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Inttranews Special Report: The end of the written word

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The ways in which we use language are currently undergoing faster change than ever before, principally due to technology. But if language is the defining characteristic not only of who, but of what we are, as human beings, how will those changes affect us, and the societies we live in?
One of the pioneers in this realm of research is William Crossman, a philosopher, futurist, professor, and the author of a new book, “VIVO [Voice-In/Voice-Out]: The Coming Age of Talking Computers.” Crossman is the founder/director of the CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures, and he teaches critical thinking, writing, and English as a second language at Vista Community College in Berkeley California. He has prophesied the end of the written word by 2050, as we enter what he calls the VIVO Age, in which computers can be controlled using voice-in/voice-out technology - without any need of literacy.

Inttranews decided to find out more….

Inttranews: What are the principal factors leading us into the VIVO age?
Crossman: Four "engines" are driving us: (1) Evolutionarily/genetically, humans are hard wired and driven to speak. (2) Technologically, humans are driven to develop technologies that allow us to access information by speaking and listening. Also, text/written language, being an ancient technology for storing and retrieving information, will get replaced - as do all technologies - by a newer technology that does the same job more efficiently, quickly, and universally. (3) Young people in the electronically-developed countries are, en masse, rejecting text as their technology of choice for accessing information in favor of speech-driven and non-text, visual-driven technologies. (4) The billions of functionally non-literate people worldwide want access to information, including the Internet and World Wide Web, without having to learn to read and write.

Inttranews: What in your opinion will be the advantages of that age?
Crossman: Overall, it has the potential to democratize the flow of information worldwide. How will our using VIVOs do this? (1) 80% of the world's people are functionally nonliterate. Using VIVOs, they will finally be able to access the world's storehouse of information - if they can gain access to VIVOs. (2) VIVO's instantaneous language-translation function will let people speak with people around the world using their own native languages; all language barriers will melt away. (3) People whose disabilities prevent them from reading and/or writing will use VIVOs to access all information; if they can't speak and/or hear, they will use sign language to converse with their VIVOs. (4) Powerful nations and societies won't be able to use their "standard" written languages as tools of cultural domination against less powerful nations and societies. (5) Since schools will no longer have to require students to learn to read and write, basic education can evolve from focusing on writing rules and arithmetic to focusing on the four "C's" - critical thinking, creative thinking, compspeak (programming and accessing information using talking computers), and calculators. The deep literacy crisis affecting schools today in the electronically-developed countries will end because text literacy itself will end. (6) Our consciousness will become more unified within itself as our use of VIVOs reconfigures and reunifies our neural-sensory system. As a result, the ways we will perceive and conceive of reality and the universe will become qualitatively more integrated, unified, and expansive.

Inttranews: What in your opinion will be the disadvantages of that age?
Crossman: Highly literate people of today will have to learn to develop eight currently-neglected VIVOlutionary skills in order to access information using VIVOs. These include: (1) speaking skills; (2) listening skills; (3) visual skills; (4) time-sound and distance-sound correlation skills; (5) otographic and photographic memory skills; (6) critical thinking skills; (7) creative thinking skills; and (8) mathematics without written numerals skills.

Inttranews: If there is no need for people to learn to read and write, will this not result in a greater "digital divide," not between those who have and have no access to information, but between those who control the access to that information, via computer coding?
Crossman: Since the creation of the information-storage technology we call "text" or "written language" 10,000 years ago, the power-elite classes have viewed literacy as a privilege rather than a right. As a result, there has been a divide between those (literates) who control access to the written information because they know the codes—that is, the pictographs/hieroglyphs or alphabets, and the grammar rules that combine these into words and sentences - and those (nonliterates) who don't. In the VIVO Age, we won't create programs by writing them; we will speak, draw, sing, or dance them. VIVO programming skills have the potential to be universal—just as reading/writing skills do—but, as with reading/writing skills, VIVO programming skills must be taught to everyone starting from the pre-school years through K-12. If we don't commit to doing this in the coming VIVO Age, we will replicate the digital divide of the former Text Age. Our motto must be: everyone a VIVO programmer!

Inttranews: When dictators first take control, the first thing they do is control the written word, because of its permanence, rather than spoken freedom of speech, which they curtail later. Is that not proof of the power of the written word?
Crossman: Dictators in print-literate societies usually try to simultaneously curtail both freedom of the press (the written word) and freedom of assembly (the spoken word - people speaking to one another). As we move into the Talking Computer Age, what will become "permanent" will be information stored in digitized form and accessible online as speech and graphics using VIVOs. Dictators will continue to try to control the flow of this stored, digitized information - and we who hate dictatorships will continue to fight for the free flow of this information. Access to the information of our world is a human right; access to the hardware, software, and programming skills that make information available is also a human right. We can't let dictatorial governments take these rights away from us.

