Friday, January 22, 2010

We're Currently in a Golden Age of Literacy, and It's All Downhill from Here

During the past few months, I've slowly started to notice that a lot of the things that I used to enjoy reading about, I know prefer watching videos about instead. For example, I used to enjoy reading reviews about video games on the web, but recently I'll search for video reviews first, and I'll only fall back to text reviews if I can't find any videos. I'm also starting to do the same for educated political commentary and satire. In fact, if there was enough video content on my favourite topics, I might prefer watching videos to web browsing entirely.

The logical conclusion of all this is that this signals the end of literacy as we know it. Sure, we might now complain about the poor literacy skills of our kids, we decry their unintelligible text messages, and we bemoan their incoherent essays, but ten years from now, we're going to look back on 2010 as a golden age of literacy. It will be considered the pinnacle of literacy in the world--people all over the world actually had to type words in order to find information! People were required to read information and instructions! Children preferred sending messages to each other in the form of text! In between the television age of the 1980s and the Internet video age of the 2020s, the period around 2010 will be considered a renaissance of literacy where people actually had to know how to read and write text to survive in the world!

In ten to twenty years, there will no longer be a need to read and write information; everyone will use video. Instead of web pages, there will be videos. Instead of SMS and tweets, kids will send videos to each other. Instead of textbooks, there will be slides and accompanying video. Society will complain about how kids can't form well-thought out text any more, preferring stream-of-consciousness videos. Kids might now even write text any more but simply make videos, edit it together somehow, and then dump the text out. Similar to how people ignore people talking to themselves in the street (they assume that the person is using a hands-free cellphone) and ignore people checking e-mail during conversations, I think in the future, people will simply get used to the idea of people quietly making short video messages to others in the middle of a meeting (of course, it will seem extremely disruptive to us, but I imagine it's something that future generations will simply get used to).

There are a few weaknesses of video--because it is a linear medium, it's hard to scan through it quickly, so there will still be some text that people will read. This text will mostly be in the form of "headlines," "search results," and "transcripts." When we want to find videos to watch, we'll tell our computer what videos we want to watch (through a webcam, of course!), and the computer will show various video clips with meaningful text headings that we can scan through quickly to find what we want. And every video will have an accompanying transcript (in both text and screencap form) that people can use to quickly jump around to the parts of videos that they're interested in.

I see two impediments to this video future:
  1. patents
  2. speech recognition (specifically video transcription) technology

The main barrier to this future right now are patents on video technology. These patents inhibit standardization (so no two companies can agree on a video e-mail standard or a webcam standard, for example), which prevents a network effect from starting around video technology. The cost and licensing difficulty of patents also inhibit innovation and entrepreneurship in this area. New companies and researchers don't want to develop new ideas in this space because it's too complicated and too expensive to license technology in this area, so the potential rewards (with Internet technology, most of this consumer technology has zero revenue) aren't profitable. I believe this patent issue will work itself out once patents expire or once storage and bandwidth becomes so cheap that we'll just use raw video for everything. The day after a useful video patent expires, a standard for video e-mail will be made (or perhaps there will be some sort of proprietary Facebook thing that comes out before then that everyone will use--unfortunately, it will be a bit of a kludge getting it to work with cellphones and other devices).

The other barrier is the lack of accurate video transcription technology. As I mentioned before, video is a linear medium, so we need a way to search it and to scan through it. The minimum technology we need for this to be practical is automatic video transcription. Currently, speech recognition isn't quite at the point where this is possible, but I imagine this technology will be ready by 2020, perhaps even by 2015 (there might be patent issues on this technology that will delay its widespread use for a few more years).

It's sort of weird knowing that despite all the complaints that people have about literacy in 2010, this is actually the best it's going to get. I'm not sure about the ultimate implications and ramifications of the future age of video on society, but I think it's inevitable, so we might as well start preparing for it now. I suppose other people have also been evangelizing that video is the future, so my musings are perhaps not the most original, but they never tell you that the trade-off is the end of literacy.