The written word took over the world

Whereas most human beings learn to speak in the first two years of their life, written languages are more of an acquired ability. We learn to speak before we learn to write. It is not uncommon for adults to be illiterate, even in rich countries. In this sense, the written language is a high-level ability.

For centuries, only a small elite knew how to write and read. I suspect that it was widespread at first among wealthy merchants.

Learning how to read and write a natural language was probably like learning to program software today. Few could do it well. If you were part of the literate elite, you could expect good jobs.

The written language was a powerful technology when it first arose, akin to the computer today. Instead of having to painful remember who bought what and when, you could write it down. You could hand out receipt. You could create money in the form of IOUs. In time, people could use the written language to tell stories, to seduce remote princesses… The possibilities were endless.

What is amazing, to me, is the rise of written language as an essential medium via platforms like Facebook or email. To our ancestors, this would be unbelievable. How can all these people be expected to communicate effectively through writing?

Today, we say that software is eating the world: most jobs and industries are becoming software-related. But it is maybe useful to view this as the continuation of a trend that started when the written word is took over the world.

As software eats up our world, people urge us to prepare. Our kids need to learn how to program. But as someone who officially receives over 100 emails a day… let me add that your kids should first learn to write well.

The written language remains an acquired ability, and mastering it is a matter of constant effort. But, most importantly, it requires a different work ethic.

When I help my sons to study, I expect them to always write down the answer. It is not uncommon for one of my sons to pass a test if I ask him to speak it out, but to fail it when I ask him to write it down. Part of the reason is that, as the person asking the question, you provide many more clues when you speak and listen to someone. “Does it end up a ‘t’? I can’t remember, but dad seems to be waiting for more…” It is simply harder to write down the answer.

We should not underestimate this challenge. Let me contrast these two actions:

  • If I come to meet you in person to communicate a message (or if I call you), I do not have to spend much effort preparing. I can figure out what I need to say as you are waiting. Moreover, I can rely on the recipient to give various non-verbal clues to guide me through the process. And even if I ended up failing to communicate any meaningful information, we can still smile.
  • If I send you an email, I may have to put my emotions aside and think through my problem. What do I really want to say? What is my context? When I write, I have to make an effort to anticipate the reactions of the recipient without any guinea pig. I also can’t corner him or her: I must get to the point without undue delay. And if my email ends up being gibberish, I probably won’t get a smile back.

Of course, this analysis extends to meetings. People who love meetings are often the very same people who have trouble writing. In a meeting, you can talk for 15 minutes without any message… you can fill the time with empty posturing. In written form, you’d be ridiculed… but, after a long diatribe that nobody could quite follow, you are unlikely to hear anyone point out how empty your words were. Once more: the bar is set higher when you use the written language.

I should stress that effective written communication is not necessarily limited by your mastery of the grammar or your spelling abilities. The main issue is effort. Writing well takes time. It is a habit.

When you write… “I can’t explain myself by email, let me call you”… you may be letting us know more about your work ethic than you think… There are good reasons to call people up. For example, if you are the CEO, and you want to stress the importance of a project, you better call up the project manager. It is hard to convey emotions reliably by email. However, if you are the CEO and can’t explain your decisions or state your questions by email, then maybe you are all fluff. Both Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are famous for some of their emails. Both of them write well and are to the point. Steve Jobs often wrote back to lay users. His emails were often communication masterpieces. Clear, concise, and powerful. Other powerful writers include Linus Torvalds, Tim Berners-Lee, Tim Bray…

Not all our leaders can write well. But if the most powerful CEO of his era would take the time to explain himself by email, what does it mean for the rest of us?

Before email, it was enough to be able to read most things, and to write semi-competently when you had to. Today, you shouldn’t hire an engineer unless if he can explain a difficult technical issue in ten lines or less.

A friend of mine once asked whether we could offer a college course on “efficient use of email”. I have no doubt that this would be ridiculed… but it could be the most useful course many students ever take.

I wrote that the written word requires a different work ethic. You can’t figure out what you want to write as you go. We should realize that software programming takes this up to another level. Once you code your ideas in software, you have to know exactly what they are, down the smallest detail. The future belongs to people who can be precise, concise and accurate. It will become harder and harder to get by with fuzzy messages.

