Re: Text is bad: Was Ideas in Motion

Subject: Re: Text is bad: Was Ideas in Motion
From: "Mark Baker" <mbaker -at- omnimark -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Thu, 16 Mar 2000 16:52:34 -0500

Tim Altom wrote

> This is, indeed, heavy-handed. Pictographic alphabets did not die out.
> Rather, they remain one of the oldest means of writing in the world...the
> Chinese character set. Compared to the age of the Chinese written
> our own "advanced" alphabet is a kindergarten child.

Where phonetic and pictographic alphabets competed, phonetic alphabets won.

> The fact is that reading, unlike speech, is an acquired skill, like
> rollerblading or surfing.

There is an old joke about an English couple that adopted a French baby and
started taking French lessons so that they would understand it when it
started to talk. Which is only by way of saying that of course speech is an
aquired skill.

> And
> the fact is that, especially on the job, few people read for fun.

Which is why all those vast bookstores don't really sell any books, and
exist solely on the revenues from selling used plastic coffey cups to
recycling plants, and why anyone fool enough to buy stock in a little
internet company called never saw any return on their investment.
It's why hotels drop free newspapers in front of your door only to give you
something to line the compimentary budgy cage with. Its why so few corner
stores and grocery stores have magazine racks anymore. Its why you can't
pick up a copy of the National Enquirer or TV Guide in the checkout line
anymore. Its why Ophra went was hounded off the air after starting that
unpopular bookclub idea.

Can I stop now? People read for fun and profit. Duh.

> We are not reading creatures. We are visual creatures.

Nonesence. We are creatures of all our senses and all our faculties, of all
our discoveries and all our inventions. The written word (even if some
pleople can only recieve it by somebody else reading it aloud to them) is a
uniquely powerful means of communication. You might as well say that we are
not driving creatures, we are walking creatures. We have feet, not wheels.
But this misses the point: we are inventive creatures. We create and we use
technologies. The written word is one of the most potent of all our
technologies. Those who cannot use it are at an immense disadvantage.

On the other hand, how many people do you know who are socially or
economically disadvantaged by their inability to draw?

> Examples abound. Quality assurance stations now generally use color photos
> to distinguish good and bad parts, rather than using descriptions.
> demos are done with visual software, not with words. Maintenance manuals
> little text...they rely more on schematics, exploded drawings, and
> PDFs let them incorporate actual footage of procedures. Pick up any lawn
> mower repair manual and see how many drawings it contains. The best
> doc uses copious graphics of buttons, fields, and other screen elements.

Examples abound of communication niches where pictures are more useful than
words. No one is denying that. But you can do all these communication tasks
with words alone. Very few of the cases you sited can be done with pictures
alone. And there are a multitude of communication problems that can only be
solved with words. Words are the single most effective, and only generally
effective, means of communication we have. Pictures are partially effective
for a a small subset of communication problems. Within that subset they are
very useful and should be used more than they are. But they are still
supplementary to words, and only within certain niches.

> And, as I've heard so often, "One picture is worth a thousand words".

Okay, let's test this. Your post contained 673 words, but I'll allow an even
thousand. That gives you one picture. Can you create one single picture that
conveys the same ideas as your post did, clearly and without ambiguity? I'm
dying to see it.

> Text, by its nature, is extremely fallible. Even the most concrete words
> capable of misinterpretation. Even the word "text" itself has multiple
> meanings. It's at best a kluge.

Back in the days when I was training people to use Macs, a lot of my
students refused to eject a disk by dragging it to the trash. "That will
erase all the data on the disk", they said.

You think pictures are not subject to misinterpretation? Read any decent
book on visual communication. It will give you contless examples of
misinterpretation of pictures. Try to use any new piece of software by
looking at the button bar alone. (No cheating by holding your mouse over an
icon to get the tool tip.)

> I repeat...text is used extensively not because it's an excellent means of
> communication, but because other forms are far more expensive.

Language is used because it is effective for communicating a full range of
human ideas and emotions. Text is used because it is, by far, the most
effective way of communicating language. But we can continue this discussion
when we see the drawing of your last post. At that point we'll agree to
continue the discussion entirely in pictures.

> Why would all of these changes be taking place if text was so obviously
> superior? If you'll look carefully at the history of technology, you'll
> that just about all communications technology began by transmitting voice
> text, then went on to use graphics. Witness radio and television,
> and the Web, character-based software and GUIs. At every turn, we have
> continued to press our technology until it yielded us graphics.

They have started out as means to communicate language, because language was
the most important and most general form of communication. They have
subsequently added pictures because pictures are a useful supplement to
language. Language remains the principle means of communication in all
media, supplemented by pictures where available. Radio, without pictures,
contines to thrive. Can you imagine TV without words? How long did the
silent movies last after the talkies were invented? And how many silent
movies were entirely free from the use of text to explain the action or
supply the dialog? Our love of communication without language explains the
enormous commercial success of the all-mime channel.

> And yes, the phone book could
> easily be done graphically, if the cost wasn't so high. What is a yearbook
> if not a pictorial directory?

So would you rather look up your old high school buddy's phone number by
searching for his name in an alphabetical list or by searching page by page
through the yearbook looking for his photograph? Of course, those photos are
twenty years old and the last time you saw your friend he had gained fifty
pounds, lost his hair and grown a beard. Will you recognize him? Or maybe
you would use the graduate photo section because it is arranged in (gasp!)
alphabetical order by name, and (horrors!) prints the names under the
pictures in (shudder!) text. If only the yearbook committee would get
everyone together once a year to take fresh pictures and update addresses
and phone numbers. Then the yearbook might be as effective as the phone
book -- as long as you only call people you went to high school with.

Yes, I want a visual phone book. I would love to sit for hours scanning page
after page of unordered pictures hoping to recognize the person I want to
call. (This would be especially fun for calling people I've never met

Re: Text is bad: Was Ideas in Motion: From: Tim Altom

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