In the likeness and image of script

The defining feature of Western culture is not its logocentrism, its grounding in words and language to think about itself and the world. It is its reliance on the written word, its scriptocentrism.

Not all words are created equal. The written word is unlike any other word. It is a picture which engages our optical sensibility, a thermal inscription on the soft clay of our brain. The written word reduces the world to pictorial maps, synthetic outlines, compressed approximations.

Binary code is the written word pushed to its logical end. The scientific mind cannot emerge in an oral society which hasn’t been acquainted with the optical blessings of script. Some of us can conduct advanced arithmetical calculations in our minds, but that is only possible because of the preexistence of writing on which arithmetic is based. Algorithms make no sense in a purely oral culture.

Writing is so built into our way of seeing the world that it is almost impossible to imagine it being otherwise. There is script almost everywhere we look, inscribed on our clothes and our skin. The oral content which is left for us to handle, such as live conversations, are deeply affected and inflected by the written word. The progress of electronic and digital communication has hijacked the oral and remodelled it in the likeness and image of script, such as voicemails and automatic speech recognition.

We are all products of humanity’s great literate experiment. For much of our species’ history, our ancestors swam in an ocean of sounds, surrounded by echoes and ruled by the anxiety of memory, the fear that words would just take off and vanish. Verba volant.

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