Show don't tell

I suspect we do a better job teaching children than adults, and much of that has to do with trying harder to explain things visually, in the most intuitive, simple way possible, to children. As we grow older, we start stacking on level after level of abstraction, losing more and more students along the way.

Even language is an abstraction, and while I enjoy writing, the ratio that a picture is worth a thousand words is a cliche that describes a very real ratio. As someone I chatted with noted this week, we have an actual way of quantifying the relative value of video versus images versus words: the CPMs that advertisers are willing to pay for video ads versus display ads versus text ads. My early years at Hulu, it was unbelievable how high and rock solid our video ad rates were compared to other ad formats on the market. All the recent pivots to video are surprising only for how late they're coming for many; trying to run a business off of text and display ad revenues is life with poverty unit economics.

This is not to say video is always better. As a format, it's harder for many to master, and like many, I often roll my eyes when sent a link to a video without a transcript. It's not because I don't believe video is a more accessible, democratic, and moving medium. It's just that a lot of instructional video would be just as information rich and more quickly scanned for its key messages if transcribed into text. Many a media site will struggle with pivoting to video unless they understand the format at the same level they do text and photos.

Video at its best is much more than a camera pointed at a person speaking. Now, granted, some speakers are immensely gifted orators, and so a TED talk may have more impact when watched rather than read. However, the average MOOC video, to take one example, is dull beyond words.

Video as a medium still has enormous potential, especially for education. In the trough of disillusion for MOOCs, I expect we'll see something rise from the ashes that finally unlocks video's potential as a communications medium. We've done a solid job with that format as a narrative storytelling device, and that's partially because the revenue in Hollywood supports an immense talent development infrastructure. Education might be able to provide that level of financial incentive if global distribution through the internet allows for aggregation of larger scale audiences.

One of the core challenges of education, as with disciplines like fitness and diet, is motivation. That is another area where video shines. David Foster Wallace warned of the addictive nature of video in Infinite Jest, and the fact that the average American still watches something like four to five hours of TV a day, despite the wealth of alternatives in this age, is an astonishing testament to the enduring pull of filmed entertainment.

As with anything, the seductive nature of moving images is merely a tool, inheriting its positive or negative valence from its uses. When it comes to teaching abstract concepts, I prefer good visuals over clear text almost every time if given the choice. Our brains are just wired for visual input in a way they aren't for abstractions like language, which explains many phenomenon, like why memory champions translate numbers and alphabet characters into images, and why they remember long sequences like digits of pi by placing such images into memory palaces, essentially visual hard drives.

One could try to explain the principles of potential and kinetic energy, for example, with a series of mathematical formulas, in a long essay. Or one could watch the following video.

Here's the video of the full routine by Joann Bourgeois, performed in San Sebastian. Just gorgeous.

This is what I wish Cirque du Soleil would be every time someone drags me to one of their shows.

The decline of the phone call

The distaste for telephony is especially acute among Millennials, who have come of age in a world of AIM and texting, then gchat and iMessage, but it’s hardly limited to young people. When asked, people with a distaste for phone calls argue that they are presumptuous and intrusive, especially given alternative methods of contact that don’t make unbidden demands for someone’s undivided attention. In response, some have diagnosed a kind of telephoniphobia among this set. When even initiating phone calls is a problem—and even innocuous ones, like phoning the local Thai place to order takeout—then anxiety rather than habit may be to blame: When asynchronous, textual media like email or WhatsApp allow you to intricately craft every exchange, the improvisational nature of ordinary, live conversation can feel like an unfamiliar burden. Those in power sometimes think that this unease is a defect in need of remediation, while those supposedly afflicted by it say they are actually just fine, thanks very much.
 
