While some take written word to be inherently superior to the spoken word others believe that what is communicated verbally is inherently stronger than the written word.
This conflict existed for thousands of years. And different civilizations took different stands on this. But the conflict assumes greater importance in the 21st century, especially when ‘transliteracy’ skill (ability to learn from different media and from diverse sources — not necessarily in the written form or within a limited space or limited time period) is now considered to be a vital skill to survive and thrive in the present age.
How to make sense of this conflict?
May be a good starting point might begin by considering what Thamus, the god-king of Egypt, spoke to god Thoth, when he was congratulating Thamus on having invented the alphabet to produce written documents:
“…. this invention will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory. Their trust in writing, produced by external characters which are no part of themselves, will discourage the use of their own memory within them.
The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory but to reminiscence and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth.”
(Source: as quoted in de Santillana, p 348)
Today, we learn not only from books but also from many other sources, which are essentially based on human interactions in varied forms of communication through spoken words – some of which are storytelling, dialogs, discussions, debates, global conferences, workshops, negotiations, narrations, collaboration, sharing ability and evidences, coaching, mentoring etc. The media through which such communication flourishes are varied like, emails, cell phones, various social media platforms, direct experience, teaching …. etc.
Surely the volume of spoken word outweighs the written word in our present bit (binary digit) world where often the spoken word is presented in a written format.
If we look back, even two decades earlier, the memory capacity of our computers were going up by the day facilitating storage of ever increasing volume of data (written words). But the trend is now being reversed. Now we are using smart phone, tablets, audio, video, podcasts and net books, which have just enough memory to work smoothly. Software development is giving way to sharing information over shared platforms through development of specific applications.
And perhaps, when faced with increasing complexity, we are all forced to learn on the go — meaning instantly — in the here and now, with the full awareness that what we learn now might be replaced by new learning in the very next moment. The reason for this is simple — all complex situations are so unique that learning from one complex situation may or may not be directly translated to another complex situation, however similar that might seem to be.
Though the learning environment has become more complex than ever before the simplicity in this situation lies in the fact that we are increasingly relying on learning directly from direct human interactions in the form of varied types of conversations in which we become an intrinsic part of our personal learning experience.
For instance, the open learning culture that is expanding very quickly, fundamentally relies on the spoken word (videos, audios and podcasts) on diverse subjects (e.g. MIT opencourseware, Khan Academy) for learning to take place. Such videos are usually supported by brief notes and not elaborate text books (written word).
As I see it, there would be an exponential increase in learning through conversations that would rely more on the spoken word whereas the size of elaborately written documents would continually decrease and be limited to issues where correct transmission might be endangered.
In today’s world, to learn we must become a part of the process that produces the knowledge applicable to our needs. For that to take place, conversations would occupy the center stage of learning. In that case, spoken word would gradually assume greater importance than sole reliance on written words in form of books and textbooks.
It means that the way we would develop and use our mind-body complex would assume utmost importance in the coming years.