Visuals and Text

There is often a perception that digital text is somehow different to print.  It hyperlinks, is easy to update and is, according to the argument, filled with pointless invective and ephemera. It doesn't allow for deep and considered reading, catering as it does for the atrophied attention spans of the Youtube generation.  Despite their recreation of print, ebooks are often included in this category. However the Youtube generation isn't even reading online. It's, er, watching Youtube.  In "Is Youtube the Next Google" read/write web outlined a growing trend- rather than looking for a search term in Google kids will type into it Youtube and see what turns up. Alex Iskold writes:

"Whenever his son needed any information, he would open up YouTube, type in the search term and then just watch the videos that showed up as matches. He never Googled anything; he never went to any other site; his entire web experience was confined to YouTube videos."

Doing some comparisons it turns out that for many search terms Youtube offers a viable alternative to Google. Currently Youtube has about half the searches of Google e.g. a lot of searches indeed, and this is growing.  Whereas Google is largely text based in the results it throws up, Youtube is by definition visual, you don't read Youtube you watch it.

This has enormous ramifications. At the moment I am reading a book about the science of reading, about how the act of learning to read reconfigures and restructures our brain.  Reading changes us innately and irrecoverably; it is the key in allowing us other points of view, in going beyond ourselves.  The author, Maryanne Wolf, is concerned about the transition from print to digital text that I mentioned earlier. This doesn't worry me- in the book she frequently mentions how it is not so much the content as the mere fact of reading that can be beneficial.

What is more worrying is the way we are evolving out of a text based culture. Sure there will always be a place for the economy and density of text. This place could get ever smaller though. The early days of the internet might come to be viewed as a golden age for text, a time when web sites and blogs poured forth a profusion of words such as the world had never seen, a textual Eden before the video Fall.

Ok, that may be a little dramatic. But this is something we should be thinking a about. While in many ways we live in, and have always lived in, an illiterate culture (and I mean this in a non-pejorative sense), think say of the non text entertainment industries stacked against the text based, this further evolution of a non-text culture presents a profound shift. If people are largely not reading then the very biology of human thought will change, and not for the better. As a species we will be less able to empathise, less able to imagine and less able to articulate and formulate complex thoughts.

While it's futile to rail against new technologies, and generally I am all for them, the emergence of visualisations, Youtube search and on demand and ubiquitous video presents a massive challenge to educators and publishers.  Google is lucky (rich) enough to own Youtube; the same cannot be said of us.