The Value of Words – From Hieroglyphs to Emoticons
When Gutenberg invented the printing press he revolutionized the written word by democratizing the medium. To understand the magnitude of what he did, try to imagine something like a worldwide network of information that anyone could access – oh wait, that would be the Internet. Of course when Gutenberg invented his press there was ninety-five percent illiteracy in the world so it really didn’t open up the markets he had hoped for, but it did set the stage for the eventual devaluation of words. Now before the Gutester came along books were only afforded to the realm of the very wealthy – it took rooms full of monkish scribes daily toiling to craft the tomes of the times by hand. So, as an author, if you had a printing run of, say, seven you were on the best sellers list.
Now your average plague pestered villager had not the least inkling of what a book even looked like so, if they did chance upon a misplaced volume it would most likely end up as a portal impediment rather than a conveyance for illumination or entertainment – said villager not comprehending that said doorstop was actually worth more than his village and the six surrounding villages combined.
Moving forward along the timeline we can see words steadily losing their retail value in relation to advancements in transmission. As example, one need look no further than the almost complete decimation of the once vaulted Fourth Estate as a profession of wordsmiths. Yes, the Internet, while on the one hand allowing me instantaneous research on varying subjects and, praise be to God, spellcheck as I write this essay, has created the hundred monkeys in the room with typewriters scenario – only nobody’s coming up with Shakespeare. We have gotten to the point where there is too much noise and not enough signal. Everything a rapid-fire 140 character at a time brain swill avalanche of nonsense about the latest kitten video making the rounds. Well, I say neuter all kitten videos!
It has gotten to the point where the medium is directing the message. You try thumb typing on one of these micro keyboards for any length of character over a hundred and forty and see if your opposables don’t give up the ghost. Our language is becoming abbreviated and symbolized in an attempt to convey the most with the least, because it is too hard to write it out. Emoticons are now used prodigiously to convey emotion in otherwise sterile text – a sort of shorthand for the expressively challenged. We can easily surmise a future where our technology interfaces become radically different from our current old-school methods to the point where it becomes too cumbersome to write out words on our tablets and we end up using nothing but symbols – an image is worth a thousand words.
Don’t buy any word futures.
Wait a minute! This all reminds me of something. Could it be? Let’s move backwards on this timeline of words – back before Gutenberg – to a time when words held so much value that only kings could afford them. At that time the medium was stone and you needed a bunch of chiselers just to get your message out – usually on the side of some monument you just had erected on the backs of slaves in your honor – it’s good to be king. Because stone was a difficult medium, symbols were developed to convey complex thoughts in a sort of shorthand – you try writing something out with perfect syntax on a stone tablet and see how soon you start inventing little smiley faces to get the point across. Just to clarify, what we have here is a bunch of hipsters, because the scribes were the hipster class of their generation/epoch – what with their ironic facial hair and funky hats – walking around imputing things onto tablets.
And so, hieroglyphics/emoticons were born and born again and they have been confounding mankind ever since with their meaning. We’ve come full circle.
In the final analysis we have to ask ourselves: As words lose their retail value are they also losing their mystical value – their power to compel? It was said that – this was way way back in the day – if you could speak the true name of God you would be instantly enlightened. How much would that word be worth to you?