The Difference Between Talking And Writing And Why It Matters


Monday, 5.38am

Sheffield, U.K.

If you were all alone in the universe with no one to talk to, no one with which to share the beauty of the stars, to laugh with, to touch, what would be your purpose in life? It is other life; it is love, which gives your life meaning. This is harmony. We must discover the joy of each other, the joy of challenge, the joy of growth. – Mitsugi Saotome

I am pretty much at the end of this Listen book project, nearly 60,000 words in the draft to work with.

I’ve also taken ten days off from writing, so I’m coming back to it with a few thoughts, and I need to get those out of the way before moving on.

So, this is part retrospective, part ending, and, in general, inconclusive.

But here goes.

This project has meandered along a little differently from the first project, Getting Started.

I started with a basic structure, a pile of slips of paper, with elements that I thought should go into the draft.

Then, I wrote day by day, picking up a slip and writing and then, some days, following a trail suggested by what came up in that day’s writing.

In that way the draft maps the territory of thought, illuminating spaces as I go along.

There is still uncharted land or water out there but you don’t know what you don’t know until you do.

Now I have a pile of words, the bricks of a structure represented by those slips of paper and I’m not sure what to do next, how to enter the editing process.

And maybe this is because writing has changed and there is something about what we do now that is worth recognizing for what it is.

I recently finished Glut: Mastering information through the ages by Alex Wright and there a few points in there that are relevant for this book project.

The technology we use mediates how we express ourselves

The way you communicate will depend on the technology you use.

Without technology of any kind, what you can do is talk to each other – that’s the essential quality of being human.

Once you start using technology – from the pigments used for cave paintings to what we have today – what you say and how you say it starts to change.

And there have been three great stages in the technology of talking – and by extension, thinking.

The first is writing, which developed from drawing images to represent what we saw to drawing images that represented sounds.

That, it turns out, was an invention of the Phoenicians, from whom we get the concept of the phonetic alphabet, which was enthusiastically developed by the Greeks and led to the way we write today, with characters that represent sounds.

When we wrote in scrolls and books we drew and wrote, with the freedom that comes from being able to wield a pen.

Then came the age of printing and the ascendancy of the printed word.

Images were harder to create in print and so people did what was easy and did everything using words, which became more complex and flowery as they tried to capture word images of what was going on.

And we learned that this was the right way to do things, to write in prose – that was what you got with a classical education and learned arguments were made in print.

And then the Internet and computers came along and we are starting to enter a world where you can use all kinds of media to express yourself, with the freedom of a pen with the mass production of print and the ability to use text and images and audio and video and augmented reality and virtual reality.

But what has all this enabled us to do?

Well, it’s actually brought us closer to being able to talk to each other even if we are far away.

And that is important – it marks a shift from fixed knowledge, fixed in print, to something more dynamic, discovered, co-created, re-created knowledge.

So what we’re increasingly doing is talking to each other through these technologies and that starts to affect how and what we write.

For example, we tend to think of books in that sort of fixed way, as containers of truth.

But, as the amount of information out there increases, no book can capture everything and their function changes from being containers for truth to being containers of useful material culled from the vast mass of stuff around us being produced every day.

And if you want to take things one step further the Internet seems to organise information in much the same way that our brains might do.

Instead of fixed, unchanging information the web has links to information, links that can break and links that build, where you get accretions and build up around some ideas and decay and disuse around others and where the more people think about things the more content they create and, just like a brain laying down chemicals in the brain, we develop a global memory and local communities.

The retrieval system is based around Google and the only problem is that it works on the basis of popularity at the moment – that will probably adapt and change to become more useful over time.

What this means for my projects and the editing process is that the technology I use, this way of writing blog posts to explore a space and then seeing if the content that I create can be encapsulated in a useful book form, is going to mediate the product that emerges and comparing it with existing print based approaches may not be the best way to think about what I’m creating.

Instead, each book is a collection of useful ideas explored with drawings and discussion, presented for the reader’s critical review and considered adoption.

It’s part of the picture, and the test it needs to pass is whether it is useful or not.

Is this useful?

And that brings us to a second line of thinking I’ve discovered in the last ten days.

Much of my writing is about understanding the big picture, the whole system, the requisite variety.

But it turns out that the whole is not necessarily all there is.

There are terms that capture the idea that a part of something can represent the whole of it.

Metonymy is when something is used to represent a related thing, and synecdoche is when a part of something is used to represent the whole of it.

For example, the image above shows the ways in which I have drawn representations of humans in this blog.

Some figures have fewer lines, others more.

Some are static, others dynamic.

None of them are exact representations, but they may be enough to get a point across, to make sense of something.

And that’s the same thing with listening to someone – trying to capture everything they say, record it exactly, does not mean that you’ve understood what they’ve said.

Making sense of things means being able to capture it with a minimum of lines – as much as you need and no more than necessary.

I could spend a lot more time trying to draw realistic figures without creating any more insight than can be found with a stick figure.

And when it comes to listening, the equivalent is capturing the stories people tell you at a level of detail that is sufficient.

All this is imprecise for a reason – the minute you start setting targets for what needs to be done then people focus on hitting the target and miss the point.

When you listen to someone the tools you use are there to help, and the point is for you to see how the person you are talking to sees the world.

In Glut, Wright refers to the work of linguist Walter. J. Ong who looked at the difference between oral and literate cultures – talking to each other versus writing to each other.

When you talk to each other and listen closely what you are doing is building on each other’s thoughts, empathizing with the other’s perspective and diving into the situation and context.

When writing you are stepping back, becoming more analytic and abstract and distancing yourself from the situation to look at the big picture.

And clearly it’s not a choice between one approach and the other.

You have to do both.

And you won’t get better by reading about how to do it.

You need to get some paper and a pen and get busy listening.


Karthik Suresh

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