Inttranews: Do you think that political control is one of the reasons why so much money is being invested in VIVO technology, rather than in literacy programs?
Crossman: Political, economic, and cultural control and mega-profits are always the underlying motives for investment under capitalism. Today, capitalists are hedging their bets and supporting both text and VIVO formats. On the one hand, they invest in and rely heavily on text email, advertising, records, l etters, etc. to run their corporations and governments. They fund computer-writing labs in schools, and, when these fail to teach young people to write, they fund private, after-school literacy companies. On the other hand, as Bill Gates says, the future of computing is voice-recognition—and he’s right - which is why capitalists are throwing huge amounts of research and development money into developing talking computers. Capitalism understands that it is in its interest to sell products to 100% of the world’s people via online speech/graphics ads than to merely 20% of the world’s people (the literates) via online text ads. Note: Capitalism also understands that it is not in its interest to permit universal access to information—it’s too dangerous!—which is why no capitalist government has ever really committed the economic resources required to teach all of its citizens to read and write well, and also why no capitalist government in the future will allow truly free universal VIVO access for all of its citizens—unless those citizens unite to demand it and struggle for it.

Inttranews: We can read about four times faster than we can speak. Does the VIVO age suggest that we shall have to talk faster. and so think faster?
Crossman: We will be able to talk faster as we develop the VIVOlutionary speaking and listening skills mentioned above—but that’s not the point. The point is that using VIVOs to search for information will be quicker and more efficient than reading text. We have to drop our text-based models or paradigms here when we think about using VIVOs. With text, we can rapidly read and skim pages of data; when we try to imagine speaking and/or listening to all those words, it seems much slower and less efficient. But we won’t speak/listen to all those words. We’ll search by conversing with the VIVO—just as we usually converse with each other. When we converse, we use keywords: hypertalk instead of hypertext. If I want to find out what hippopotamuses eat, I’ll ask my VIVO, "What do hippos eat?" and it will quickly answer me. We will think faster, not because we will speak faster, but because our neural-sensory systems will become more integrated and our consciousnesses will become more multi-sensory as we leave written language behind and move into the VIVO Age. (See the next question.)

Inttranews: You cite statistics that show IQ scores are getting higher as literacy rates drop*. Can you explain this trend?
Crossman: An article titled "Spelling Skills Decline in Germany," from the April 17, 1998 issue of The Week in Germany, succinctly describes this trend that has been happening with young people in every electronically-developed country. " Young Germans are losing the ability to spell, despite the language’s relative consistency and close correspondence to pronunciation. Professors at the University of Heidelberg tested 600 native speakers aged 16 to 30 [in 1998] on their ability to correctly transcribe dictated text. Nearly 40 percent received grades of ‘inadequate,’ compared with 5 percent in a 1968 study. Declining spelling skills may be the result of a decline in reading and increased exposure to nonwritten forms of communication such as graphics-heavy computers, the researchers speculate. Today’s German youth score higher on intelligence tests than did their counterparts in 1977, and they do markedly better in comprehending visually presented information." In short, as each new generation of young people further lose their ability to read and write, they are developing the very VIVOlutionary learning skills they will need to intelligently access and create information via talking computers—including (surprisingly?) better visual comprehension.

Inttranews: Does the VIVO age not also suggest that not only what we say but the way we say it will change as well, in the same way that "textese" [the use of acronyms to send messages by cell phone] is gradually entering the younger generation's vocabulary?
Crossman: Absolutely! Young people’s use of "textese" is an intermediate stage in the devolution of written language from the use of complete written words and sentences into the use of speech and graphics (including visual symbols and icons). Regarding spoken language, new technologies birth new ways of speaking and bury ways of speaking associated with old technologies. For example, young people in today’s world of push-button phones and digital watches have no idea what the words "dial" (as in "dial a phone number") or "quarter past twelve" (referring to time on a round watch face) refer to. The original text-based references and meanings of phrases such as "all of the above," "erase that thought," "scratch that idea," "I want to underscore that point," "entering a new chapter in your life," "are we on the same page here?" and "I wouldn’t rule it out" will be incomprehensible to people in a decade or two. What new phrases will the VIVO Age inspire? Will we say "shout" that idea instead of "underscore" it, or "gag" that idea instead of "scratch" it?

