groups videoblogging list about the idea of a videobloggers launching a “war on text” — not necessarily calling for book burning, but at least promoting the use of threaded video conversations as a way of replacing text-based communication online. It began with a post to the list by Steve Watkins and led to responses such as this enthusiastic embrace of the end of using text to communicate ideas:
Audio and video are a more natural medium than text for most humans. The only reason why net content is mainly text is that it’s easier for programs to work with — audio and video are opaque as far as programs are concerned. On top of that, it’s a lot easier to treat text as hypertext, and hypertext has a viral quality.
As a text-based attack on the printed work, the “war on text” debate had a Phaedrus aura about it, especially since the vloggers seemed to be gravitating towards the idea of secondary orality originally proposed by Walter Ong in Orality and Literacy — a form of communication which is involved at least the representation of an oral exchange, but which also draws on a world defined by textual literacy. The vlogger’s debt to the written word was more explicitly acknowledged some posts, such as one by Steve Garfield that declared his work to be a “marriage of text and video.”
Over several days, the discussion veered to cover topics such as film editing, the over-mediation of existence, and the transition from analog to digital. The sophistication and passion of the discussion gave a sense of the way at least some in the video blogging community are thinking, both about the relationship between their work and text-based blogging and about the larger relationship between the written word and other forms of digitally mediated communication.
Perhaps the most radical suggestion in the entire exchange was the prediction that video itself would soon seem to be an outmoded form of communication:
in my opinion, before video will replace text, something will replace video…new technologies have already been developed that are more likely to play a large role in communications over this century… how about the one that can directly interface to the brain (new scientist reports on electroencephalography with quadriplegics able to make a wheelchair move forward, left or right)… considering the full implications of devices like this, it’s not hard to see where the real revolutions will occur in communications.
This comment implies that debates such as the “war on text” are missing the point — other forms of mediation are on the horizon that will radically change our understanding of what “communication” entails, and make the distinction between orality and literacy seem relatively miniscule. It’s an apocalyptic idea (like the idea that the internet will explode), but perhaps one worth talking about.
Not quite sure what I think of this new web-based word processor, Writely. Cute Web 2.0ish name, “beta” to the hilt. It’s free and quite easy to get started. I guess it falls into that weird zone of transitional unease between desktop computing and the wide open web, where more and more of our identity and information resides. Some of the tech specifics: Writely saves documents in Word and (as of today) Open Office formats, outputs as RSS and to some blogging platforms (not ours), and can also be saved as a simple web page (here’s the Writely version of this post). A key feature is that Writely documents can be written and edited by multiple authors, like SubEthaEdit only totally net-based. It feels more or less like a disembodied text editor for a wiki.
I’m trying to think about what’s different about writing online. Movable Type, our blogging software, is essentially an ultra-stripped-down text editor — web-based — and it’s no fun to work in. That’s partly because the text field is about the size of a mail slot, but writing online can be annoying for other reasons, chief among them the fact that you have to be online to work, and second that you are susceptible to the chance mishaps of the browser (accidentally backing up and losing everything, it crashes, you forgot to pay Time Warner and they turn off the web etc.). But with a conventional word processor you’re vulnerable to the mishaps of the machine (hard drive dies and you didn’t back it up, it crashes and you didn’t save, coffee spills…). Writely saves everything automatically as you go, maintaining a revision history and tracking changes — a very nice feature.
They say this is the future of software, at least for the simple everyday kind of stuff: web-based tool suites and tons of online data storage. I guess it’s nice not having to be tied to one machine. Your work is just out there, waiting for you to log in. But then again, your work is just out there…