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Computers Tipped to Replace Writing

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: The following is re-printed from the Infotech Weekly, Wellington, New Zealand, March 20, 2000.

WRITTEN text will be obsolete by 2050, superseded by "talking computers", a visiting futurist says.

American academic and philosopher William Crossman was in Wellington last week to outline his theory, which asserts written language is a transitory technology that masks people's preference for oral interaction.He is the founder and director of the CompSpeak 2050 Institute for the study of talking computers and oral culture in Oakland, California. Mr. Crossman says text should be put in its context as a technology that must inevitably be replaced by new technologies. 'Returning to an oral culture will not be a step backwards,' he says. 'Written language served as a bridge between the first "golden age" of oral culture and the second, because it was essential to construct a way to store information. He says reading and writing have reached their limits, and talking computers can perform their functions more effectively. While limitations of technology mean Mr Crossman's vision is not feasible this year, or even in five years time, he says the right technology will inevitably be developed.

'Speaking to computers will be the same as holding a conversation. When you speak, you edit out irrelevant pieces of information and reject multiple potential conversations to focus on the interaction at hand,' Mr Crossman says. In the future, you will ask your computer a question and it will provide an answer, removing the need to scan pages of information.

"I think we're going to develop new skills. Young people are doing that already:

The ability to hear more quickly, to speak more quickly. Just think of video games or rap records."

People are "hard-wired" for speaking, he says. "We are always seeking to access information using speech, listening and visually, in terms of graphics."

Four factors will drive this second "oral age", Mr Crossman says: The large numbers of illiterate people around the world, the way young people embrace oral and multimedia technologies, the inevitable march of technology, and our biological preference for speech-based communication.

"We've had this artificial technology, text, which kids don't just start learning."

Mr Crossman says young children are rejecting written language and should not have to "spend all those years in grammar-rule boot camp". Rather than learning the "three Rs", children will be taught the "four Cs" - critical thinking, creative thinking, "CompSpeak" and calculators, he says.

"Why read Shakespeare when you can watch a video, listen to it on an audio cassette or get a CD-Rom?"Some people will still love reading and writing, he says, but these pastimes will be a hobby not a tool essential for life.

Mr Crossman acknowledges some people find his ideas controversial and shocking.

"It's so interesting that people think of written language as one of the necessities of life. It's right up there with sleep and food and water."

Writing might help some people organize their thinking, he says. "But the great majority of the world's population, about 80 per cent, are not literate."

Oral cultures develop thinking just as sophisticated as that in literate cultures, he says. Companies making voice recognition software do not always understand its potential, Mr Crossman says, seeing voice capabilities as merely another input port in a personal computer. Voice recognition is "the other half of the Internet", because it will mean everyone can surf the Web.

"This marvellous Internet is only accessible to 20 per cent of the world's population.

"The right to access the information of our world is a human right."

LIFE LESSONS

There was a little boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, to hammer a nail in the back fence. The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Then it gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence. Finally the day came when the boy didn't lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, "You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won't matter how many times you say I'm sorry, the wound is still there. A verbal wound is as bad as a physical one."

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