Update: Some have raised the counterpoint that video lectures and great talks can be precise, concise and accurate. For example, Steve Jobs produced great presentations that no only presented the facts, but also shared his enthusiasm. However, such presentations are akin to the written word: the author has had to prepare extensively and he must be mindful of the time the recipient is willing to spend. At any time, you can tune out a presentation or just leave. It is also not a natural form of “talk”: giving good presentations is an acquired skill that relies on rigor and hard work. Others have argued that the written word could be just as sloppy at the spoken word, e.g., as in so-called “texting”. This is true, of course… you can use the written word as merely a transcription of your immediate thoughts. Whether it is effective, e.g., in a business context, is another issue.

14 thoughts on “The written word took over the world”

  1. I can see the same kind of problem in programming. There are students that immediately start programming, figuring out in that very moments what the problem is and what the details to care of are. Conversely, that are students who spend time to think about the problem before even switch the computer on.
    It is also interesting to notice that market generates languages for both categories: rapid-prototyping (talkers) and super-structured code (writers).

    Maybe they are just two possible forms of communication/development, which, in virtue of their strengths and weaknesses, can be advantageously adopted according to the context. Another way to say, there’s no a-priori best one.

    About being precise, concise and accurate, I would say that you can do it with both styles: again, it depends by contexts.

  2. @Michele

    Yes, you can be precise, concise and accurate while talking, but this requires preparation and effort similar to writing. When Steve Jobs gave his presentation, he was all of these things, but it is absolutely certain that he spent quite a lot of time preparing. In addition to writing, he was communicating his enthusiasm, so the preparation had to be even more thorough.

    But when most people want to talk, they don’t mean that they have a present of Steve Jobs’ caliber to deliver.

    When you tell me about a technical issue… “I can’t explain it by email, I need to tell you about it”… you are not telling me that you are going to be precise, concise and accurate while talking… the very reason why you can’t write it out is precisely because you haven’t done the work of preparing the information and sorting it out.

    One of the hidden variable here is that price of the time of the recipient. Steve Jobs, when he gave presentation, knew he could not afford to lose anybody’s interest. Time was precious and he had to make the best of it.

    When you write, a similar phenomenon is at play… if you go rambling on, people will just ignore your emails.

    These are different settings from you cornering someone in his office and chatting away all afternoon about problems you haven’t sorted out.

    Regarding the analogy with programming… I am not sure there is any programming language that is “like talking”. If you try to be “chatty” in any programming language, the result will be what is commonly called “spaghetti code”. This happens in any language… from JavaScript to C. You might be able to get away with it with very simple problem, but the minute you try to do anything a bit challenging, the “chatty” approach will collapse.

    Programming, in any language and in general, requires a lot of thought and organization. It is true that some programming languages are more adequate for some problems… but it is an orthogonal issue.

  3. While at the gut level, I myself often feel that written communication sets the bar higher and that it’s too bad people don’t bother to get better at it, my experience tells me that:

    1. A lot of meeting lovers write well, and a lot of meeting haters write badly; the former often simply love endless discussions in all forms while the latter are impatient to get to the end of it, so the latter are easier for me to cooperate with despite their overly short and barely comprehensible missives.

    2. Talking is better than emailing when I actually need the other guy to figure things out, because it prevents me from developing ideas based on wrong assumptions in the area of his expertise – he quickly corrects me before I waste the time.

    3. Emotion is often important even if the bulk of the discussion is “real” thinking and not, say, a motivational talk. We often agree or disagree “irrationally”, not because of what is said but because of how it is said (and how “irrational” this is is very much debatable, because a person with the best ideas but the wrong emotional attitude signals problems in an upcoming cooperation). And as you pointed out, emotions are harder to convey in written form.

    So while I think written communication is very important and extremely underdeveloped – I wish standard CS curriculum would include a ton of writing so that people would get bad grades for bad writing and force themselves to write well as they force themselves to learn silly language arcana today – I think that the spoken word is still extremely important and perhaps the more important part of communication today.

  4. @Yossi

    A lot of meeting lovers write well, and a lot of meeting haters write badly; the former often simply love endless discussions in all forms while the latter are impatient to get to the end of it, so the latter are easier for me to cooperate with despite their overly short and barely comprehensible missives.

    I think that a lot of meeting lovers never prepare meetings. Similarly, they don’t worry about other people wasting time. This attitude is likely to be reflected in their writing.

