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Facebook Executive Predicts End Of The Written Word

Within five years, the social media giant “will be probably all video.”

Original image via CC

Well, that’s a wrap: within five years, Facebook “will be probably all video,” confessed Nicola Mendelsohn, the media giant’s head of operations for Europe, the Mideast, and Africa, at a recent London conference. Her shocking statement (but was it really?) has made it even more fashionable to cast the future of communication in increasingly visual terms, from GIFs to VR.

Forget the alleged obsolescence of books; in a couple years, we’re being led to believe, all the internet’s hot takes and think pieces will belong to a dead medium. Yes, even in the prosaic world of static two-dimensional images, we seem to have turned against text with a vengeance. Bright young editors of online webmagazines are expected to be fluent in emoji, the ubiquitous pictograms that can help four characters to suffice where once only three typo-laden paragraphs could describe how bemused you were when the sex turned out to be awesome despite what you saw when his pants came off.*

But that example speaks volumes. Emoji are great for condensing and compounding familiar stories and experiences. That’s why it sort of works in a rewarding parlor-trick way to translate Shakespeare or the Bible into emoji. For all its creative deployment options, image-based language is ultimately pretty parasitic on stories and shared cultural storehouses contained in texts. That’s still where our civilization starts for its sense of what’s meaningful and what matters.

Nicola Mendelsohn

Not only is text a communicative tool with unique features and abilities. It also uniquely fosters a richness of poetic and critical experience that’s unavailable through other media—because texts are uniquely well suited to the practice of interpretation. The more sophisticated the writing, the more sophisticated the interpretation, creating what’s known as a “hermeneutic circle” of interpreters linked over generations, people from potentially any walk of life who draw from—but ultimately transcend—their particular circumstances.

This is how we get things like philosophy, not to mention fully-developed forms of science, history, and related disciplines. “The Egyptians created a magnificent but static culture,” as the Guardian’s art critic has noted. “They invented a superb artistic style and powerful mythology—then stuck with these for millennia. Hieroglyphs enabled them to write spells but not to develop a more flexible, questioning literary culture: they left that to the Greeks.” But just as important is the literary culture of the Jews. Neither art nor religion will die off if the written word fades away, but both will become thinner and poorer sources of interpretation.

The good news is we hardly have to sacrifice one form of language for another. And with so many to choose from, we might even get back to the most venerable form of “smart” communication: sitting down face to face with others and sharing who and how we are.

* For those keeping score at home, that’s eggplant, surprised face, fire, chin stroking face.

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