To the best of my knowledge, there are two ways of communicating abstract ideas – written and oral. There’s a broad variety of options for communicating more concrete ideas (spanking comes to mind) but for abstract concepts, you really need words, and for transacting words, you have two options.
What’s interesting for me is the comparative advantage of the two. I like to focus on speed: As a communicator, the faster I can get the words out, the easier it is for me to do my job. So, given the option of speaking or writing, I should prefer speaking. It’s a rare man who can write nearly as fast as he can speak, and I am not him. I understand that, if you write shorthand, it is possible to write as fast as a person speaks, but then no on can read it, so it’s generally a waste.
Listening generally happens at the exact same rate as speaking. (How’s that for stating the obvious?) In fact, it’s kind of silly to talk about listening faster than the speaker talks. How would that be possible? Listening to multiple streams at once? I don’t think so! Talk about serious data corruption. It is possible to talk faster than a person can listen, which is why, when in a public speaking environment, it’s recommended to speak relatively slowly. You have to lower your rate of communication to the lowest common denominator – how fast can the slowest person listen? And unless you’re naturally a very slow speaker, this can be very frustrating, since one of the primary reasons for communicating orally in the first place is the ease that comes from being able to send words as close as possible to the rate at which you think them.
Oral communication, then, is most perfectly adapted to dialogue. Conversation is its great delight. Brainstorming with people who think alike – ah! Another pleasure! Monolithic lectures, on the other hand, can be a little bit frustrating. As long as you attend, you are a captive to the speaker’s best estimate of the lowest listening speed in the room. And no matter how fast it is, everyone can think many times faster than anyone ever speaks. So unless the topic is engrossing, the mind wanders.
Dialogue is the normal setting for communicating with words. Dialogue is natural; everything else becomes odder by degrees. From this perspective, single sided speeches are disconcerting and a little frustrating. But written communication – ! This is truly bizarre! Look at what happens:
The actual act of writing is a chore that nearly everybody hates. Writing by hand (unless it’s some form of short hand), for a fast thinker, is something akin to peeling off layers of your own skin. You can lose your train of thought merely in the process of transcribing it. Your thinking either goes on and on until you forget that you are writing, or you force yourself to concentrate on the word at hand, and when you are finished, you’ve forgotten everything, and have to read back through what you’ve already written to reconstruct the original idea. A hand written essay is a hodge-podge of vaguely connected, reconstructed ideas, like a badly sewn zombie, moaning for someone to supply him with a cogent mind.
Compared to writing by hand, the act of typing is like being lifted to a blissful, unearthly plane. I believe I can hand-write something on the order of 15 words per minute. My typing speed is somewhere around 80 words per minute. And, I am fond of saying, I am the least of my family. My sister took a typing class when she was in high school. She told me that on the first day of class they took a typing test, to see what everyone’s skill level was. Ces started at 60 wpm. I can only hope in envy that children have slowed her down.
Here’s the bizarre part: I can type fast. But I’ll never be able to type as fast as I can talk. There may be some rare soul who normally speaks as slowly as I type, but he’s a very slow speaker indeed, and not considered fit for public delivery. So the production of written communication is the slowest form there is. But reading is the fastest. I know I’m not normal, but I can read several hundred words per minute, and I generally remember everything I read. Even among slow readers, unless they’re reading out loud, very few people read as slowly as a person speaks.
How strange this reading is! Imagine now: dialogue is our template for normal verbal communication. Each person listens at roughly the same speed as the speaker speaks. There is power sharing, as each person says their say. Power can be stolen from one speaker as a listener interrupts. A lecture moves away from this. Very few are dialogical. The one speaker retains all his power, setting the pace and the subject, holding the listeners at his mercy.
But written communication – First comes the writing, as slow and ponderous as any speech. It’s painstakingly crafted over hours, days, weeks. Even blog posts, the epitome of writing that looks like talking, takes a little time to write. And then comes the reading. It’s totally asynchronous! You don’t have to read at the same time that I’m writing. You don’t have to read at the same speed that I’m writing. You can pause in your reading and come back later. I won’t be offended. You can interrupt and argue with me all night long, and I’ll never even notice. You the reader have stolen power right out from under me.
As a communicatee, it’s just easier for me to read. I know a lot of people prefer to listen to a person talking, but I can’t imagine why. I would love it if someone could take all the lectures I have to listen to for a single course at school and transcribe them. I could “listen” to my entire semester in a single day. The only reason I can think of that we don’t do that is the comparative effort (time) it takes to write the thing out. It’s much easier to talk than to write. It’s much easier for my professor to talk than write.
But there’s a hidden power for the writer. Having said it, it’s been said. A written word can last, theoretically, forever. We have original copies of texts that rank above several thousand years old. Once said, it may be lost, it may be forgotten, but never unsaid. What convenience for the writer. There are people who have given their lives to orally delivering the same message over and over again to different audiences. But once written, it’s written.
I know, there’s a similar advantage to recordings; it’s why people podcast. But I think it’s a false one. Podcasting has all the ease of talking, and some of the advantages of writing – it’s theoretically permanent, it can be paused and interrupted. But it doesn’t have what is in my mind the number one benefit – speed. As a reader, I have absolute control over the rate at which I absorb the information. As a listener, I am completely at the mercy of the podcaster, the radio head, the lecturer.
So there’s this conflict (at least for me). Talk is easier for me to do, but I prefer to read. Preferring to read, shouldn’t I, in charity as a communicator, make some effort to communicate in a way that I think is most convenient to the receiver? So which way do I totter? Fortunately, I have this one advantage in choosing whether to talk or write: I have a great desire, when I say something, to say it right. Writing allows me that extra layer of editing to ensure that I phrase my thoughts in the best way possible. So generally, I write.
And now you know why I keep that silly little moniker, “Puretext.”