“Not only do I refuse to speak in symbols—emoji, bitmoji, likes, reactions, whatever—I also judge people who do. Is this fair? With AI image generators like Dall-E Mini going mainstream, it’ll only get easier to communicate in images. I’m afraid we’re losing something essential, like actually having something to say.”
Your question assumes that there is a clear boundary between written languages and images, which, I’m sorry to point out, isn’t true. Many writing systems, including cuneiform and Mandarin Chinese, originated with pictograms. While it may be difficult at present to express complex ideas in emoji (excluding the successes of some enterprising artists who have, for example, translated Moby-Dick and the Bible into the vernacular), there’s nothing to stop these Unicode symbols from evolving into a full-blown language. I could also point out, as many linguists have, that modern languages like French were dismissed as “artificial” in their early days, or that all the hand-wringing about textspeak, reactions, and GIFs echoes earlier anxieties that some new development—the printing press, writing itself—was going to make humanity regress into a herd of gurgling simians. Even Nabokov, whose titanic vocabulary contained words such as pavonine (peacock-like), callipygian (having beautiful buttocks), and logodaedaly (the arbitrary or capricious coining of words), once argued that English would benefit from a typographical symbol for the smile.
Even if GIFs and emoji are objects of misplaced scorn, I don’t think you’re entirely wrong in fearing that our relationship to language is changing. Dall-E Mini, which swallows up words and spits out pictures, is itself a metaphor for how visual media is replacing text as our culture’s dominant form of expression. This shift started long before the internet, of course, but images clearly thrive in digital spaces. The picture’s capacity to convey “a thousand words” is a palpable advantage at a moment when an article beyond that length tends to receive a TL;DR. Compared to the plodding linearity of language, images have what Marshall McLuhan (another genius of neologisms) called “allatonceness,” the quality of communicating multiple complex ideas and emotions in an instant. Like many forms of electronic media, images call on multiple senses and can convey disparate concepts within a single frame—a quality that has arguably reached its zenith in Dall-E’s surrealist mashups.
If more people prefer to communicate in images, it’s not because these individuals lack “something to say,” as you put it. Quite the opposite, it is because visuals are a more immediate and effective means of articulating the fully embodied human experience, especially in the rapid-fire exigencies of the digital era. “At the high speeds of electronic communication,” McLuhan wrote, the old skills of literacy and the written word “are no longer possible; they are just too slow to be relevant or effective.” That McLuhan’s insight has survived for more than half a century in the dusty medium of a book suggests there are important exceptions to this rule. And despite the widespread belief that language and images are facing off in a Manichaean battle, I’m not convinced that words themselves are the problem. People are still eager as ever for verbal output when it’s embodied in a human voice, as evidenced by the explosion of podcasts over the past decade or so. The popularity of voice texts among Gen Z (a phenomenon documented in many articles read only by middle-aged people) similarly indicates that plain old words, when housed in the warmth of vocal acoustics, are more compelling than the spectrum of GIFs and emoji.
Perhaps the question is not why images are more appealing than language, but why writing and reading—be it long-form articles, text messages, or Twitter threads—have come to inspire so much dread. Everyone knows that online reading habits have devolved into a slog of skimming, scanning, and power-browsing, a problem that has generated such a mammoth corpus of op-eds and think pieces that one need only glance at it to corroborate this truth. The specter of postliteracy has led many people to conclude that writing has entered its senescence and, until it finally expires, is best employed in its most minimal, functional forms: texting generic acronyms in lieu of more idiosyncratic expressions or deploying Gmail’s auto replies instead of responding in one’s own written voice. Publications have tried to weather the ravages of the attention economy by shortening articles and streamlining language, creating “content” that is as efficient and frictionless as possible—the logic being, presumably, that an off-putting meal will be more readily digested if it’s pureed into liquid and slurped through a straw. In fact, Wordsmith, for all your anxiety that image generators like Dall-E will replace the written word, logophiles have more to fear from language algorithms like LaMDA and GPT-3, which are poised to produce much of this content in the future and eradicate the last traces of human eccentricity that still—occasionally, miraculously—find their way into published prose.
The tech blogger Ben Dickson has argued that GPT-3’s ability to fool readers into believing its output was human-written isn’t proof of its sophistication, but evidence of our impoverished expectations. “As we have come to rely on algorithms to curate our content, our own writing has become optimized for those algorithms,” he writes. If images increasingly feel like promising alternatives to writing, perhaps that’s a sign of how far we’ve strayed from the electric possibilities of the written word, and how thoroughly we’ve become inured to mechanical prose that lacks the quirks of an active mind and the vitality of a writer’s voice. Many people believe, as you do, Wordsmith, that abstaining from images is a kind of ascetic virtue that will save the written word from extinction. In truth, writing’s lone hope for redemption lies in the hands of writers who are willing to fully exploit its possibilities and rediscover those emotive and embodied dimensions that we seek in all forms of expression.
McLuhan once wrote that “clear prose indicates the absence of thought,” an insight that seems to prophesy the mindless lucidity of algorithmic output and the transactional formality of auto replies. Some 40 years after his death, McLuhan’s prose still grips the reader with its zigzag logic, restless vacillations between high and low registers, and flashes of aphoristic wisdom, all of which enjoin us to participate, with all of our senses, in the creation of meaning. It’s no coincidence that the man who coined the phrase “the medium is the message” understood that language, one of our oldest technologies, is not merely a translucent container for ideas but a vital part of the author’s communicative content. When a writer does manage to capture that immediacy, and when a reader encounters—or is struck by—language infused with the full breadth of human consciousness, the effect is every bit as urgent as today’s most arresting visual media, and makes the static emoji smile appear, by comparison, like so much cheap punctuation.
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