    Talking is better than emailing when I actually need the other guy to figure things out

    It takes you less effort, and can be socially more rewarding. However, if you can write down an explanation once, it can be used by dozens or even thousands of people… It can serve as future reference.

    Emotion is often important even if the bulk of the discussion is “real” thinking

    True but it shouldn’t stop you from being able to explain the facts clearly and concisely in writing.

  5. > In a meeting, you can talk for 15 minutes without any message… you can fill the time with empty posturing. In written form, you’d be ridiculed…

    Well, I know at least one person who is able to write 15 lines without conveying any meaningful message. He speaks the same way, by the way.

  6. “Learning how to read and write a natural language was probably like learning to program software today. Few could do it well.”

    This is a bit off-topic, but I have long been an advocate of considerably raising the level of education an average member of our society receives. An argument I often get is “not everyone is able to ever learn advanced math/programming/other advanced skills”. As a counter-argument, I use this analogy with learning how to write; thousands of years ago writing was probably considered a special skill only the smartest people were able to learn.

  7. @Anonymous

    I agree.

    I often argue in a tangential manner. For example, without being overly pretentious, I claim that I could have been an artist or a healer. I am not, but I could have been had I trained myself differently. I’m still young enough that I can probably learn to play baseball well, or learn to speak Chinese in a decent manner.

    People seem to assume that whatever level they have reached is what they were destined to reach… But I think it is more accurate to say that we are far off our full potential in most things.

    I was trained in mathematics… but even in mathematics, if I were serious about it, I could become much better.

    Of course, there is an overall limit: time I spend on some things is time I don’t spend on other things…

  8. Interesting post. I have one question and one counter-point.

    Would it be fair to restate your “written” vs “spoken” distinction as “broadcast” vs “interactive”? You mention that presentations to a crowd are similar to writing in the ways you were trying to highlight. And whenever one writes something down, there is at least the possibility that it will be read many times (a kind of broadcast).

    I’m not sure if you intended it, but your post strikes me as a bit too dismissive of interactive communication skills. I would argue that while broadcast communication skills are important and require work to develop, interactive communication skills are important also. Even within the context of research/business, sometimes when people work interactively (e.g. group brainstorming) they come up with something that none of them would have thought of on their own.

    I’m 100% with you that many engineers could stand some work on their written communication skills. But I disagree that with your implied point that effective interactive communication skills require less deliberate effort just because speech comes naturally to most people. In other words, face-to-face time is valuable (for more than just conveying emotion), and making the most of it requires attention and practice.

    Ben

  9. @Ben

    Would it be fair to restate your “written” vs “spoken” distinction as “broadcast” vs “interactive”?

    I am not sure I like “broadcast” as a well written email can be sent to only one individual.

    By “spoken”, I refer to our engrained ability to communicate verbally, without any particular effort. We have been able to do so for thousands of year. We are good at it, naturally.

    By “written”, I refer to our acquired ability to organize our thoughts into a coherent (written) document. Our ancestors did not have this ability. It is a recent innovation. Up until a century ago, only the elite could do it.

    I’m not sure if you intended it, but your post strikes me as a bit too dismissive of interactive communication skills. (…)

    I am not dismissive of human interaction and interactive collaboration, that’s how I earn a living.

    I disagree that with your implied point that effective interactive communication skills require less deliberate effort just because speech comes naturally to most people.

    There is simply a hierarchy of skills: we learn to talk and listen, then we learn to write and read. Then we learn to program computers.

    I regularly meet people who tell me that they can’t explain themselves in written form, or find it too difficult. These people are fine with chatting on the phone, however.

    Of course, you could argue that running effective meetings is very hard, harder than producing a coherent argument on paper. But most people don’t run effective meetings. They happily improvise.

  10. Hello, may I translate your blog spot to put it on my blog and try to place it on a french libertarian pure player as Contrepoints.

    I think you have hit a very important point for tomorrow’s world understanding.

    Thanks
    Thierry

  11. Sorry, I did not mean libertarianism. But if I say “libéral” in a french context (which is more or less identified to right wing), it does not mean “liberals” in the north american context.

    So I have chosen a much more radical word. Libertarians do not exist really in France. It was a blunt approximation.

    So it will not be political.
    Sorry to have misguided you on my real interst which is the following :

    The idea is to sense what world we would have in the near future, and I like your intuition about it, as for instance in France we had a bad habit to oppose litterature from maths and the like.

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