Is written text doomed to die out? At first glance, this might seem to be a real possibility. Fewer people are reading books and newspapers; on the other hand, digital media are proliferating like crazy, providing us with ever more available streaming audio and video. Will we eventually arrive at a future without writing?
I think not. It is obvious to me that writing has always been a core part of who we are. It is how we have made our mark on the world, as humans. And it would take extraordinary measures, as I will explain, to exterminate written text forever.
However, it would be easy to feel pessimistic these days, in the Western world at least. A 2006 survey from the from the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US found that the number of 17 year olds who were non-readers more than doubled, from 9 to 19 percent, over a 20-year period - just one of an array of disappointing results, which have provoked much comment both in the States and abroad. In the UK, which is where I'm from, a general impression seems to be that people are reading fewer books and spending more time with their TVs, computers and games consoles. Does anyone actually sit down and read mammoth novels like War and Peace or Moby Dick nowadays? Would Leo Tolstoy or Herman Melville even find publishers, were they first-time authors writing in the 21st century?
Everything is faster, briefer, punchier and more visual now. Who wants to plough through a whole textbook, when Google is a couple of clicks away? Who dusts off their fountain pen and writes a long letter when an e-mail, phone call or text will suffice? Who has time to read long bedtime stories to their kids, when ultra-condensed 1-minute versions are available? We live in an age of rapid-fire commercials, sound bites, podcasts and even SMS-style digests of classics like Homer's Iliad ("Muse, wot hapnd wiv Achilles?")
Could there come a time when none of us actually read or write anything? In 2070, perhaps all communication will be verbal or visual, with ubiquitous machines serving as intermediaries and digital storehouses of knowledge. Even technical documents could be reduced to images on screens, much like sophisticated versions of today's instructions for assembling flat-packed furniture. Is this our future?
In the short term, certainly not. Although folks are not poring through as many books as they used to, they are now reading with alacrity the thousands of online articles and blogs that the world wide web spawns every month. And they are writing, too! Not with pens but with keyboards, not on paper but on the myriads of social networking websites that have sprung up like mushrooms during the last five years.
Also I find it very difficult to believe that manual writing will disappear - for mundane but vital tasks such as scribbling a shopping list or jotting down a phone number, there is currently no real substitute. And although a piece of paper can be burned, torn up or thrown away, it can never be deleted, hacked into or scrambled by a computer virus. Paper files, notebooks and legal pads thus have a certain comforting solidity, and this will surely be true for some time to come.
No, there is only one scenario I can think of, which might doom the written word. Computers might become intelligent by a magnitude so great that they will be in a position to take effective control of human affairs; the general scenario has been explored many times in science fiction, for instance by writer Vernor Vinge (who first started to use the term "the Singularity" for this stupendous turn of events.)
If super-intelligent computers ruled the world and were seeking ways to perpetuate their power over us, one strategy would surely be to deny humans the ability to read and write (and thus receive and transmit "dangerous" ideas.) New generations of humans might become little more than biological servitors for the machines - sturdy, dextrous, easy to manufacture, illiterate and in total ignorance of the past glory of their race.
(There is also the chance that alien invaders would do something similar. However, to keep it simple I'm ignoring that situation for the purposes of this article - we have no firm evidence that aliens exist, but we know that computers do.)
It is an extreme possibility, of course, and might never actually come about. Even if cyber-minds became fantastically clever and advanced, there is no guarantee, of course, that they would acquire an urge to seize power at the same time. I would like to think that human writing will survive the rise of the machines.
Now maybe you are wondering whether I've forgotten about other bad things that could happen. Civilisation faces possible threats from sources other than power-mad computers, after all; a giant meteorite could strike the Earth, or a supervolcano might erupt. There is a theory that between 70 and 75 thousand years ago, a supervolcanic event at Toba in Indonesia pushed humanity towards the brink of extinction; there is nothing to stop something like that occurring again.
But I contend that as long as humanity did survive such a truly global catastrophe, writing would survive too. I think this becomes clear when we look at the origins of written text.
At its most basic, writing is making marks on a surface. You can use something sharp to scratch your marks, or use a staining liquid, such as ink or paint. The earliest known mathematical artefact is a 37,000 year-old piece of bone (a baboon's fibula, to be precise) found in Border Cave, South Africa - basically a series of 29 notches which mark the Moon's phases. Look at later developments such as Roman numerals, or the Chinese characters that represent numbers, and you will still find one scratch for 1, two scratches for 2, three scratches for 3 and so on; what could be more fundamental?
Consider the letters that make up our modern alphabets, for instance the letter "a". You can trace its lineage back via the Greek "alpha" and then to the Hebrew "aleph", which derives from a hieroglyph of a bull's head. Going back as far as the last Ice Age, we find beautiful paintings of bulls on the cave walls at Lascaux, and surely there was a chain of development - from lifelike pictures to the more stylised pictograms, from works of art to symbols and abstractions.
This is also very apparent with Chinese words - the two letters which mean "qiche" or "car" are "qi" ("steam" or "energy") and "che" ("carriage"), which can then be broken down into more basic representations - steam rising from a rice bowl and a cart with wheels revolving on an axle. Just as the latest version of Microsoft Windows can be traced back to its origins in MS-DOS, all our sophisticated modern lexicons are underpinned by simpler and far more ancient codes.
Should something truly disastrous happen to the human race, the few survivors would probably have to devote all their energies into scavenging and staying alive; their descendants might well be illiterate, unable to decipher the strange squiggles adorning the rusted, crumbling wreckage of civilisation all around them. Future generations might ultimately forget their past and grow to resemble the hunter-gatherers our hominid ancestors became, many millennia ago.
But as long as they still had human brains, eyes and hands, this would not matter. Someone somewhere would begin to keep count by carving notches in a branch or a bone. Someone else would make hand-prints in wet clay on a cave wall and start to experiment... And then, slowly but surely, writing would return to the world.