Tim Brookes is the founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project. Born in England, he now lives in Vermont with an outspoken cat, a fearless rabbit and a lot of wood.
The error of Elon Musk (and Flash Gordon)
In early May, Elon Musk predicted that in five to ten years, spoken language could be obsolete. A Neuralink chip, inserted into the brain, he said, could cure not only brain injuries but the need to talk.
Now, there are many reasons not to trust Elon Musk’s predictions, as the Securities and Exchange Commission keeps pointing out, but I want to propose a different one. I want to bring up Flash Gordon, a comic book and sci-fi hero invented in the 1930s.
If you go back half a century and look at the way Americans imagined the future of communication (in popular culture, at least, and I’m thinking of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Dick Tracy and Star Trek) we imagined a future in which humans will communicate instantly and effortlessly, which is essentially what Musk is touting.
Videophones, wrist televisions, massive two-way screens that would allow us to talk face-to-face with Klingons — everything took place instantly, regardless of distance or conditions (except ion storms). Communication, as pop culture imagined it, was like a spaceship that just kept getting faster and reaching farther into the universe with less expense of time or energy.
Nothing epitomized this view of the future more clearly than the way it depicted writing. Writing, we seem to have believed, was the tedious and cumbersome end of the spectrum of communications, an archaic impediment like a vestigial tail. Nobody on Star Trek ever writes anything, apart from some unexplained electronic clipboard that James T. Kirk gets handed every so often to sign. Pop culture promised us a day when everything would be jet packs and flying cars, and no third-grader would ever get their knuckles rapped again by a nun scowling at their writing.
In fact, that hasn’t turned out to be the case. Almost the opposite, actually.
Consider the telephone. At first glance, it would seem to be a sign that we want to progress beyond writing. It made the telegraph, a device for transmitting pulses that converted into written language, obsolete. But let’s look at what happened to the telephone. Slowly at first, and then with increasing speed, the technology of the device improved, and the network that connected telephones developed until we have finally reached the point where everyone has a phone they can use anywhere, at any time. The era of unimpeded speech has arrived.
But just when we reached that historic point when everyone could finally talk to everyone else, what happened? Across the globe, people started using the speech device for writing. Japanese teenagers created the new medium of keitai shousetsu, novels written on cell phones. Younger generations create Instagram stories and TikToks, and then superimpose words on them. When we post photos on social media, the act is not complete until our friends reply in words. In fact, an entire generation is apparently moving backwards through the history of communications by dreading speaking to people, especially strangers, on their phones, and use text or email instead.
We got to the Flash Gordon moment, and turned around.
It turns out that both Flash Gordon and Elon Musk are wrong, because communication is not necessarily about ease or speed. We need slow and clumsy communication for a couple of reasons.
Years ago, I used to write essays for National Public Radio while I was driving, scrawling down words and phrases when the road was straight, forced by circumstance into a high ratio of thinking to writing. Eventually, for safety’s sake, I bought a dictaphone (remember dictaphones?) and dictated an entire essay on the road, thinking I only needed to transcribe it and I’d be done. But it was awful: it was glib, shallow and contained flaws of logic. It needed that unit of resistance, that compulsion that would make me try and get the best, rather than the most or the quickest, out of my mind.
If we were smarter — smarter than Elon Musk, at least — we would value writing as an act that is intrinsically slow. Even the fast-paced forms of writing that swim in the new sea of digital convergence allow a measure of response time. Say we shoot off an email or a text within two minutes of receiving one — that’s still different from speech, it’s still a longer germination period for thought. If someone asks me a question over the phone and I say nothing for two minutes before answering, they’d think I was seriously weird.
This leads to a second reason not to go with the instant thought-transfer of the brain chip: we often don’t want immediacy of communication.
Again, think about the proliferation of the telephone. Just as telephones were reaching universal saturation, along came a device that in some ways was like a telephone but in others was quite the opposite: the answering machine.
The answering machine was designed to be part of the telephonic act of replying, by allowing people to respond even if they weren’t in when the phone rang. Yet people immediately started to use it in an unanticipated and unintended way: to screen calls. In other words, to not respond.
Just as the technology was developing that might make it possible, the Flash Gordon vision hit a point of diminishing return. The very universality of instant communication triggered the self-protective world-is-too-much-with-us response. Total face-and-voice presence — not necessarily a good thing. In fact, it’s possible that the rapid spread of email and texting, which are not only slower but relatively anonymous, was triggered by people’s desire to have not-instant communication and not-universal access. We can sample them when we want to sample them. What we want in not instant communication, but a controllable lag in communication.
So Musk is wrong, and Flash was wrong, and Kirk and Spock were wrong, and the doomsayers who declare that writing is clumsy and inefficient and doomed, well, they’re wronger than everyone else on that list. People are doing more writing now than at any time in history.
Musk himself proves his own error. He hasn’t implanted a chip in his own brain, but he has gotten as close as possible by tweeting whatever comes into his head — and as a result of a single tweet on May 1, blurting out that Tesla’s stock was overvalued, he wiped $14 billion off the company’s market value. Not exactly the smartest move.