It's time to break through the text barrier: Voice-operated-computer advocate William Crossman responds to Sheldon Pacotti's "Are We Doomed Yet?"

Published April 16, 2003 7:30PM (EDT)

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In "Are We Doomed Yet?" Sheldon Pacotti critiqued my view that talking computers will replace reading, writing, and text/written language itself by 2050 and that the electronically developed countries will become oral cultures. One main concern of Pacotti's is this: If most people won't be able to read and write by mid-21st century, won't the power elite then be able to reserve written language for themselves and use it to keep information from the general population? And won't this create a society where a small number of people wield power and control over everybody else?

My answer is that this is the situation we have today, and it is the situation we have had since the creation of written language 10,000 years ago. The great majority of the world's population is still being deprived of literacy skills because those in power continue to view literacy as a privilege rather than a right. In the 21st century, however, the power elites themselves will choose speech and VIVOs [voice-in, voice-out talking computers] over text and text-driven computers to access information and to attempt to control its flow.

On the positive side, I see VIVOs opening up specific potential opportunities for the have-nots of the world: opportunities for accessing information that was formerly accessible only to the print-literate, opportunities for instantaneous translation of speech from one language to another, and opportunities for people with disabilities to access information without having to read and write it. It all depends, of course, on whether the have-nots will be able to gain access to talking computers.

I, like many people I know, dream of -- and, through our actions, try to bring about -- a world where freedom, equality, justice and peace reign. It is not this dream that I'm questioning; I'm questioning whether written language is the best technology for accessing the information that we'll need to make this dream come true.

Using written language, I am able to communicate with only 20 percent of the world's people -- the 20 percent that is literate -- not nearly enough people to realize this dream. Using a VIVO, I will be able to communicate with everyone, nonliterate or literate, with disabilities or without, who has access to a VIVO. Though it will take more than mere communicating to achieve freedom, equality, justice and peace, being able to break through the text barrier and communicate with greater numbers of people isn't a bad place to start.

In Chapter 1 of my forthcoming book, "VIVO: The Coming Age of Talking Computers," I say that I admire and respect everyone who is struggling to acquire literacy skills, and I urge everyone to go to school, stay in school, and learn to read and write. For the next decade or so, the ability to write and read will still be necessary to access information that will be available mainly in the form of text. After that, literacy skills will become less and less important as talking computers supersede the written word. For more on these ideas, go here.

-- William Crossman

By Salon Staff

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