Rising voices and the eclipse of writing

From text to speech

Text has so far been a more efficient knowledge-access medium than voice for at least four reasons: — it forms a durable object, it is easy to search visually, you can scan it quickly to identify relevance, and reading is typically faster than listening to audio versions (read aloud live or recorded). Text provides a multi-linear format for content consumption (you can skim and jump backwards and forwards), whereas video and audio are largely monodirectional.

What about the long march of literacy?

As voice speaks more insistently to our content needs, will we stop evolving towards an era in which human writing is the privileged baseline for most language actvities (in line with the UNESCO-inspired literacy project launched in the 1950s)? Or will we move beyond writing as the key to knowledge sharing, and simply teach reading where appropriate? This would depend on the existence of effective writing systems.

Media voices

Critically, voice is part of the attraction of media such as films, games and TV series. There is growing competition in such geographies as SE Asia (especially India) to localize audiovisual content into new language communities so that they enjoy a richer acoustic performance. Film dubbing is now a growing industry (worth around $4 billion and growing at over 6% a year) in which technology is aiding this extension of content to new languages. It requires attention to the nuances of speech that text in subtitles obviously cannot provide for avid film fans.

You talk like a book

Remember Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel Fahrenheit 451 or the 1966 film version by François Truffaut? It imagines a time when books in the US are destroyed by burning (probably inspired by stories of Nazi book-burning yet written in the USA at a time when Senator McCarthy was active as an anti-communist scourge). To evoke Sperber’s premise we began with, this book-free situation meant that in fact we would not even be able to read even if we wanted to!

Speech in the metaverse (2.0)

One key future application where speech will evolve into a primary channel is communication in any future metaverse. Although both the general architecture and local details are still unknown, we can at least anticipate that in a visually and acoustically rich virtual space, we will need to communicate linguistically through speech and sound rather than simply by writing/reading blocks of text on screens.

Dialog versus text

Yet if voice-first does materialize as the new communication benchmark, Sperber’s prophecy can claim to echo Socrates’ 2,400-year old critique of writing’s limits. Dramatized in Plato’s Phaedrus, he claims that because it lies fixed on the page and we cannot question it, written text avoids the dynamics of dialog, the mutual working out of ideas and their consequences through the cut and thrust of human conversation, argument or debate.

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Andrew Joscelyne

Andrew Joscelyne

Language dreamer focused on digital futures