But when it comes to taking phone calls and not making them, nobody seems to have admitted that using the telephone today is a different material experience than it was 20 or 30 (or 50) years ago, not just a different social experience. That’s not just because our phones have also become fancy two-way pagers with keyboards, but also because they’ve become much crappier phones. It’s no wonder that a bad version of telephony would be far less desirable than a good one. And the telephone used to be truly great, partly because of the situation of its use, and partly because of the nature of the apparatus we used to refer to as the “telephone”—especially the handset.
 
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But now that more than half of American adults under 35 use mobile phones as their only phones, the intrinsic unreliability of the cellular network has become internalized as a property of telephony. Even if you might have a landline on your office desk, the cellular infrastructure has conditioned us to think of phone calls as fundamentally unpredictable affairs. Of course, why single out phones? IP-based communications like IM and iMessage are subject to the same signal and routing issues as voice, after all. But because those services are asynchronous, a slow or failed message feels like less of a failure—you can just regroup and try again. When you combine the seemingly haphazard reliability of a voice call with the sense of urgency or gravity that would recommend a phone call instead of a Slack DM or an email, the risk of failure amplifies the anxiety of unfamiliarity. Telephone calls now exude untrustworthiness from their very infrastructure.
 

Great piece by Ian Bogost on how the decline of the phone call is not just a result of the rise of alternative forms of communication but also because phones today are not that great for making phone calls. I saw Aziz Ansari do a great bit on what it would be like to travel back in time with an iPhone and show it to someone who'd never seen a mobile phone before. I can't find the sketch online but it came after his bit on Grindr. I'll paraphrase:

“Whoa, what is that?”
 
“It's an iPhone!”
 
“That looks amazing! So, is it really great at making phone calls?”
 
“Actually, no, it actually is terrible for that. But if you want to know [something really dirty related to Grindr, you can fill in the blank], this will do the trick perfectly!”
 

Bogost notes that the mobile part of the modern phone is part of the problem.

When the PSTN was first made digital, home and office phones were used in predictable environments: a bedroom, a kitchen, an office. In these circumstances, telephony became a private affair cut off from the rest of the environment. You’d close the door or move into the hallway to conduct a phone call, not only for the quiet but also for the privacy. Even in public, phones were situated out-of-the-way, whether in enclosed phone booths or tucked away onto walls in the back of a diner or bar, where noise could be minimized.
 
Today, of course, we can and do carry our phones with us everywhere. And when we try to use them, we’re far more likely to be situated in an environment that is not compatible with the voice band—coffee shops, restaurants, city streets, and so forth. Background noise tends to be low-frequency, and, when it’s present, the higher frequencies that Monson showed are more important than we thought in any circumstance become particularly important. But because digital sampling makes those frequencies unavailable, we tend not to be able to hear clearly. Add digital signal loss from low or wavering wireless signals, and the situation gets even worse. Not only are phone calls unstable, but even when they connect and stay connected in a technical sense, you still can’t hear well enough to feel connected in a social one. By their very nature, mobile phones make telephony seem unreliable.
 

How Bogost writes about old telephone handsets, the way they fit into the crook of your neck, the way they warmed up the longer your conversation went, brought me back to those days of my youth when an hour long phone call with a friend or someone you were crushing on was like an audio version of one of Robert Barrett's love letters to Elizabeth Browning. 

The death of voicemail

Most people I know and correspond with already have given up voicemail for good, but I do still get the occasional voicemail, enough so that it's useful to formally debate whether it's time to just shun voicemail for good.  It's hard to find something that you need to communicate via voicemail that isn't more effectively transmitted another way (SMS, email, some other form of mobile message like WhatsApp, Twitter DM, Snapchat, to pick a few popular ones).

By the way, let me tell you kids, it was hard to send a selfie back in the day. Selfies really meant something. First you had to take a self-portrait with an SLR mounted on a tripod, then you had to take a completed roll of film and get it processed, then you had to copy the photo to paper on a copy machine, then you had to fax that image from work when your coworkers weren't around.  From the time you began that process to the time the image finally was received on the other end, you weren't feeling too Carlos Dangerous anymore.