The Text Revolution

People are writing and reading more than they ever have before. We are witnessing a second “text revolution,” with the power of the word again dominating our culture and economy, from Web sites to mobile phones.

Because so many words are written every day, it is easy to forget their potential power. I’m reading a book at the moment in which Bill Gates’ conversion to the Internet is discussed. It is generally accepted that Gates got the importance of the Internet in 1995, then wrote what would become known as “The Memo.” This eight-page document set out a new strategy for Microsoft. Everyone that mattered in Microsoft read it and made sure they got it. Eight pages turned a supertanker around.

The Text Generation is all around us. Billions of text messages are being sent over mobile phones. Nobody predicted it; it just happened. Young people took to words and created a new fashion and craze. How could words become so cool?

Words are cool because they are intensely human. In so many areas, computers are doing what people do in a more efficient and cost-effective manner. Numbers have long been better manipulated by calculators. Anything that is logical, that has a process that can be automated, is being automated.

Words, on the other hand, are still more an art than a science. A quality sentence is always a challenge. Twenty people see the same event, and they will all write different versions of what happened. Our sentences and paragraphs will be the last thing to be truly automated, which means that they will be an area in which humans will and must continue to excel.

The irony is that for most of the 20th century, technology greatly diminished the power of words. It was only with the emergence of the Internet and text messaging on mobile phones that words have surged forward again as the principal way we communicate.

Humans are essentially sensory. For millions of years, we lived with our eyes, our noses, our ears. Our ears did not hear language; rather, we heard sounds. Language is only a recent invention in human evolution. Written language is even more recent. The majority of people, given the choice, would prefer the sensory over the written. This is why television triumphed. And why film stars are the new royalty.

While bandwidth constraints remain, the Internet returns us to an almost pretelevision world in which text rides high. The Internet and the mobile phone are in many ways primitive tools. Certainly measured against the high-bandwidth delivery of television, video, and film, they are hugely restrictive. That’s why words work so well online. You see, words are in themselves compression techniques for communication. They are compressed even more by teenagers who squeeze the maximum communication out of the minimum number of letters.

We have found ourselves, if only temporarily, in a low-bandwidth world with new opportunities to communicate. Those of us who wish to succeed need to become better with words. We need to be able to write better so that our words have more of a chance to rise above the massive traffic jam of words that the world has become.

We are living through a Text Revolution. In such a revolution, it is worth keeping Benjamin Franklin’s words in mind: “Give me 26 lead soldiers, and I will conquer the world.”

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