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Saturday, February 2, 2013

Our Relationship with the Written Word

Written word is one of the earliest forms of phenomenological design, a means to affect the presence of another person within the mind of the reader. It's a powerful and emotional phenomenon when executed by a skilled author, weaving engaging narratives and endearing, rich characters all from the simple context of a common written language.

Techniques in written word have been evolving since the advent of written language and technologies for the distribution of written word have matured over the ages to reach the mass market, but written word has always maintained a single fundamental feature: that the reader's copy of the material is static, non-interactive despite its faculty for delivering emotional depth. Even a written letter has a static nature, despite its purpose in demanding a response.

Modern written word, however, can be profoundly dynamic: the instant message and the text message are profoundly unique experiences in human history, which allow a live human interaction without the presence of anything that looks or sounds remotely like a person. As much as we associate our texting with whomever we're texting to, we are literally and physically interacting with the text itself. When I'm busy or distracted I often don't even picture the person on the other end.

What's it mean to have a live, human-to-human interaction with a mechanical intermediate? As much as we've all felt that heart-achey feeling after finishing a great book, the phenomenon we've experienced with that static text typically ends up enriching the live conversations we have with others in later social settings. I don't feel jealous when someone's got one finger still keeping their page while they talk to me; I'm more curious (and nostalgic, at this point) than anything else.

But when someone at the table has their phone out (even just to take notes!) I can't get a bizarre sense of jealousy out of my mind; not jealousy for the possession, but jealousy for that person's attention. I can't help recognizing that device as this little person that's sucking up all of his or her attention, in a way I'd never see a pad of paper and a pen.

Just thinking. It's a nice justification to bring a pen and paper to meetings instead of doing absolutely everything on the iPad.

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