Re: Text is bad: Was Ideas in Motion

Subject: Re: Text is bad: Was Ideas in Motion
From: "Tim Altom" <taltom -at- simplywritten -dot- com>
To: "Stevenson, Rebecca" <rstevens -at- hubdata -dot- com>, "TechDoc List" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Fri, 17 Mar 2000 20:26:52 -0500

Not a holy war, no. Just a misunderstanding.

We aren't born knowing a language, but we are born with an undeniable
imperative to learn one. That's why interpreting spoken language isn't
really a skill, as most of us mean the term, as something that must be
practiced like the violin.

The urge to understand and speak a language is so strong that children who
are left to fend for themselves and are never around human speakers will
actually create their own spoken languages. The same children will not
spontaneously create written languages. Written languages are inventions,
like the wheel. We are so good at exchanging ideas in spoken form that we
learn most of our syntax by the age of six or so, when we are only starting
to learn how to read. And consider the fact that in some languages (such as
English) the written syntax and the spoken syntax aren't identical, good
evidence that the two don't have to reflect one another.

By contrast with the spoken word, we must learn how to read the same way we
learn how to ride a bicycle. We're not hard-wired to interpret text, and the
same brain pathways aren't involved. This is why dyslexics can be seriously
handicapped in reading, but still be breathtakingly facile with the spoken
word. In point of fact, many dyslexics develop excellent speaking skills as
a compensation for not being able to read well.

If text were uniformly superior, the buying public wouldn't bother with
television or movies. They'd content themselves with newspapers and
paperback novels. But we are a visual species, with visual preferences. The
Internet itself is an excellent example. Its popularity was growing very
slowly until the Web came along, bringing the promise of visuals. And as for
the Web, *it* didn't take off until formatting was drastically improved in
HTML and in browsers. Tim Berners-Lee at CERN originally thought that basic
heading formats would be plenty, and designed his first browser and HTML
version to reflect that assumption. Within a few months, others had found
ways to provide what the public REALLY wanted: visuals.

Manuals are yet another wasn't long into the 1980s when several
page layout products hit the market, and thereafter manuals lost their
text-only looks. I have yet to meet a user who, given a choice between being
shown a live demonstration and being given a textual manual, wouldn't choose
the live demonstration.

You may immediately scoff and ask "Well, who wouldn't?" But that reveals the
built-in prejudice we share for having real people help us with things. It's
well-established that users prefer to use peer help rather than manuals.
It's our nature. It's not a failing.

I repeat my thesis still: Text is not widely used because it is a better
conveyor of meaning, but because it's cheap or because the technology to
transmit information isn't yet sophisticated enough to use any other format.

Tim Altom
Simply Written, Inc.
Featuring FrameMaker and the Clustar(TM) System
"Better communication is a service to mankind."
Check our Web site for the upcoming Clustar class info

> Whoah! What announcement did I miss that says we're born speaking, let
> speaking *well*?

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