Here’s my cognitive science forum discussion piece this week, round two.

A great response offered had me thinking anew. Is the written word our primary concern? The discussion forum in my MSc has me wondering if this is still so.


You have my mind racing here. I have not thought quite in these terms before, but I am now – in my minds-eye or inner narrative – I am now seeing interfaces with technology as moments of great transformation in society. Having our children readied for the next becomes integral from the last. Writing was the Axial Ages catalyst of change. But, perhaps we have had others since. I think this becomes a question of time and space.

Observe these moments of change:

– pre-history is characterised by the initial cave people discovering voice to exchange information beyond signalling. This is the symbolism and abstract start of information exchange that needed the symbolism that Noam Chomski references. It may also give us links to Jungian collective subconscious. See also Vervaeke et al talking about The Meaning Crisis and the early role of Shaman to expand ideas.

– language became the means to pass more than just organisational ideas through time. One generation now able to retain the word of the last generation. Past learning becoming planned to be available to the yet born. What Hindu traditions show us, and Australian aboriginal and Polynesian tribal traditions, is that verbal history can transcend time. However, what it also does is bind people spatially together. It keeps them near. It is through repetition and shared ownership that such history retains its awareness from past generation to current. Language becomes a vessel for history and therefore a reason to think forward too. It also perhaps rewarded those best able to remember and replay events with insights when times were hardest, and give resolve in moments tribal groups were most likely to fail. The necessary communal bond meaning shared solution and safety in those numbers. I have Harari’s “Sapiens” or Jared Diamonds “Guns, Germs, and Steel” in mind and the idea of food banks where one Woolly Mammoth becomes a shared feed, and a metaphorical shared pantry with bigger communities sharing in good fortune and good technique in the hunt. Bound by language and history, benefiting from the communal group.

– the written word is the Axial Revolution point I reference here. This affords more freedom from these close communities. Communities becoming more transient and individual freedoms able to spread both word and trade to connect wider community. This also coincides with agricultural development. It enabled these communities to be bigger. To reach further in trading and sharing ideas, to begin collectively owning these beliefs. Hammurabi’s Code of Law etc. It also enables shared friendships to build and foes to be opposed. Alphabet the one example of phonetic effectiveness. The legend of the Tower of Babel perhaps a reflection of this written word becoming transient but the spoken word becoming nuanced and idea isolations being united again – written word also soon connects number and ideas and advancements begin to build in complexity and permanently transforming beyond civilisation wide threats (cf 1177 BCE)

– This has taken several millennia to unfold. It is the speed of language, in the form of written word and number, that has enabled the spatial distances to be expanded in proliferations from both war and trade. But also the spatial density. The few scribes and those they represent having much power. And such power is held most tightly bound to law and ideology. It is no coincidence that church and power are historic kin. It is the Spanish defenders of Catholic faith that attempt to proliferate much of European population with the power of the written word. In this blog about the Gunpowder Plot I wrote of this proliferation, although not having in mind its impact as outlined here. Both in terms of the Society of Jesus in the Catholic Church – but this is just a relevant in Protestant equivalent a new impact by language is about to unfold.

– This is all around 1520. In terms of the written word one more crucial ingredient connects the written word to the power of information. This is the time of the printing press. In this moment it is more than just those with one Church obedience who can read. It is what motivated the Spanish Catholics to push education into wider Europe but the power of reading was on the rise. This is how the spatial density becomes backfilled at speed. This is no longer just a Sunday service and the teachings from one mouth. This is now a freedom to read, to converse, to influence the mass of population beyond the mass of congregation. It is also the moment Latin begins to lose its dominance as the language of diplomacy, and of thought.

– Language is now more closely tied to written word. Education is tied to written word too. That and mathematics. Greek and Roman languages are still both defaults to know. Euclid’s teachings were known to all who declared themselves educated. But translations and reworked literature is soon to become commonplace. The written word, and number literacy bringing new perspectives to more.

But is this it? Is this how language is to be held in highest influence – as the written word? I think for the longest time of modern era this is true. Modern in philosophical terms, meaning from Descartes (1596 – 1650) onwards. Written word becomes ever more powerful both in the spatial distance that an idea can travel. And the speed with which it can move. The proliferation of ideas expanding as it goes. Whole populations or classes of people now advancing in dialogue. Ideas becoming connected in new ways. But also the proliferation of the story. The metaphor. The abstract connections anew. But this is where I depart from the primacy of the written words. I think there are two moments that demonstrate the power of the word has been usurped.

– Audio language. Once the radio was invented the manner of communication could change again. However, it needed to become ubiquitous to be effective. The radio may have been 1895 in invention but it was the 1920s onwards that enabled it to be available to every European ear. This became a means to close the spatial and temporal space of ideas even further. Almost immediate. The power of the masses may have been quick across Europe in the revolutionary spring of 1848, but the ability to maintain communication over the airwaves is what proliferated information so quickly from Munich and elsewhere from the embers of WW1. This was the start of the age of propaganda. That needed the speed of language in verbal phrasing not just the written word.

– Then we have the power of audio-visual. Look no further than the Kennedy vs Nixon debates to show the power of the combined mediums of language and showmanship

Is the written word therefore important? Yes, it is vital. But is it first among the forms of language we need to understand? I would say absolutely not. And in the near future I question whether it will have primacy at all.
Think on these realities of early 21st Century life:
– most learning is now accompanied by YouTube
– most communication is done by social media. And social media is becoming less interested in the written word.
– most mis-information is proliferated from a few sources and much of it is quickly becoming automated beyond human control.

My view is therefore that if we are focused upon the written word, we are too late in what we hope to teach. It is important. But let us not forget what it is not. It is not language. It is a symbolic convenience that has served us well. It has connected the whole planet. And connects us still. But we are folly to think it is a pinnacle of communication. It is already being usurped.

It is for this reason I am surprised we are being taught theories of written word. We seem to me at the cusp of information exchange in many other forms.


I am not sure I represent the generations to come. Perhaps the technology they will communicate via is close by but yet to arrive. By example, how many people can I expect to have read all the way to this final remark…? But by what other means can something be so quickly skimmed, surmised, and dismissed, yet still have been considered end to end?

…to be continued.

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