The Cave of The Forgotten Word
by Ernie Schenck
You’re in a cave. Somewhere in North America. Even with the light from your headlamp, it’s dark. Crazy, sick dark. You’re down here because not long ago, you got an e-mail from a kid who claimed he found something. Something down here in the cave. They looked strange he said. Like some kind of language. Only in pictures.
You begin to think he was pulling your leg. The whole thing, a dumb hoax.
And then you turn a corner and there they are. Right where the kid said they would be. A whole wall full of them. Images. Drawings. Symbols. So the stories are true, you think. There really was a lost civilization. A long time ago. When people gave up words for pictures, drawings and images.
Remnants of a lost way of communicating? Yes. Only this is 2207. And these aren’t hieroglyphics. They’re ads. Things that were supposed to get people to buy stuff once upon a time. Only, look at this. They’re all the same. Just pictures. Funny pictures. With little logos down in the right corner.
Welcome to The Cave of The Forgotten Word.
Look around. It’s all here. Every purely visual idea that was ever done because people allegedly didn’t have time to read anymore. Because everyone had gone add. Because words and sentences and paragraphs take time, patience and mental energy and no one had any back in 2007. Because language was deemed superfluous.
How did it come to this? When did we decide that Photoshop was the only way we could really connect with people? That visual storytelling was the only storytelling. That words were messy, sticky little energy suckers that demanded way too much of our overcrowded, overtaxed, overMTVed minds.
If you listen to neuroscientist, Marcel Just, it’s a wonder language has even made it this far. “It’s an accident that our culture invented writing and reading,” says Just. “It’s a cultural artifact we’ve developed, but it’s not in the nature of man. Two hundred years from now, we won’t need this medium to transmit knowledge.” According to Just, human beings evolved with a keenly refined visual sense. It’s why we can detect even the slightest movement in an otherwise near-static landscape. Whereas writing and reading is by comparison a pretty difficult skill that takes years to learn and perfect.
Everywhere you look, there are signs we might well be in the end times of the written word. Why e-mail somebody when you can text? Oh, silly me, I meant txt.
With all due respect to J.K. Rowling, teachers tell us that Harry Potter didn’t so much bring kids back to reading, as much as he reinforced for us just how sadly unappealing the written word had become for kids, when video games and the Internet were so much shinier.
In her book, Endangered Minds, psychologist Jane M. Healey writes that the lure of the visual in today’s media is proving too much for the increasingly antiquated pleasures of the written word. “Fast-paced lifestyles, coupled with heavy media diets of visual immediacy, beget brains misfitted to traditional modes of academic learning.”
So maybe that’s where we’re headed. Maybe guys like me don’t get it. Maybe the tsunami of visually-driven, wordless print ads that seem to be in every book I look at now, are really the harbingers of a profound shift in how we communicate brands. Maybe the cavemen got it right the first time. Maybe the Egyptians were wiser than we are with all those ankhs and jackals and royal barges sailing across the sky. Pictures and symbols. Symbols and pictures.
And while the neuroscientist might be right, that we human beings are more naturally wired to communicate visually, if words shrivel up and fall we’ll all be the poorer for it. Think I’m delusional? Maybe. But chew on this for a while:
Norwegian Cruise Lines. “It’s different out here.” The Goodby years. The good years. A beautiful, gorgeous, heartachingly fanciful, yet somehow spiritual, campaign and all the kudos in the world to Steve Luker. Art direction to die for. But what would any of it have been without Steve Simpson. Someone to slip beneath the skin of the brand and take us down into its soul. Someone to say this:
“We propose a holiday for turtles
And hammocks for turtles
And Broadway shows for turtles
And crème brulee for turtles
And aerobics for turtles
And tuxedos and gowns for turtles
And a cocktail hour for turtles
And utter unaccustomed unturtlelike nakedness for turtles
Every turtle every once in a while needs to slip out of its shell.”
I hope there will always be time for language. I hope in our desperate scramble to communicate faster we never forget how to communicate deeper. I hope we never entirely consecrate ourselves to pictures. I hope there will never be a Cave of The Forgotten Word. CA