readers … could use their time for the things that were important to them: grimly ploughing through American box sets, failing their children and betraying the Jungian injunction to raise human consciousness. – Richard Ayoade (Ayoade on Ayoade)
What I have to say here is probably obvious to any first year media studies student but it’s dawning on me for the first time.
Which is perhaps the first point that should be made.
What do you think it means to be literate?
Too many people assume that it means that you should be able to read.
If you are reading this you must be literate.
But, there’s a rider or, technically, a few more words.
Literacy is the ability to read and write.
But, of course, you protest, it means that – what’s your point?
It is this.
For the first time in history people like you and me have the ability to work in a variety of media forms without having to scale barriers.
Not that long ago if you wanted to write and publish a book you needed a publisher and a contract.
Radio needed a studio and permission to access airwaves.
TV required money and equipment and actors.
Programming needed expensive computers and software licenses.
All things out of the reach of ordinary people.
And yes, I’m including operating computers as part of media because they are really quite similar.
We are now all able to write, record, film and program.
But we don’t.
And that is because most of us are actually functionally illiterate when it comes to these media.
It doesn’t seem that way – we can all turn on computers and work on spreadsheets, watch Netflix and listen to the radio.
That’s the equivalent of being able to read.
But we can’t write.
And this is something that technology developers, in particular, seem unable to understand.
They think that the perfect solution is something that does it all for you.
A voice controlled AI, for example, that does what you tell it to do is seen as the pinnacle of technological achievement.
It’s all very one sided – and simply thinks of people as “users”.
In American terms think of this like a form of gun control, where the gun is fired for you by people you pay as long as you keep paying but you aren’t allowed to have one yourself.
Would you want to live in a technological ecosystem that does the equivalent of banning your right to have your own firearm?
In intellectual terms that’s what you’re signing up to when you don’t make the effort to write, record, film and program in this day and age.
What I’ve learned is that when you do start trying to learn about these things a few things stand out.
Some time back I listened to three speakers.
Two read out long and complex speeches and the third opted for an off the cuff, straight from the heart speech.
The audience loved the third speaker, because the speech felt authentic, one that simply expressed what the speaker felt.
The speaker was, however, also an aspiring actor.
So what is it that made the difference – was it the speaker’s heart or something else?
Spoiler alert – it was something else.
First, never make the mistake of addressing an “audience”.
Your audience is actually just one person.
One person like you – reading this right now.
Anything you create is eventually processed by one person – the text, audio, video and user interface make their way into the mind of an individual and make a difference.
So, address your content to one person – and if they understand what you have to say then you’re doing ok.
But you have to say it in a way that works with the media they’re using.
With text you can write quite a lot, you can ramble and use big words – because the reader can go back and look at things again.
If they don’t understand a particularly complex and unnecessarily elongated semantic construction that appears to be created purely to elaborate on the point the writer is making they can always go back and read it again if they can be bothered to do so.
With audio, on the other hand, the words fly past at literally the speed of sound.
So, it’s hard for your listener to go back over what they’ve heard – it’s gone, things have moved on.
Which is why when you’re recording something you should use small words, short words, easy words – words that can be heard and understood.
You also have to spend more time explaining the context of what is going on – where you are, what you’re doing and what’s happening now.
That speaker who everyone liked was liked because he was the only one who could be understood at the speed of sound.
And that made all the difference – nothing to do with heart.
On paper, you write so that the audience’s brain can process your content.
With audio you speak so that they can hear you clearly.
With film, according to Alexander Mackendrick in his book, On film-making, you need to think about what the audience sees before any talking happens at all.
He talks of film as being pre-verbal – how the context and background and the feelings portrayed by the actors are all seen and processed before any words sink in.
Light is faster than sound, after all, and you see everything faster than the words can get to you.
So you create film for the eye – and words build on what is seen already.
These media require different approaches – different skills – and it takes time to become literate in them – just like it takes time to learn a new language.
So, if radio is for the ear, film is for the eye and text is for the brain, what is programming for?
It’s probably for the brain as well – but instead of being passive it’s interactive.
When you write what you write stays where it is – it forms itself in ink of paper or pixels on a screen and then sits there – looking at you as you look back at it.
With programming, the text comes alive – fed through a machine as a set of instructions that makes things happen.
It makes it possible for you and me to write and record and film.
And now that we can maybe we should try and listen to Jung.
Although I plan to to carry on with the box set I put to one side while I ignored the children and wrote this piece for you.