Thursday, June 15, 2023

Why Does Everything Have to Be A F*cking Video? (The Death of Text)

Fahrenheit 451 is here.

In Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, he posits a dystopian future where the government controls the minds of the people by outlawing books and print in general.  In its place are comic books without text, pictograms, and lots and lots of interactive videos.  The future is already here.

While no one is proposing converting the fire department into a book-burning enterprise (outside of Florida and Texas, that is) we have morphed, in recent times, to a video culture.   You go online to read a "posting" on social media, and it links to a Tick-Tock, YouTube, or Twitter video that spends ten minutes with some daffy blonde reading what amounts to a paragraph of text.

It is infuriating.

It is also time-wasting. These Tick-Tockers are doing it for imaginary Internet "clout" points, I guess, but it just is not an efficient way of communication.  To begin with, it uses a lot of bandwidth to send very little information.  Often you have to wait for these videos to load, and if you are on a sketchy connection, they may not load at all.  A paragraph of text in ASCII might take a few hundred bytes.  In HTML, it might take a few hundred Kilobytes.  In Video, it may take Megabytes - all to communicate the same bit of information.

And no, Stephanie and her top-knot staring into her cell phone reading the text doesn't make it more compelling or interesting  - or provide any additional information than the text being read.

Even more infuriating, on Tick-Tock, the narrative appears as captioning, so while Stephanie blathers on, you end up reading the text on the screen or at least trying to.  Again, with limited bandwidth, Tick-Tock often pixellates to the point where the captioning is illegible.

And you can't get away from this, either.  Tick-Tock, YouTube, and Twitter videos (among others - Instagram?) are embedded in other sites.  So you want to research something on the Internet, you are forced to watch some short video and waste time, because it doesn't have the information you wanted, and now you've added "clout" to the lout who posted the useless video, simply by clicking on it.

Of course, video is only part of the problem. I noted before I was trying to locate parts for my friend's THULE awning and I found the installation instructions as well as repair instructions online - as a series of IKEA-like pictograms.   It makes sense, I guess, as both are Nordic companies.  And the idea isn't necessarily to eschew text, but to accommodate the tower of Babel that is Europe (although, let's face it  - everyone in Europe speaks English or at least professes to).  Just looking at these diagrams, I felt I was in Ray Bradbury's novel.

A novel which today would be a graphic novel (and already is, ironically).  I have nothing against graphic novels, only that I fail to understand the appeal.  They are comic books and not great literature.  When you remove text from a book and replace it with images, it isn't the same thing - and it isn't better, it is worse.

When you read a book - or any printed matter - you create it in your own mind. You have this narrative voice you create - for each book - that is based on how the author phrases the text.  And it isn't easy to create this "voice" in your readers' heads,  which is why good authors command high prices.

It is funny, too, that because of this, no two people read the same book the same way - each has their own version of events assembled in their mind.  Mark has a bit of dyslexia and sometimes he mis-reads a sentence with hilarious results.  I sometimes wonder what he actually ends up "reading" - is the romance novel he is looking at translate into a murder-mystery in his brain?  I doubt it is that dramatic a paradigm-shift, though.

Increasingly, text is dying.  No one writes anymore and people cannot tell the difference between the bland and useless text produced by ChatGTP and real thought and commentary produced by humans.  That's because people don't bother reading either.  They see a wall of text and just give up and look for the "TL;DR" - "Too Long; Didn't Read" synopsis.   And yea, that is an Internet thing.

I am not sure this trend will ever reverse, either.  I am just commenting on it.  I suspect, moving forward, we will see more and more information being presented as video, not as the written word. Already things like handwriting are no longer being taught in school, and most kids can't even type, other than with their thumbs on their phone.  No wonder they turn to ChatGTP to write their term papers for them!

Something will be lost in this transition, I think.  The problem is - at least for me - is that when I look for information online, increasingly I am being steered toward some useless video where a guy or gal stares into the camera and drones on and on - never getting to the point, or if they had one, it wasn't useful information for me.

I should note that it isn't just video - audio is just as bad.  It started with "books on tape" which my Mother hated, being a librarian and running a bookstore.  My less intelligent friends all raved about it - no more of that pesky reading! But the problem with audio books is that narrative voice - that is uniquely yours -, is taken away from you and replaced by a voice chosen by the publisher.  Two people (or a thousand or a million) hear an audio book (or a thousand or a million) and they all hear the same voice.  What's more, when I read a book, sometimes, I put it down to reflect on what I just read, or I go back a hundred pages to read the original introduction of that character or recapture some part of the plot line I had missed as being relevant.  Moreover, I like to stop and look up things online sometimes - odd phrases or references to historical figures or apparatus - was it real, or just something made-up by the author?  Audio books don't allow you to do anything.

Podcasts are even worse - and I don't know how many "car crash videos" I have watched where the person in the car is listening to a "podcast" where someone drones on and on about something.  Why would you want to do this?  It is like listening to Rush Limbaugh - letting someone else program your brain.  Audio and Video present ideas without reflection and slip things under the radar before you can react.  In the CNN "Trump Town Hall" meeting, Trump made some offhand comment about "Hunter Biden's Laptop" and the Biden family being "corrupt" - and instead of challenging this, the interviewer just nodded - subtly indicating to the audience that there was a "there" there, when in fact, nothing had been found on Hunter Biden's laptop and the Bidens are the poorest Oligarchs in the world for some reason.

The weirdest thing about "Podcasts" is that people don't just listen to them, they actually watch themI guess Howard Stern started this trend - people sitting in a "studio" with big headsets and elaborate microphones, blathering on, the associated equipment making them seem more important than they actually are.  What is to be gained by watching radio?  What is to be gained by watching a podcast?

Recently, this whole trend has been raised to a new level.  In a weird echo to the rise of the Nazi party and Bradbury's book, book-burning is now in vogue.  People are scared of ideas, and scared of books.  They believe that a book will turn their children gay or trans or - worse yet - into Democrats.

So Fahrenheit 451 is already here. No one reads anymore, other than snarky comments on Twitter, which by its very design is anti-intellectual, even before Musk took it over. We are "reading" Graphic novels which are long on pictures and short on text. We assemble our IKEA Swergögeförgen bookcase with barrel nuts, after "reading" the pictogram instructions.  We research online by watching videos and get most of our news of the world through video feeds.  Even the few remaining newspapers and magazines are all online and have a video accompanying each article, where a "journalist" sans journal basically reads the text of the article.  Since no one reads, no one writes, and pesky writing assignments are passed-off to "AI."

The problem with video as source material is that it can be edited and faked even more easily than text.  And since you can't pause it and think about what is being said, your brain just gulps down "information" like an Irqai being waterboarded.  You are being force-fed information.

Maybe this is the brave new world, but frankly, I want no part of it.  Because a culture or a society that loses its literature no longer is a culture or society.  The written word is one of the defining characteristics of civilization.  Maybe some proto-humans who dropped down from the trees or lived in caves had a primitive society with an oral culture tradition - language being really the first indication of a civilization.  But the written word is really the only way to insure that oral tradition is retained, long past the lives of those who created it.

Something important is being lost here - perhaps our civilization itself.  And no, I am not being dramatic.  You know, I have only a decade or two left on this planet, and increasingly, I am OK with that.

UPDATE:  The nice thing about print is that it is so easy to edit it to correct typographical errors and add some links, as I have done here.