A Proposal for a New “Moveable” Language

This morning I googled the phrase, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Not surprisingly, I got thousands of results. Quotes from teachers, photographers, illustrators, and people of all kinds making the point that a picture saves you time. However, as I went through the listings one thing caught my eye. None of them referred to the fact that in digital terms, a picture IS worth a thousand words! Or to put it another way, whoever coined the cliché was probably unaware that decades later it would be discovered that a digital picture and an e-mail of 1000 words, may very well have the same amount of digital content.

But if a picture is worth a thousand words why do we write a thousand words when a simple picture would do just fine? Why do we spend enormous amounts of our time combining letters into words, digitizing words and posting or printing them? And think about this paradox. Many novels have been turned into movies: The Great Gatsby, The Scarlet Letter, The Godfather just to name a few. If you would like to know the story you can either buy the book, say of Harry Potter, all 500 pages of it, or see the movie. How long does it take to read Harry Potter? Depending on how fast you are, let’s say 30 hours. And to see the movie? Two hours. Yet if we digitised both the written story (30 hrs to read) and the movie (2 hrs to watch), the novel would only weigh a MB, and the movie would weigh, 5GB or 5000 times more! Why? Because a picture really is worth a thousand words. When watching a movie we get much more information per minute than when reading a book.

So what is it about the process of watching a movie that makes it so much more efficient than reading a book? Two things. The first is that the use of the spoken language combined with images seems to be much more effective at transmitting meaning than words alone. Secondly, we’re utilizing two senses at once. We’re using our sense of hearing and seeing vs. seeing by itself. Yet, society seems to believe there´s something instrinsically good in reading as opposed to watching movies. Society gives tremendous value to reading and writing. School children spend 12 years fine-tuning their reading and writing skills, but rarely get a chance to make videos, web sites or other ways of delivering multimedia content.

And while I run the risk of inciting a fight with most of my intellectual friends, isn’t it time that we stopped venerating the written word and instead come to terms with the fact that the content per minute delivered through the written text is extremely low and begin the search for the next generation language? Instead of complaining that people are reading less and less, that libraries are being abandoned, that reading is being abandoned, shouldn´t we acknowledge the fact that writing as we know it is outmoded and begin exploring other ways of communication? Personally, I used to love books but lately I have began to dread them. With rare exceptions I find books too long, too demanding. The other day Marcos Aguinis, an Argentine writer, gave me his new novel to read with a nice dedication on the second page. Yet, as I was receiving his newest work I began thinking to myself “yes, Marcos. I know you mean well, but who is giving what to whom here? Are you giving me a book or am I giving you 30 hours of my attention?”

What would a new written language look like? In my view it would less alphabetic, more Chinese, and more pictographic. I don’t know if tests have been done as to how long it takes a well educated westerner to read the Great Gatsby in English vs a well educated person from China, but we know that if we go from the Great Gatsby the novel to the Great Gatsby the comic strip we save time. Simply put, adding images to text allows for faster communication, especially if the quality of the illustration is good.

In general I believe a new language should use words only to communicate the more abstract parts of the message. If we want to say that somebody is wise, we should use the word, but if we want to say that he is square jawed, blue eyed, 6ft tall, broad shouldered, wearing 70s looking pants, and an open shirt displaying a hairy chest, we should just show the picture. A new language should be “moving writing,” a writing that will definitely require more effort from the writer, but wouldn’t that be fair after all? Presently, a writer who gets 100,000 people to read his novel and spends two years to write it is spending 4000 hours of his time in return for 3,000,000 hours of his readers’ attention and time. If novels were written in “moving writing” and required a combination of writing, animation, pictures and sounds to tell a story, a whole team of people may be required to write them. Maybe the ratio would then shift to a more balanced writing vs. reading time. I can hear voices of the opposition now. Some will probably argue that what’s great about writing is that it gives room to the imagination, that we are many times disappointed when we see a movie based on a novel we read because the movie ends up being very different from what we imagined when we read the book. But in my view, a world in which “moving writing” is the norm there will still be room for the imagination but in a different way. Writing will be better because of a new agreement among readers as to what is it they actually read. For example, there’s probably more agreement today among DVD viewers about what they saw than among fiction readers.

But maybe in a society in which “moving writing” is used there will be more room for imagination as imagination will be less the domain of readers and more the domain of writers. Just like Chinese calligraphy can be an art, moving writing may very well become one. And the imagination deficit in reading will be balanced by the surplus we gain in writing as we collectively become more creative.

Moreover, global communication should be much easier if most of the communication is based on images, animations and sounds, and less on language. Can you imagine reading a Chinese novel if you didn´t speak Chinese? A total waste of time!

Yet, if you watch a Chinese movie without subtitles, while missing out on a lot, you would still get a sense for the story. So a new “moving language” would both greatly increase the amount of content per minute we can deliver and allow for better global understanding. Now the problem is to design one!

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

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Katya on October 4, 2005  · 

two points which make me skeptical about the above:

1) written language was the result of the evolution which humans went through from communicating by carving out pictures on the walls to writing books (this is how we learned about them by the way and the written sources provided much more information about the ancient history than the pictures), while video is certainly a huge breakthrough, abandoning writing as communication channel seems like going back in time;
2) before any movie is made there was a book or a script written to inspire this movie as you pointed out in the first part of your article. how would you eliminate this part of the process?
s) I wonder how long would it take you to express everything you wrote in this article using just images? and how would you assure that everybody understand it in the same way?

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Martin Varsavsky on October 5, 2005  · 

I foresee this new language as text PLUS video, pictures, emoticons, music, sounds, but text still playing a crucial role.

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Miguel Tadeu on August 25, 2008  · 

late reply, but here it goes…
reading gives you more then information. Specialy novels. Gives you the oportunity to use your creativity and imagination( which I consider the best problem solvers in the world ). You have that example from Harry Potter or The Lord of the rings( among many many others, of course ). They make you use your intelect, not only to understand the argument, but to recreate that whole environment. If you consider exercising the brain as you exercise a muscle, a movie( or even “text on steroids” ) yould be like only work out your arms and let your legs to atrophy 🙂

But yes…text is unificient!

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