Inttranews: Do you not think that the beauty of written forms of language, such as mediaeval illumination, Japanese calligraphy, Egyptian hieroglyphics, Maya inscriptions and so on, will incite people to want to learn to read?
Crossman: No. People’s appreciation of these as beautiful design elements won’t lead to most people’s desiring to explore their semantic content. That is because most people will no longer have the ability, or interest, to access information using written languages of any kind - no matter how beautiful the texts may look. Professional academic "literacists," linguists, archeologists, etc. will continue to pursue the meanings of past texts, but for the small number of other interested individuals, all reading and writing after 2050 will be a hobby. By 2050, text will be an obsolete technology replaced by speech and graphics, just as the horse and wagon have been replaced by the car in industrialized societies. Some schools in 2050 may have Written Language Clubs as an extracurricular activity - much as some schools today have chess clubs, karate clubs, and choral groups.

Inttranews: Out of some 6,500 spoken languages around the world, only about 200 are written. Does this argue in favour of your theory, and if so, what affect will VIVO have for the peoples who are not represented in writing?
Crossman: Most societies and communities in the world today are still oral cultures. People in these societies want to access the stored information of the world right now—without having to learn to read and write. Will these societies be required to pass through a literacy era before they eventually replace text with talking computers? Or will they simply save themselves enormous resources and jump directly from their present oral cultures to the VIVO-driven worldwide oral culture of the future? The people of each of today’s oral cultures will have to decide for themselves which course is best for them. Whichever course they take, I believe that talking computers, with their instantaneous language-translation function, will help to preserve local native languages around the world, and will therefore help to preserve the native cultures of which the languages are a key element.

Inttranews: Your theory is based on developments in technology. But was not language itself the first effect of primitive technology, such as using objects as tools?
Crossman: Spoken language was not an effect of technology. Our human species is hard-wired to access information by speaking and listening - as well as by seeing, smelling, tasting, and touching. Through evolution and genetics, we have become the creatures who can speak as we do. It's in the creation of WRITTEN languages that tools played a more important role. Ten thousand years ago, when the influx of new information during the so-called "agricultural rev olution" overwhelmed our ancestors' ability to store information in their memories, they created written language as a tool—a technological extension of their memories. However, their creation of text was a historical accident. They could just as easily have carved a cylinder out of stone, bone, or wood, coated it with beeswax, then attached a porcupine quill to an open gourd, rested the quill on the cylinder while rotating the cylinder, and then spoken into the gourd. They would have created the first wax-cylinder phonograph, and all libraries after that time would have been stocked with wax-cylinders instead of books.

Inttranews: Does technology influence the way we use language, or does our language influence the technology we create?
Crossman: It’s easy to see how technology influences language use, as the "dial a phone number" example above shows. It’s more interesting and complex to try to see how language influences technology. First, we’re learning more about not only how our thinking shapes our language, but also how language actually influences our thinking - that is, how the word meanings, grammatical structures, and sounds of a particular language, especially a language we learn as children, can impact how we perceive and think. Since language can influence our thinking, that means that the language we use to describe a particular problem can shape our thinking and behavior as we try to create new technology to solve that problem. For example, a government’s using the words "collateral damage"—rather than the words "slaughter of innocent civilians" - to describe civilian deaths during wartime works to whitewash the horror of the government’s war crimes and to grant it permission to create and use a technology such as cluster bombs on civilian neighborhoods.

Inttranews: In what other ways is technology affecting language?
Crossman: One exciting current project is NASA’s research into "subauditory, subvocal speech." If you’ve read this interview, you might be picturing rooms full of workers, students, or family members all shouting over one another as they try to converse with their VIVOs. What a sonic clash! How will we ever get any work done in the VIVO Age? Relax. Instead, visualize rooms full of VIVO users silently compspeaking. NASA reports that when a person silently reads or speaks to themselves, their tongue and vocal cords receive speech signals from their brain, even if they’re not moving their lips or facial muscles. Small sensors stuck under their chin can gather these nerve signals, which are sent to a processor and then to a computer program that digitizes them. Once digitized, a person’s subvocal speech can be turned into either aloud speech, written text, or sign language. [Reference: "NASA develops system to computerize silent, ‘subvocal speech,’" NASA News, NASA Ames Research Center, March 17, 2004; Release: 04-18AR.] How might this technology affect language in the coming decades? Will speaking to our VIVOs subvocally, rather than aloud, for much of each day make us forget how to sound out our language’s words—how to pronounce them aloud and give them proper intonation?

Inttranews: Please indicate any sites or bibliographical references you wish to recommend:
Crossman: As a starting point, I would recommend my new book, VIVO [Voice-In/Voice-Out]: The Coming Age of Talking Computers. The website for my CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the Study of Talking Computers and Oral Cultures lists various online sites, publications, and TV and radio programs which have presented and/or critiqued my ideas. For a more complete list, go to your favorite search engines and enter keywords: ViVO {Voice-In/Voice-Out], William Crossman, compspeak, or talking computers.

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