It takes a lot of confidence to call yourself a writer. I had published several books and won a handful of awards before I dared to put my occupation down as “writer” on any form. It was a seminal moment in my life, one that I remember well: the first time I let myself believe that I actually deserved to be called a writer.
And yet, I have always been a writer. Just as I need to breathe in order to get oxygen to the cells in my body, I need to write in order to derive a type of satisfaction for my soul that comes only from writing. I think it is a curse common to all writers, whether we choose to call ourselves writers or not.
However, writing does not come naturally to us humans in the way that speech does. Evidence uncovered by archaeologists and anthropologists points to abstract language – speech – being the defining characteristic that makes us human; the thing that has accelerated our evolution and our invention of technology from stone tools to wheels to rocket ships.
Our ancestors have been communicating using speech for nearly two million years. By comparison, writing is a relatively recent phenomenon, arising at several places around the globe independently, but first in Mesopotamia about 5,200 years ago. Yet, it wasn’t until Johannes Gutenberg refined the printing press in the middle of the 15th Century that there could be the mass distribution of books. Hence, even though we tend to think of writing and reading as an integral part of our daily lives, it has been like that for less than 600 years.
As pervasive as writing is for us today, there is no reason to actually think it should remain so. A recent article in the New York Times notes the dramatic rise in video and audio as ways we ingest information: it predicts a post-text future. That’s not as silly as it sounds at first glance, ironically, when reading the article in the NYT. Video consumption on platforms like YouTube and Facebook has gone stratopheric in the last couple of years. And the fastest growing technology segment at the moment, as evidenced from the 2018 Consumer Electronic Show (CES), is the adoption of voice-controlled assistants in the home. Need a recipe, a bio about Theordore Roosevelt, the score in the football? Don’t look at books or even do a search online: just ask Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, or the Google Assistant. Want to be entertained? Pick up the iPad and jump onto YouTube and watch what you want, when you want, on demand and online. Feel like reading Moby Dick? Just ask Alexa to read you the audiobook version.
Writing is not going to go away completely anytime soon. But those of us involved in communication need to embrace this Brave New World of video, imagery and sounds. We need to be where the public’s eyes and ears are: and they are increasingly not looking at words, be them on a page or a screen. The pen may indeed be mightier than the sword, but it is those original skills to watch and listen, refined over two million years, that offer the most powerful and enduring means of communication.