We talk a lot about progress, but what interests me are the ways we are regressing as a culture. You are rediscovering the ancient every day, and you might not even know it. Here are three significant areas in contemporary culture where we’re simply doing things the way they used to be done.
Images Instead of Words
When the ancient people of the Middle East were scrawling pictures on cave walls or pressing symbols into clay tablets, they were striving for written language. Cuneiform and hieroglyphics (pictures, basically) did the trick back then. Then came alphabets and the written word. Granted, our alphabets are collections of images — pictures we’ve assigned meaning to. But progress brought us to a point where we don’t think of them as such. They aren’t pictures to us. They’re letters. They’re words. They mean certain things when we combine them in particular ways. For thousands of years now, long form writing has been the dominant way to communicate (scrolls, books, encyclopedias, and even early internet content).
But in the last century or so, we’ve taken a turn back for the visual. Photographs and motion pictures came first. We’ve only become more savvy at producing these images in high quality and in a more instant manner. Nowadays when you’re texting a friend, you may use some written language, but our communication is accented by images — emojis, GIFs, etc. Some demographics, including adolescent subculture, saturate their communication with more images than others. On platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, the image is primary — if anything is written it is secondary
It’s possible for many to communicate without any “words” at all, but only images — a GIF that expresses a feeling, a combination of emojis that communicates a range of thought. We’ve discovered (or, re-discovered) what the ancients already knew — two or three well-crafted, purposeful images can communicate a paragraph’s worth of content.
And yes, there is even an emoji Bible.
Listen Instead of Watch
It may appear to be a contradiction to the last point, but while imagery seems to dominate our communication, we are rediscovering listening for our entertainment. In the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, radio shows dominated the entertainment landscape. Families gathered around radios, not televisions, in the living room. Moms and dads consumed their news from the shows broadcast over the airwaves. Before NBC was must-see t.v., they were started by RCA — the Radio Corporation of American.
Despite television’s 90 year heyday, there is a rediscovery of spoken content in our media consumption habits.
According to industry research, 112 million Americans have listened to a podcast (that’s more than watched the Super Bowl in 2017). 42 million Americans listen to a podcast every week, which is 15% of the American population. By contrast, only 3% of Americans go to the movies every week. Half of these weekly listeners consume about five podcasts per week, meaning that there are 20 million people who consume listen-based content weekly. That’s more people than the very popular Big Bang Theory (about 5 million viewers/week) and even the most-watched show of 2017, Game of Thrones (about 16 million viewers/week). Podcast consumption continues to grow, too, by 10-12% a year.
Like our great-grandparents, we are favoring listening over watching these days, with no signs of slowing down.
Questions Instead of Answers
Western civilization has been motivated by finding answers. It’s true that this motivation is always prompted by a great question:
- Why did that apple fall from the tree?
- Is there a northwest passage?
- !hat happens during communion to the bread and wine?
These are phenomenal questions, but we have historically only celebrated those who found answers. Isaac Newton helped define gravity. Lewis and Clark made it from Saint Louis to the Pacific Ocean. The Catholic Church developed the doctrine of transubstantiation.
But before western thinkers answered all our questions, we used to simply celebrate the inquiry. The Eastern Orthodox Church, for example, found no value in articulating what happens to the Eucharist, but found greater value in the mystery of why it happened. History, even ancient history, has always had an appetite for discovery. But there once was a contentment in the exploration, the mystery, and the unknown. Certainty has not always been the goal.
I am hearing more and more of this kind of language in contemporary times, particularly in religious settings. Answering the question has become a secondary pursuit to asking good questions. Mystery, not conclusions, is viewed as beautiful and useful. Preachers say “I don’t know” more often than they used to, and in doing so are more intellectually honest. They are no longer considered theological experts, but rather shepherds in guiding their congregations through a maze of meaningful dialogue and exploration.
Time is undefeated. These trends may prove to be short-lived. Our reversion to symbols in communication may be brief, because we’ll be able to broadcast holograms to one another eventually. We may get tired of all the questions and swing back to an obsession with formulas that lead to answers. We may tire of the podcasts and get back to consuming more and more video. But for now, we’re going backwards in some ways, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.
What do you think?