The Coming Age of Talking Computers
Frequently Asked Questions from William Crossman’s book VIVO [Voice-In/Voice-Out]: The Coming Age of Talking Computers
Q: You say that if a nonliterate person will be able to use a voice-in/voice-out (VIVO) computer to write perfectly, it shows that written language will be obsolete and on the way out. I don’t understand. Doesn’t it show that written language will be even more useful and important since, with VIVOs, everyone will be able to use written language to store and retrieve information?
A: No. It shows that written language will be a redundant technology, merely adding an unnecessary and superfluous step to all information accessing by requiring speech to be translated into text. Why should we do the job orally-aurally, and then do it again via writing and reading, when doing it just orally-aurally would get the job done?
Q: Didn’t they say that TV would replace the radio–and they were wrong! You’re just as wrong when you say that voice recognition and VIVOs will replace reading and writing. Written language is central to our way of life; it’s an incredible invention, and it’s not going away. Just as TV and radio coexist now, written language and voice recognition will continue to coexist far, far into the future. What’s your reason for thinking they won’t?
A: Written language is an incredible invention, but the fields of human history are littered with incredible inventions and technologies that were made obsolete by newer inventions and technologies. And, while written language has played a central role for a minority of people in a minority of societies around the world, it has never become central to the lives of most people. That’s the problem! Those who said TV would replace radio didn’t understand that, although TV and radio do the same general job–convey information–radio has an advantage over TV. Radio doesn’t require that we focus our eyes on a screen; we can drive a car or make a salad while listening. Although text and VIVOs also do the same general job–store and retrieve information–text has no advantage that will withstand the onslaught of the four “engines” driving us into the VIVO Age.
Q: What are those four “engines”?
A: (1) Evolutionarily/genetically, humans are driven to speak. (2) Technologically, humans are driven to develop technologies that allow us to access information by speaking. (3) Young people in the electronically-developed countries are, en masse, rejecting text as their technology of choice for accessing information in favor of speech-driven and non-text, visual-driven technologies. (4) The billions of functionally non-literate people worldwide want access to information without having to learn to read and write.
Q: Why do you think the computer industry will take the trouble to research, develop, and produce VIVOs when text-driven computer systems are working just fine?
A: A huge demand, ready markets, and huge profits. VIVOs, being nonliterate-user-friendly, fit the needs of governments, corporations, businesses, and agencies in countries around the world. The workforces in the great majority of countries–including the United States–are mostly nonliterate or semi-literate. Employers will soon realize that, once they install VIVOs in their facilities, they will be able to open up their information-handler labor pools to nonliterate employees. Also, nonliterate individuals will want VIVOs in their homes for all the same reasons that literate individuals want text-driven computers in their homes today. In addition, the computer industry, like everyone else in the electronically-developed countries, is responding (albeit mostly unconsciously) to the human evolutionary drive to return to our biogenetic, pre-alphabetic, spoken-language roots.
Q: If VIVOs are going to replace written language, and no one is going to read or write anymore, won’t that result in a massive “dumbing down” of society? Don’t we need to be able to read and write in order to really think—-especially to think logically and scientifically?
A: No. The end of reading and writing doesn’t mean the end of thought, thinking, or language. Written language is a technology humans invented to help store and retrieve information under a particular set of rapidly changing social and environmental conditions 6,000 to 10,000 years ago known as the agricultural revolution. The nonliterate peoples who created written language already thought logically and scientifically—-which is why they were able to create written language in the first place. As is true with most technologies, written language will be replaced by another technology–in this case, VIVOs–which will do the same job of storing and retrieving information more easily, quickly, efficiently, cheaply, and universally.
Q: Using written language/text is an extremely efficient way to scan and search for information. Won’t scanning and searching for information orally-aurally, using VIVOs, be much less efficient?
A: No, using VIVOs will be more efficient. First, we have to drop our text-based models when we think about searching for information with VIVOs. Using text, we can rapidly scan lists, indexes, paragraphs, and pages of data; when we try to imagine listening to all these words, it seems a much harder and slower process. But we won’t listen to all the words. We’ll search by conversing with the VIVO–just as we usually converse with each other. If I want to find out what hippopotamuses eat, I don’t usually ask you to tell me everything about hippos and wait and listen for data about their feeding habits. I just ask you, “What do hippos eat?” and you tell me.
Q: Won’t using VIVOs rather than reading and writing text make us less visual?
A: No, it will make us more visual. It will also make us more aural, tactile, olfactory, and gustatory. We print-literates are not very visual compared to people who live in oral cultures. Our eyes have been trained to recognize text but not much else. This singling out of one sense organ, our eyes, and focusing it on a static reality, text, in order to process information happens only among print-literates. People in oral cultures process information by continuously focusing all five senses interactively on a dynamic, changing reality. This interactive unity of our senses working to understand the world is at the root, historically and etymologically, of our idea of “common sense.” As we lose written language and move toward oral culture, we’ll heighten both our visuality and our common sense.
