For our November 2022 issue of Hemispheric News, Jason prescribed me the following topic to discuss:
How do you view the expression of thoughts and ideas through…?
- Written text
I absolutely love this topic, as it aligns with concepts and themes in the discipline of media ecology, which forms the major theoretical basis for my research project about tech podcasting. I will avoid being too academic and using jargon or direct quotes here, however the one axiom that I must mention is Marshall McLuhan’s ‘the medium is the message’ from his 1964 text Understanding Media. McLuhan urges us not to be seduced by shiny content or think that it’s the most important thing; instead, we should appreciate that any given medium (or technology) influences and shapes the content that is delivered by or through it. Even light is a medium, whose availability or scarcity can influence our ability to see content around us. ‘The medium is the message’ underlies Jason’s topic idea, as the thoughts delivered as messages will take different shapes, depending on how they are communicated.
I will give my own thoughts on each medium under headings in the order that Jason suggested them. Please keep in mind that you will be digesting these thoughts through only one of the media that are listed; how does reading my thoughts in written form differ from the others, and how you interpret them if you viewed or heard them otherwise? For example, how did my use of italics for ‘written’ in this paragraph make you read that word?
Also, please note that I am communicating these thoughts as someone who can hear and see with very little difficulty, so my views represent the privileged majority. People who live with disabilities or have alternative sensory experiences may have very different views and should not be disregarded or forgotten.
Voice is the most essential means of outward human communication. Before we can read, write or interpret other images, we emerge with a voice that conveys our feelings to others. Before we are even born, we hear and begin to recognise sounds and human voices beyond the womb.
As we grow, we start to find and refine our voice—its sound, tone, confidence and our ability to use spoken language to construct thoughts and sentences. Even when we refer to writing or other forms of media, we refer to an author’s, artist’s or director’s ‘voice’ as the core component that represents their view or style. We feel moved by songs and the voice of a singer—written lyrics that are brought to life.
Unless one records a voice, it is instantaneous and ephemeral. It shakes the air, hits our eardrums and is then lost (only kept as a memory fragment that will likely degrade over time). Furthermore, spoken language is beautifully imperfect. When we engage in conversation with others, we make mistakes, leave pauses, insert ‘um’ and ‘ah’ filler and also perform speech repair. When we speak and listen to others, we are generally forgiving and our brains filter out a range of disruptions (both by our interlocutor and from the outside world) to interpret various complex messages. We can also apologise for thoughts that we’ve spoken aloud, which might have offended others or been incorrect. We can retract statements and learn from what we’ve said and heard.
What’s more, when we use our voice to convey our thoughts, we put more of actual ourselves into each statement. Every word is framed by inflection, tone, volume and emphasis, and is accompanied by visual cues such as facial expressions and hand movements. This is enhanced and preserved by audio media: listeners can hear exactly how we felt at the time that we were recorded. Although we can selectively include and omit our thoughts while speaking, it can also be more obvious when we are lying or don’t know something.
2. Written Text
To me, written text is a mixed bag, depending on whether it is handwritten, typed or transcribed. To start simply, however, the problem with text is also the thing that makes it so positive and powerful: its standardisation and permanence leads humans to interpret it as truth.
When we read a written statement on a page or screen, concrete and unchanging. It is difficult (and sometimes impossible) to remove, retract or edit a written statement once it has been read by others, particularly in our hyperconnected digital world. We interpret online services as virtual and immaterial, but they are in fact physical and material; they seem fleeting, but all data must be recorded somewhere. Should you be careful about what thoughts you publish? Text remains.
When we write by hand (rather than type), we slow down and give ourselves the chance to better articulate our thoughts. If using a pencil, we can use an eraser; if using a pen, we can use white-out. Either way, we seek to correct our thoughts in a way that is not possible with a live, spoken voice. That being said, our evidence of our covered-up errors are still visible on the page.
Typing is seen as somewhat more distant and cold than handwriting, and although I do enjoy handwriting, I feel much more efficient and productive while typing. I don’t seek to use the word ‘productive’ in an economic sense; here I mean that my fingers (while touch-typing) pour words onto the digital page in a manner that almost follows the speed of my spoken voice. It feels in time with my own thinking, which enables me to produce more (hence, ‘productive’). Typing allows a flurry of crazy thoughts to flow out, but also facilitates editing that completely removes mistakes made along the way. When people read the results of your typing, your highly-refined thoughts are much more likely to be interpreted as official—as truth.
