Writing is Dead, pt 2: Interface

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forest 1 by Sylwester Ratowt. CC - BY NC SA
forest 1 by Sylwester Ratowt. CC – BY NC SA

Oh, so I haven’t yet convinced you that writing is dead? In that case, I have more ideas.

Writing is dead (he types on his keyboard)


Writing is dead because we can interact with our devices without writing, and from our devices we get all the information we ever need.*

Traditionally, we accessed information through reading and writing, be it a book or a computer keyboard. But the keyboard is disappearing, and instead we touch things on the screen; we swipe, we pinch, we shake. We are increasingly talking, in natural language to our devices and they talk back to us. We are using the movement of our body to control our devices. We can interact with them by moving our eyes, or even simply by thinking (oh horror?). Soon, we will not need writing to interact with our gadgets at all.

This fact alone means that soon one will be able to function perfectly adequately in our society without knowing how to read and write. Who needs to read a road sign when the navigation app tells us to turn right at the next light?

However, there is an even deeper change happening that diminishes the role of writing in our society.

We are moving from learning about ideas (which are served well by writing), to learning how to do things (which is not well served by writing).

{my textbook on swimming isn’t selling very well}

There are things that cannot be learned just by reading. Like cooking. I think of my mom’s “recipes”: “add flour until it is thick enough and cook until it is done.” Learning to cook requires the experience of knowing when the pan is the right temperature for a given task, what a sautéed onion looks and feels like, what is the proper consistency of pasta dough, not to mention what things taste like. Any attempts to write those things down only partially capture the experience and no one who hasn’t cooked fully understands the meaning of the text.

Abstract instructions, on the other hand, can be communicated easily. On my keyboard I routinely do things like: Alt+Tab, F11, Print Screen, Esc, Alt+Tab, Ctrl+V. Kids these days may not know what the sequence does (it pastes a full screen capture of the last active window into the currently active window), but if anyone follows the same sequence they will get the same result on their first try.

However, such abstract controls have many limitations. For one they are not intuitive, so we make them more intuitive by introducing buttons and, more recently, motion controls. But those require some practice before we master them. I got a new phone recently and it took me few days to get the hang of all of its swiping, shaking, and voice controls. That is, I knew that I had to swipe this way to make a call, or that way to snooze. Because I was used to swiping my old phone, for the first few days it took me a few tries each time before I got the desired result {especially annoying while trying to snooze} .

As the kinetic interfaces become more sophisticated, it will take more time to master them. But once we do, we will be able to do things that we could not have done by using our present day controllers (think about all the new things we were able to do with a graphic interface comprised of a mouse and pretty icons, versus text only interface).

In Photoshop, for example, there are dozens of sliders**, each controlling some aspect of the image. Currently to get the desired effect one adjusts each slider one by one, then returns to the already adjusted sliders and readjusts them until a desired effect is obtained. Now imagine each of your fingers controlling a different slider via a Kinect-like interface. You move your fingers in the air and things happen. You can change all the sliders simultaneously. It will take some time to master this interface, but once you learn it, you will be able to not only do the adjustments faster, you will probably reach effects that you wouldn’t otherwise.

Or think about writing a book, without writing. Written text is rather lifeless and monotone. Punctuation tries to get some pauses, in there; somehow. But it works only somewhat! What if, as you write or dictate, you control the tone and expression with the movement of your body. That would be useful. Gone are the stupid emoticons and gone is the 60’s sci-fi computer voice playback. Gone is the “he said angrily.” And you will finally stop reading my sarcastic comments as if I meant them earnestly. That would make our relationship much easier.


Our interaction with the world is mediated by various interfaces. Writing has many advantages. For many applications, however, writing is less useful than kinetic interface, and thus will be surpassed by it.

This means a big change for how we learn. When I learn to interact with my devices by movement, that knowledge is embodied in me. I cannot write it down, store it, and transmit it to someone else so that they can later read it and have the same knowledge as I had. I become like a master carpenter, a star quarterback, or a good cook who can only partially pass their knowledge on by writing a textbook. To fully learn one must become an apprentice who learns by watching and doing, not by reading and writing.

{yes Michael Polanyi, some of our knowledge is embodied already, but even more will soon be}

{As we increasingly move to embodied knowledge, our notion of disability will change. Not knowing how to read and write will no longer prevent someone from being successful, but not having all ten fingers might. As we are designing our devices we must keep in mind that using them will be many different bodies which possess a range of movement and capabilities. As always, we must keep in mind that what we see in the mirror represents just one example of the human diversity.}

Writing is dead (he types on his keyboard)

*If not yet, soon enough. If not all of us, many. (back)

** Already a move to overcome the limitation of writing. (back)

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  1. Pingback: Death of Writing, pt 3: Generalizations » 23. {insert footnote}

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