"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Literature In the News: The Death of Text

Father Dwight Longenecker wrote a piece in the online magazine The Imaginative Conservative titled “Technology and the Death of Text” on how technology’s evolution toward the use of audio visual mediums over printed text has changed the way we communicate, mostly at the demise of text.   

We use our screens to write and read so much that we have turned the noun “text” into a verb. However, while we read and write with and for the screen, is not the screen better used for verbal and visual communication? 

Text is a secondary form of language. The spoken word was first. Because text is derived from the spoken word, why should I sit and write this column and pass it on to screen readers when, with only a little more trouble, I could record my thoughts on a video, upload it and allow readers to hear my words and see me, instead of only reading what I have written? 

Already many communicators use both text and video-audio. They do not write. They communicate through podcast, YouTube channels, online radio and instant TV. The audience accesses the audio visual content through every gadget that can go online. They do so globally with the same portability and with easier access than toting books, magazines and papers. The question is not whether the revolution from text to audio-visual will take place, but when and how fast. 

I think he’s captured the state of the transition in contemporary life.  There is no question that the tried and true printed text is no longer the only option we have in communicating, especially reading.  Longenecker goes on to ask the pressing question.  

As audio visual communication becomes more, inexpensive and ubiquitous will we witness the death of text? Already the screen has all but killed the daily newspaper, the and the weekly news magazine. What will become of the novel, the short story or even news stories and written opinion? Movies tell the stories in a livelier manner without the need of text. Current television series extend over many episodes delivering the same drama, conflict, romance and adventure that readers used to glean from reading fiction. What of textbooks, biographies, encyclopedias, resource books and for that matter, cookbooks, travel books and all non-fiction? Why shouldn’t these text based media be communicated as well or better through the audio visual technologies which are already available and which are cheaply and effectively delivered through the internet? 

He asks more questions than he answers, but underlying is an apprehension that change will bring loss.   

As text dwindles what will be lost? In fiction the most important loss will be the activity of the imagination as the reader engages with the text. Screen storytelling leaves nothing to the imagination, but audio visual communications may, on the other hand, spark a renewal in storytelling. As text dies, poetry—now completely textual, may become spoken and sung once more. The bard may rise again. 

He isn’t completely negative on the change, but still asking question without answers when we are dealing with a state of flux on a tried and true pleasure (reading) and even on how religious liturgy (Fr. Longenecker is a Roman Catholic priest) may be altered because of new mediums sends shock waves.  You should read the entire article.  My position is that technology will only evolve if the general consumer finds it advantageous.  Here is my actual comment to his essay. 

I think you’re worrying for nothing, Fr. D. Either civilization will adapt to a new way of reading and writing or more likely will divide their mediums. Writing on paper will never go away. Typing with a key board will never go away. Oral communication in whatever form will never go away. Students and humans (Yes, I know students might not quite be full humans -P) will require more skills than ancient humans to full[y] express themselves in civilization. I still prefer a paper book over my Kindle, though I sometimes use a Kindle. 

Another commenter to the piece decided to reply to my comment, a person named Andrew Carlan.  We had a lively exchange that I think is worth considering. 

Andrew Carlan:
We are conducting our dialogue on the Internet. As Marshall McLuhan argued “the medium is the message.” How ideas are communicated is more important than the ideas themselves. Sola scriptorium was the “invention” of movable type. Protestantism is inherently literal. (Please, I am not saying that there is not a tradition of the literal is Catholicism. The Scholastics anticipated print.)  

Russell Kirk’s traditional conservationism is being processed now overwhelmingly visually and not in print. The website is not situated in a sober library. It is awash and surrounded in a sea of superficiality, paganism, pornography and ubiquitous subliminal advertising, which even invades its very sanctuary. It has always worried me that even the most orthodox Catholic sites are visited not by good persons prepped for piety and rational reflection but who have arrived via surfing the Internet, a very different predisposition.  

Our message is being distorted by the prevalent background noise. I fear the time is not long off when Mass will be celebrated on line and the host will be delivered over a 3-D printer. Already the Popes have been disfigured into Hollywood superstars followed by the sensationalist media interested in selling copy and not faith and millions of loyal “fans”. 

The printable type didn’t destroy Catholicism. Catholicism adapted. How ideas are communicated is NOT more important than the ideas themselves. With all due respect, that’s ridiculous. That would mean the true and noble ideas are time and medium limited. No, they are eternal. 

Andrew Carlan:
I never implied that the ideas don’t have their irreducible and eternal truth. What is uttered remains unchanged. It is how it is heard that is contextual. St. Paul did say that when you speak to the Athenians, etc. speak in a manner they are accustomed to. But there is a tipping point where the message becomes so distorted that it conforms to the world rather than transforming the world. Debaters know that the side that defines the form of the question to be debated has won the debate before it begins. 

I’ll quote you: “How ideas are communicated is more important than the ideas themselves.” 

No, that is patently wrong. The medium does not distort the message. The medium is not part of the message. Debaters don’t know such a thing. Debaters, at least good ones, make themselves clear and use the medium to transmit the message. I wholeheartedly disagree with you. True and noble ideas have remained true and noble no matter what the medium they have been communicated. The eternal ideas have NOT been distorted by the evolving technology. 

I hope I wasn’t mean spirited to Mr. Carlan; if I was I apologize.  Does his notion that the medium shapes the value of the ideas communicated have merit?  I guess it holds some merit though on balance I still don’t see why it would.  Am I in the minority here?  Did Protestanism’s principle of sola scrpitura come about because of the printing press as I think he was trying to say?  I bet some of the deconstructionists  might agree with him. 

And what about my comment directed at Fr. Longenecker?  Will audio-visual overtake text as the primary means of communication?  Or are will we have to multitask more, toggling, if you will, between various mediums?  After all, we’ve had film and television now for a century and it hasn’t destroyed text.  It’s only added to the possibilities. 

Interesting discussion.


  1. (Fr. Longenecker is a Roman Catholic priest)

    ((( I hope I wasn’t mean spirited to Mr. Carlan; if I was I apologize. )))

    Manny! To be honest, there was a time in the past where I might have thought that you could have been a little mean spirited but after I listened to you talk about your mother and your son, well long story short, after following you a little, I can safely say that you're not mean spirited at all. Longer story shorter, I now believe that you're simply a very smart engineering man who wants to debate intellectually. Some out in the vast Web might be convinced that you could lack a little patients debating with those who might clearly have an un Christian agenda but for what "IT" is worth, I personally thing that their audio-visual belief of this Twenty First Century are not more important than GOD (Good Old Dad) Our Heavenly Father of The Old Printing Press could ever be? Did "I" hit the nail on the head sort of speak? LOL :)


    God Bless

    1. Thank you Victor. I do have a patience problem, and it does lead to me losing it at times. I get emails for Taylor Marshall's podcasts too, but they are over 40 minutes long each, and I don't usually have the time to listen.