This connects well to the idea of standardisation of spelling and grammar in language. Although I love correctness and consistency in writing, I must remind myself that it is an illusion, and one that can threaten our own capacity for free thought and diversity of thought. As the modern (and now postmodern world) has developed, off the back of the printing press, widespread dictionaries, reference materials, written journalism and now myriad online sources, the idea of global communication has taken hold. For example, in the English-speaking world, we know that there are actually many different Englishes. The English that you hear Andrew and I speaking on the podcast is somewhat different from the English that Jason speaks, both in our accents and use of varied terms and colloquialisms. When we speak on the podcast, we communicate our thoughts openly and accept what each other says (with jokes thrown in, of course). If the podcast were a written text first, like a shared story or essay with three authors all contributing, you would probably find our thoughts communicated in ways that are far more distracting.
colour vs. color organise vs. organize the 23rd of December vs. December the 23rd
We say things like these all the time, and while you may notice them as listeners, you generally accept them and move on. In written language, inconsistencies such as these can be maddening. Comments and tracked changes often ensue. Written text in books and online, while powerful in their reach and ability to communicate long, complex thoughts, have unfairly facilitated an impossible goal for perfection. When we make a mistake while speaking, we laugh and move on; when we make a spelling mistake in a tweet, on a corporate slide or in an academic report, that’s embarrassing.
In writing, we take our thoughts perhaps too seriously. We try to be correct and standardised; we shun the differences in spoken language that make us interesting.
It is perhaps clichéd to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I think there really is an element of truth to this. When we take a photo, produce a painting or interpret someone else’s image, there are many possibilities. Yes, we can interpret lyrics, speeches or written texts differently from what their creators intended, but when we view an image, there is a massive potential for each of us to focus on different elements included or omitted from the frame. Full stops can often restrict us to the meaning prescribed by the author
When we take a photo, we’re selecting a moment to capture and what is or isn’t in the frame. I would also argue that unless we are engaging in a deliberate photoshoot (which may include a predetermined narrative or aim) photos don’t represent a thought, rather we move through our environment and take more notice of our surroundings, actively thinking about the elements in front of us. The act of taking a photo isn’t a thought, rather it is indicative of a thought process—a flurry of feelings and senses in the moment of composition. It is a response to everything that surrounds you.
All of this being said, like written language, photos are often interpreted as truth. This can be problematic as omission and chosen perspective can influence the thoughts of those viewing the image (think photoshopping, propaganda or not realising that the image that you’re viewing at was generated by artificial intelligence, with its own preloaded software biases).
Family photos also come to form thoughts and memories. What you initially experienced as a horrible day may solidify in your mind as a positive thought or memory when the present photographer asked you to smile in a group or with family.
Photos can replace the very thoughts that you had.
Despite the relatively passive act of viewing, movies, TV shows and music videos can be very thought-provoking (for better or worse) and involve a great deal of thinking and planning. Whereas taking photos can represent a thinking process, I believe that videos often replace thinking and feeling these days.
Although it’s fantastic to be able to record our memories in high resolution, we often lean on video in such a way that we don’t really experience the moment. I’m sure that you’ve seen it before: people taking videos of their event, meal or the concert in front of them, often mindlessly without actually feeling or interpreting the moment.
When we construct a video thoughtfully, it can powerfully present a narrative or set of ideas over time in a condensed format. We can give our thoughts life through video and sound in a way that is even more involving than any other media.
How many people are actually doing this though? Do you consider what you record or just react to the moment? Do you finish every video that you watch, or leave after three seconds if it doesn’t capture your interest?
I’ll be honest: this article was written in haste to meet the deadline for our Hemispheric News. Some things may be obvious and some things may sound dumb. I didn’t have a chance to edit anything. Yay busy work and time management!
I’ve always been somewhat obsessed with refining my thoughts before putting them out into the world, whether they’ve been delivered through my own voice, in writing or in photos and videos.
What I’ve learnt but am yet to internalise is that no matter how much you edit, there is always room for interpretation or misunderstanding. Yes, the medium is the message but that final message will not be the same for everyone.
When we deliver our thoughts, we should learn to embrace that which is imperfect. When you write, photograph or record something, lean into your human voice. Be in the present and learn to accept your mistakes.
This post was originally written in November 2022 for Hemispheric News; subscribe at the Patreon site One Prime Plus to receive this monthly newsletter and other benefits that are linked to the Hemispheric Views podcast.