Duck Walks Into A Bar

Spoiler alert. This isn’t about ducks.

There is an epic conflict underway between two language systems; it’s a competition (or war) that’s been underway for decades. While written text provides us with vast libraries of information, as well as a rhetorical structure for contemplation, it isn’t the only way to record language.

Context records capture, then play back media streams composed of sights, sounds, inflections, and the visual cuing found in everyday conversation. While the distinction is fairly simple, it often comes off as complex. Here’s a simple way to understand the difference. A text-based transcription of a conversation is presented across a string of written letters. A contextual transcript of the same conversation deals in the captured sights and sounds of the conversation as it originated — in context.

Text verses context. 1 And it’s a big deal.

Both language systems operate from within separate ecologies. The world of written text deals in alpha-numeric symbols, a zone where i’s are dotted and t’s crossed. These symbols require contemplative deciphering and at some point a reader must further assess what the letters and words intend to say. This is good. Written language lends to high contemplative process.

Context records 2, by comparison, have the advantage of easy transmission. When you hear someone speaking, or observe a series of visual cues like a shrug or smirk, you aren’t required to decipher abstract symbols. Context records look and sound the way we communicate in the wild. Without the encumbrance of additional decoding we’re able to raise a quick perception. The only drawback is the risk of a quick misunderstanding, made all the more likely by the lowered threshold of contemplation required for context records. Context doesn’t construct mind-space in a manner similar to text.

The modern brain has steadily reshaped itself to serve (or prefer) the easy narrative streams of sight and sound. It’s not just a perceptual competition, the war between text and context ruptured the marketplace for books. Initially, market watchers framed the breach in terms of reading on paper verses an ebook screen. As it turns out, the reality has more to do with the frequency, or patten of reading.

Text records on a display screen are not the same as context records on a display screen. Same screen. Rival language forms. Rival brain practice.

For many of us, our brain has transformed to match the short snippets of contemplation required for 30-second commercials or 140-word tweets. This is the dark reality behind short attention spans and zero-linear reasoning skills. Written words and long form narratives have been undermined by the plasticity and practice of our brains.

We are fully capable of holding two oppositional thoughts in our heads at the same time, but most of us would admit, we don’t chase deep assessments because our perceptions and curiosities tire quickly. Thanks to an increasing abandonment of the written word, many of us are losing the analytical staying power to weigh ideas and determine merit. We adopt the first preference that pops into our headspace, whether it’s a reasoned conclusion or not.

How does today’s writer fight this war? How do you hold a reader’s attention past 140-alphanumeric symbols? It’s not easy. Writers of lesser skill are often forced to cheap tricks in their effort to capture the modern nomadic mind. Capture? Chico Marx once said, “Why a duck?” Well … if it takes a duck to hold a reader’s brain in relative proximity to the thesis, then by all means: hire a duck. (See the Marxist perspective on the diminishment of text)

We don’t want to muddle this commentary with a distracting reference to electronic gaming and the pending flood of VR technology, but the conflict between text and context is about to reach apocalyptic levels. While there’s magic in VR simulation and stylized reality, there is also a maximum threat from synthetic reality and associated synthetic contemplation. Uncanny Valley, the masterwork from Federico Heller and 3DAR, horrifically showcases the prospect for synthesized contemplation.

Text = contemplation. Context = reduced contemplation. Synthesized context = twitch contemplation (blasting bad guys and/or naughty robots).

In no place is the text-context battle better seen than in religious practice. Judeo-Christian tradition is deeply vested in the written word. As a matter of fact, the history of written language is uniquely reflected in the development of the Bible. From cuneiform and scrolls to paper pages and printing machines, the Bible curates the longest running literary tradition in history. More significantly, Bible reading is at the core of religious practice.

What happens when Christians stop reading? Without contemplative reference to biblical text, how is their faith informed? TV evangelists? Superstition? Anecdotal fiction or self-help? Many critics of modern Christianity suggest that’s precisely what happened. With diminished Bible reading, Christianity staggers forward without a map. Reading is foundational to faith, but it is a seriously tough act of contemplation for today’s brain.

Which brings us to Sunday school. Our educational challenge, whether in a public or parochial setting, straddles the fault line between text and context. Short of a nuclear blast or EMP-event, the written word will continue to be a receding horizon.

Is there a hybridized narrative form that blends text with context? Why not? We’ve seen blended narrative in early childhood development from Children’s Television Workshop and Sesame Street. Are there other examples? 3

In exploring this question, we’ve created a 360-surround exhibit that taps into the strengths of both language forms. This curriculum test employs both text and context technology with timed visual cues and a narrator. To fully assess the result of this blending, expand the video to full-screen resolution by clicking the expand icon on the video-controller bar.

As you PLAY the clip, CLICK and DRAG inside the screen left and right. There are four viewing stages synched to the narrative. Pick the viewing stage that suits your narrative preference.

As you watch the video, repeat aloud the words being spoken by the narrator. This is important.



Recommended option: repeat the exercise for each of the four viewing stages.


1 Breakaway Literacy, Chapter 1 The Roach of the World, by Floyd Wray, iBooks

Breakaway Literacy, Chapter 5, Context Records, by Floyd Wray, iBooks

3 Breakaway Literacy: Chapter 8, Next Year’s Words, by Floyd Wray, iBooks