The End of the Written Word?

“When day comes, we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade?” These words, spoken two weeks after the historic Capitol riot in Washington, D.C., by the then-still-largely-unknown poet and Harvard University graduate Amanda Gorman, inaugurated a new era in American politics and international affairs, striking a chord with at least half of the American public. After four years of staccato and fortissimo, “The Hill We Climb,” the poem Ms. Gorman recited that day, quickly attained the same virality that has long been reserved for sardonic memes and clips of pets doing silly things. But why?

Part of the poem’s appeal is obvious: it was addressed to a deeply divided nation, which despite its division, struggled to come to terms with the seismic shift that Inauguration Day constituted. For some, finding light in never-ending shade meant continuity; for others, it meant rupture. But regardless of how light was perceived, everyone longed for it. The poem’s less obvious appeal consists in the fact that it was not merely read, as is common in high-brow literary circles—often leaving its words archaic, stale and impotent—but that it was performed. Ms. Gorman brought to life the written word, leveraging the sounds and rhythms of language, and delivering her message—which was aimed not at voters but at the souls of Americans and the world—with near medical skill and precision.

It is this second dimension, the poem’s less obvious appeal, that invites reflection about the state of public life in the United States and beyond, and that should lead those of us whose profession is communication to wonder: is the time ripe for a creative rebirth?

One characteristic of public life most of us are likely to agree on is that it has become omnipresent and never-ending. As much as we are consuming social media, social media is consuming us. We are glued to screens; we live at the pace of our feeds. We are driven by fleeting praise of or contempt for our digital selves; and, in consequence, we retreat into digital bubbles that are most closely aligned with our values and identities. Public life, therefore, no longer is about building a world, but about navigating the world; it is a struggle over influence in a vast network, designed not for dialogue, but soliloquy.

There are two forces that preserve public life thus configured: technology and time. Technology extends both the breadth and depth of this digital network and increasingly blurs, if not erodes, the boundaries between physical and virtual reality. In fact, we are gradually transitioning from screens to headsets, from two- to three-dimensional content, entering an era of mixed reality, where the meaning of physical and virtual becomes fluid. With public life reduced to a struggle over influence, to being alone together, in the words of MIT professor Sherry Turkle, time is no longer an asset, but a liability. Every resting minute is a lost opportunity in the struggle over influence both at the personal and professional level; the popular mantra of living in the moment attests to that view of time.

This evolution, or perhaps devolution, of reality and the combined pressures of technology and time make for a conceptual earthquake, a profound, if not unprecedented, change to the way we live our lives. At the onset of this development, the communications industry responded with upskilling and upscaling. The former meant becoming digitally savvy; the latter meant building the capacity to be anywhere at any time in just an instant. And, initially, this worked well. Clients came out ahead in the struggle over influence, capitalizing on vast digital networks, able to reach stakeholders with precision and ease. But one problem that quickly became apparent is that everyone was doing it. And when everyone can be anywhere in an instant, then who should stakeholders pay attention to?

Over the past four years especially, but not uniquely, we have seen what the resulting attention deficit has led to: a transformation of truth from empirically verifiable claims to subjective absolutes. In that sense, the buzzword of our time should not be infodemic; with public life reduced to a struggle over influence, technology and time devalue information: the former, because communication becomes white noise; and the latter, because the acquisition cost of information exceeds the returns on time invested. Combined, the devolution of public life and truth is an existential threat to civilization itself.

How can the communications industry retain its influence in this context? One answer is to reinvent communication itself. With public life, technology and time stacked against the industry, a near-term strategy is to let go of the written word—press releases, op-eds, blog posts and so forth—and embrace audiovisual formats. These formats still have a competitive advantage that lets them stand out from the white noise, capable not only of reaching, but impacting stakeholders. But with mixed reality gradually taking hold, experiential communication is the way forward, complementing the ongoing humanization of brands. In the long run, neither strategy can reinvigorate public life and restore the individual agency that technology and time are undermining, but both strategies promise to re-capture public attention, which has far-reaching civilizational as well as significant commercial benefits. Animating the written word encourages us to listen and again build a world together—in the same way Ms. Gorman’s recital did. “For there is always light.”