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Robert Bringhurst says somewhere: “Letters are things, not pictures of things.” Letters are therefore free from conceptual associations, which leaves them open to stand in for any sound without being contaminated, manipulated, or warped by an idea that might otherwise have accreted to it.

And like letterforms, words are simultaneously specific and open in very particular ways — and often in exactly the opposite way that pictures or pictograms are. Letters and words encourage metaphorical thinking, whereas pictures limit or even stifle it.

Walter Ong talks about what is called “secondary orality:” driven by widespread electronic media such as radio, television, telephones, recordings, computers, etc, our typographic, literate society has shifted towards some of the key features of primary oral communication: participatory, communal, formulaic, and with a focus on the present moment.

Also, it’s crucial to remember that “secondary orality” differs dramatically from primary orality in its “self-consciously informal style, since typographic folk believe that oral exchange should normally be informal ([whereas] oral folk believe it should normally be formal)…” (Ong: Orality & Literacy, p.136).

So, from this point of view, an iMessage exchange and, say, a CD of a live jazz concert actually bear many surprising similarities. And despite their strong “oral” characteristics, neither the iMessage convo nor the live CD (not to mention a podcast about analphabetic symbols!) could have existed without the centuries of alphabet/script culture, followed by several more centuries of dramatic formalization of literacy and the explosion of print culture in the last 500ish years, with its “domestication” of sound…

All of this is to say: we are living in an era so dominated by secondary orality that it’s virtually impossible for most of us to understand why words are so overwhelmingly better for communication than emoji are — not to mention how difficult it is to grasp just how meaningless we’d find modern emoji without the preceding three or four millennia of alphabetic writing.

And so we end up like a person who stops washing their hands because they haven’t gotten sick in a years — or who doesn’t see the point of vaccines because their utility, efficacy, and ubiquity has faded so utterly into the background, and are therefore susceptible to the absurd idea that vaccines are irrelevant or even deleterious.

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