Always Bet on Text

Graydon Hoare offers a rousing hymn to the virtues of text.

Don’t get me wrong, I like me some illustrations, photos, movies and music.

But text wins by a mile. Text is everything. My thoughts on this are quite absolute: text is the most powerful, useful, effective communication technology ever, period.

Text is the oldest and most stable communication technology (assuming we treat speech/signing as natural phenomenon — there are no human societies without it — whereas textual capability has to be transmitted, taught, acquired) and it’s incredibly durable. We can read texts from five thousand years ago, almost the moment they started being produced. It’s (literally) “rock solid” — you can readily inscribe it in granite that will likely outlast the human species.

Text is the most flexible communication technology. Pictures may be worth a thousand words, when there’s a picture to match what you’re trying to say. But let’s hit the random button on wikipedia and pick a sentence, see if you can draw a picture to convey it, mm? Here:

“Human rights are moral principles or norms that describe certain standards of human behaviour, and are regularly protected as legal rights in national and international law.”

Not a chance. Text can convey ideas with a precisely controlled level of ambiguity and precision, implied context and elaborated content, unmatched by anything else. It is not a coincidence that all of literature and poetry, history and philosophy, mathematics, logic, programming and engineering rely on textual encodings for their ideas.