William's home for discarded gems and concepts-in-progress.

Welcome to William Van Winkle's blog, home for everything from notes on his latest ebooks to leftovers from his articles in CPU, Tom's Hardware, Smart Computing, and other media outlets. Check out his author pages at Amazon and Smashwords!

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's the End of Writing As We Know It

I've been reading Ray Kurzweil's latest book, The Singularity is Near. It's dense, mind-blowing stuff that discusses the melding of mankind with machines in the coming decades. Kurzweil describes himself as being talented with pattern recognition, and his track record as an inventor shows this is no empty boast. He spends a lot of time developing his ideas surrounding what he calls The Law of Accelerating Returns. In essence, this refers to the tendency of things to evolve more quickly over time because each generation builds upon the improved tools of the last. This is how we have Moore's Law, although Moore's Law encompasses only a subset of a broader sweep in technological evolution over the past century.

The pace of change itself is accelerating. Kurzweil walks through many iterations of this idea, such as the ability for organisms to store information. The evolution of DNA was an early point in this process; today, we have cloud storage. In the future, argues Kurzweil, we will weave information into matter itself.

At 672 pages, "The Singularity is Near" is not a lightweight paperback, either in form or content. As I sat reading it on the couch last night, I was struck by two thoughts:

1. "At age 40, this reading by the light of a lamp located across the room isn't as comfortable as it used to be."

2. "I should be able to absorb the information in this book more quickly. I'm reading about exponential evolution via a medium that hasn't significantly changed in over 500 years."

This second point got me thinking about how we use communication to convey ideas and the speed at which that conveyance happens. Does The Law of Accelerating Returns apply here as well? I thought about the style and pace of Jane Austen and Fedor Dostoevski compared to, say, Janet Evanovich and Dan Brown. That took me to pondering interpersonal communications. Consider the style of Ben Franklin's letters compared to a modern business memo. Then I thought about Twitter and the increasing tendency to accelerate communication by condensing fleshed-out thoughts into compressed, 140-character blurbs.

Like many people, I've often considered Twitter to be a bastardizing force in the English language. I saw it as a dangerous trend for our youth in particular. If communication and consciousness are inextricably linked, doesn't it follow that limiting our ability to convey thought limits our thoughts in the first place? Then it struck me that I was thinking about this as a 20th century English major, not a 21st century transhumanist. Perhaps Twitter isn't so much about cultural ADHD as communicative compression along the 80/20 rule. If you can convey 80% of a concept in 20% of the time previously spent to convey that idea, that's decent compression. Sure, it's a lossy method, but we seem to get along fine with lossy compression in sound- (MP3) and image-based (JPEG, H.264, etc.) communications. Why should text be different?

Consider acronyms. Acronyms are essentially a form of lossless compression, like a ZIP algorithm for speech. When I say "FUD," you know that I've compressed the concept "fear, uncertainty, and doubt" into a three-letter acronym. I've compressed 28 characters into three with no loss in conceptual fidelity. Do you see acronyms in the writings of Ben Franklin or Jane Austen? Nope. Acronyms are a 20th century innovation to accelerate communication, just as Twitter is a 21st century innovation in the same vein. Compression is one vector for modern communicative evolution.

This micro-epiphany left me brushing my teeth last night with two final thoughts:

1. The problem with "FUD" is that it is only lossless if you happen to know the acronym. Otherwise the loss ratio is extreme and you're left to try to surmise the meaning through context -- but there is almost no context in a medium bounded by a 140-character limit. The first time I used "BRB" (be right back) in a Skype message to my mother, she had no clue what I meant. So perhaps there is an inevitable, asymptotic limit in the relationship between communication compression and the loss of context.

Kurzweil might argue that we are realizing maximum potential for communicating through text. Previously, we maxed out the potential of communication through speech, and so writing evolved. Now, we're maxing out what can be accomplished with text, so it's time for another leap in encoding our interpersonal communications. Perhaps Twitter is a precursor step in that evolutionary leap.

2. As a writer, this obviously concerns me. We're seeing blogs displace an increasing amount of journalism. YouTube videos are gradually displacing TV viewing. We're seeking out shorter (or perhaps more efficient) ways of achieving the same informational or emotional outcomes. When you get paid by the word or page, this is not an encouraging trend. But on an even larger scale, what does this mean for authorship? How does one deliver depth of thought or experience via the written word to a mainstream audience when that audience is increasingly likely to grow impatient with text as an inefficient legacy medium?

I'm not so cynical as to think that Twitter reflects a general dumbing down of the population. But we clearly need evolved methods of interpersonal communication with a tolerable amount of data loss. I still think that Twitter steps over the loss line. I have to spend too much time hunting down hashtags and following links for it to be truly efficient. We haven't reached that next communication vector yet. Perhaps the lasting value of Twitter will be that it showed not only where we need to go but also the wrong way to get there.

This was a very long blog post to convey a handful of interwoven concepts. I should have been able to convey all this to you much more quickly, but the technological medium doesn't allow me much leeway in this regard. New, more efficient communication methods will be here soon. How soon? I don't know. If you study Kurzweil's charts, you'll think, "Pretty freaking soon!" But I still wonder if I and all of the other writers like me will be able to adapt to whatever evolved communication mode comes next. Kurzweil shows how evolution happens exponentially, and it follows that the efficiency of our communication will match this pattern. Will there still be a place for writing as a mainstream method of communication? I hope so...but I'm really not sure.

1 comment:

  1. What an awesome April Fool's tie-in. Nice job, Google! http://mail.google.com/mail/help/motion.html