By Kalevi Rantanen
The evaluation power of TRIZ is demonstrated by assessing claims that talking computers and non-text visual technologies will replace writing and reading. According to some futurists, written text will disappear by 2050. Seven evaluation criteria based on TRIZ are used for evaluation of the forecast. The results are counterintuitive.
TRIZ, forecast, foresight, prediction, future
The Futurist devoted a special section of its spring 2007 issue to the question of, are we approaching the "End of the Written Word?" The section was dedicated to the problem of literacy. Are we moving to a post-literate era? "By the year 2050 … all writing and reading will be replaced by speech and multi-sensory content," wrote William Crossman, one of the section's contributors.2 He has spoken for years of voice-in-voice-out (VIVO) computers that, he claims, will displace written text. "This will be a positive development," says Crossman. Peter Wagschal agrees that "there will be a time when illiterates can earn doctorates."11
The idea that text and reading will come obsolete has been popular long time, almost from the invention of electronic communication. In 1899 H.G. Wells predicted in his novel Sleeper Wakes, how in the year 2100 the "telephone, kinematograph and phonograph had replaced newspaper, book, schoolmaster, and letter."12
There is data that supports the claim that written word is gradually disappearing. In the U.S. especially, young people are reading less. In 1984, 31 percent of surveyed 17-year olds read "almost every day" for enjoyment; in 2004 only 22 percent did, according to the National Assessment of Education.10
The Futurist's analysis of the possible end of the written word also produced the following data:
Conversely, voice and video communication is exploding:
Both sides of the debate seem to agree that literacy is fighting a losing battle. But is it? There are two reasons to check the forecast: 1) one feature of good science is that most obvious truths are regularly checked – intuition is not enough – and 2) the forecast of the future of reading has immediate and important practical consequences.
The stakes are high. If there is no need for reading and writing skills in the future, efforts to strengthen traditional education is a waste of time and money. But if schools teach only voice, video and image communication, and the foresight of the end of reading is incorrect, large problems will occur.
TRIZ provides forecasting tools; it also helps to evaluate predictions and decide what is likely to happen in the long run. The forecast can be evaluated by seven questions formed with the aid of TRIZ.7
Consider exclusively oral communication versus written text.
Do the harmful features disappear?
Yes, "we can drive a car or make a salad while listening," says Crossman says.5 The necessity of looking disappears.
Are the useful features retained? Will new benefits appear?
Certainly new benefits appear. Voices express emotions that can make a message stronger. By the same token, the useful features of text are retained, too.
Imagine searching a newspaper or book, or simply reading to see whether there is something interesting. A reader looks for headlines, otherwise highlighted important words and sentences, and then selects the needed, useful pieces of information. Imagine now that there are only voice and pictures. A "reader" can ask the smart voice book to go to the beginning of a particular chapter or to the middle of the story. Vocal commands could be convenient if the reader knows exactly where to go. If not, finding the right place may prove frustrating. Text is more convenient for general searching (e.g., quickly finding the important text in a page of newspaper). To get the same general idea from a voice, all of the text must be listened to.
Another advantage of text is that it supports memory. If a person listens to a sentence, she may forget the first words after hearing the last. If a voice message contains numbers, dates, names or other detailed information that needs to be understood exactly, it is often necessary to listen to it two or three times, and then write down the most important content.
"Although text and VIVOs also do the same general job – store and retrieve information – text has no advantage that will withstand the onslaught of the four ‘engines' driving us into the VIVO age," writes Crossman.5 Those four engines are:
Will new harmful features appear?
Yes. For example, voice and video add emotions, which can be both useful and harmful.
Conference papers and scientific magazine articles are often double-blind reviewed. Knowledge of the voice, outer appearance and even a writer's name can lead to undesirable biases.
Another problem of voice is obtrusiveness. In Emotional Design, author Donald A. Norman describes a typical situation: "I am always amused at business meetings by the sneaky, but skillful, use of text messaging. I watch otherwise serious, staid executives glance furtively down at they laps as to read screens and type responses, all the while pretending to be listening to the meeting."6
Does the system become more complex?
No. In the long run, voice and video communication will be as simple to use as text.
Is the inherent, primary contradiction resolved?
The contradiction of the text communication follows: We should have text to get information quickly and to avoid undesirable emotions. We should not have text to use our eyes for other purposes and to avoid struggle for learning to read and write.
The inherent contradiction is not resolved by pure oral communication. There is no alternative for all the benefits of reading and writing.
Are idle resources used?
New oral resources are used as since computers learn to listen and speak. Important visual resources are lost, however, if exclusively oral communication is required.
Other criteria – does the claim comply with the pattern of increasing interactions?
One of the patterns of evolution, the increase of interactions, is a good check of this forecast. The pattern of evolution of human communication shows that new actions have complemented old ones, not displaced them. Written text, telephone, email, video conference and other innovations have added to oral communication. The pattern implies that in the future, too, communication will be richer and broader, not narrower. There will be more interactions, not less.
One of the patterns of evolution, the increase of interactions, is a good check of this forecast. The pattern of evolution of human communication shows that new actions have complemented the old, not displaced them. Written text, telephone, email, video conference and other innovations have added to oral communication. The pattern implies that in the future, too, communication will be richer and broader, not narrower. There will be more interactions, not less.
According to an old story, French painter said, "From today painting is dead," upon seeing a Daguerreotype for the first time. There is no evidence that Delaroche said these words, but the story reflects the fact that many artists painting miniature portraits were worried about losing their market due to photography. But painting continues to flourish, peacefully coexisting with photography.
Table 1 summarizes the forecast evaluation.
|Table 1: Evaluation of Forecasted End of Reading7|
|Criteria||Evaluated Solution: Communication Without Text||Is the Evaluated Solution Good?|
|Do the harmful features disappear?||Yes||Yes|
|Are the useful features retained? Will new benefits appear?||No||Yes|
|Will new harmful features appear?||Yes||No|
|Does the system become more complex?||No||No|
|Is the inherent, primary contradiction resolved?||No||Yes|
|Are idle, easily available, earlier ignored resources used?||Yes||Yes|
|Other criteria – does the claim comply with the pattern of increasing interactions?||No||Yes|
Four answers did not match the criteria of a good solution. Consequently, communication without text did not pass the test.
What about the earlier introduced empirical evidence?
The forecast that oral communication will displace written communication is wrong. This is not a situation of either/or, but of both/and. Since written text and vocal communication have complementary advantages and disadvantages, the most simple – and obvious – solution for the future is multimedia communication.
Kalevi Rantanen worked in Finnish youth organizations, primarily on problems of education, in the 1970s. From 1979-1985, he studied in the former USSR and earned his M.Sc in mechanical engineering and was introduced to TRIZ. Rantanen worked in Finnish industry until 1991, while also a TRIZ trainer. Since 1991, he has been an independent entrepreneur and has concentrated on science and technology journalism since 2002. Contact Kalevi Rantanen at kalevi.rantanen (at) kolumbus.fi.