Q: It requires huge amounts of storage space in a computer’s memory to store sound/speech–much more than it takes to store the same information in the form of text. And since this much memory costs big bucks, who is going to buy these very expensive talking computers?
A: Everybody–except that VIVOs won’t be that expensive. The industry will invent ways to compress storage space, making storage more efficient and requiring less memory. Memory itself will become cheaper. Take, for example, the way the industry has dealt with the high cost of storing computer graphics. To paraphrase Nicholas Negroponte in Being Digital: The more pixels, the more memory you need. A typical screen with 1000 x 1000 pixels in full color needs 24 million bits of memory. In 1961, memory cost $1. per bit. Today 24 million bits of memory costs $60.
Q: Won’t the fact that no one else will be able to read or write make it easier for the power elite to exploit them in the 21st Century? Won’t the power elite use written language as a way to keep information secret and inaccessible from the nonliterate masses–that is, from all of us?
A: The situation you describe has been happening ever since the invention of written language and explains why billions of the world’s people have been kept nonliterate. Actually, the power elite won’t use written language to keep information secret in the future because manipulating computer-driven written language/text will be too inefficient compared with manipulating VIVO-driven spoken language. They’ll use secret spoken, coded-sound, and/or coded-non-text-visual VIVO languages.
Q: You talk about the potential opportunities VIVOs hold for the billions of nonliterate and semi-literate people of the world. But won’t these people have just as hard a time acquiring VIVOs in the 21st Century as they’ve had acquiring text-driven computers in the 20th?
A: Yes. I believe that access to the world’s storehouse of information and knowledge is a human right. The struggle to acquire the VIVO technology that will turn these potential opportunities into actuality will be a major human rights contest of the 21st Century.
Q: Won’t we lose that wonderful attachment to reading and writing that so many of us love? Won’t we lose great written literature, great creative writing?
A: Yes. That deep attachment that some people have to reading and writing will, in most cases, be supplanted by a new appreciation of, and attachment to, listening and speaking–the type of love affair with speech that existed/exists in oral cultures of the past and present. Of course, there will be some individuals who will continue to read and write as a hobby simply because they enjoy it, just as there are some individuals who continue to make their own furniture and churn their own butter even though they don’t have to. And great literature and creative writing? They’ll be replaced by great storytelling, great spoken poetry, and great creative speaking. Remember that creative written language is the child of creative spoken language and that both involve creative thinking and the creative use of language.
Q: In the future, we’ll be using lots of universal visual symbols and icons to convey information. Won’t we have to know how to read and write them? Won’t they actually be a kind of written language?
A: We will definitely continue to use visual symbols and icons as a way to store and retrieve information and will definitely have to know how to draw and interpret them. But we won’t be reading and writing these symbols and icons, and they won’t constitute a written language–even if they’re strung or linked together. Reading and writing are activities that apply only to a written language; however, visual symbols and icons are not written language. A written language needs rules of syntax and semantics that tell how to string its symbols together and how to interpret the meaning of such strings. There is no single set of rules that tells how to combine and interpret universal symbols and icons. The first pictographs of Chinese language may have begun as solitary “universal” symbols, but they became a language only after they were linked according to syntactic and semantic rules. Our ancestors’ cave and rock drawings contained many visual symbols and icons, but we don’t consider their drawings to be a written language. Say I lined up three universal symbols–“woman,” “man,” and “smile”–in some order and asked you tell me the meaning of this sequence. Without being given any rules to follow, you would have no way of knowing who, if anyone, was smiling, or at whom.
Q: You say that written numerals will also disappear. Then how will mathematicians, physicists, and other scientists do theoretical mathematics? Won’t they still have to use numerals in the future?
A: I’m not a mathematician, and, to be honest, I don’t know how theoretical math will be done in the future, but I’m sure that it won’t rely on the written numeral system we use today. Numerals are too complicated and inefficient a way to store, retrieve, and communicate mathematical information. Certain geometries are already employing non-numeral visual-language systems, so this is not a far-fetched idea. I imagine that theoretical math will be entering new conceptual realms in the 21st Century that even today’s mathematicians cannot conceive. And the ways that future mathematicians will decide to visually represent these realms are likewise unknowable today.
Q: Just because you’ve been able to come up with a theory about something that’s possibly going to happen in the future doesn’t mean it’s really going to happen, right?
A: Right. But today’s clues and road signs do all seem to be pointing in the same direction, toward the same conclusion: an oral culture in the electronically-developed countries by 2050.