Video is not a better text

In all the discussion of whether the iPad will kill off special-purpose eBook readers, one assumption seems to be going unchallenged on both sides. In balancing the iPad’s multimedia capabilities against the kindle’s light weight and long battery life, the assumption is that adding video and audio to a reading experience adds value; the question is then reduced to whether the additional costs of the device are justified.

I’m not so sure. On the surface, video certainly appears to offer the same content that text does, and do it in a more engaging way. However, difficult as it may be to admit for a technologist, I believe video gives with one hand and takes away with the other.

Consider the way you read a text with intellectually challenging content.  You can speed up, slow down, re-play and pause effortlessly and elegantly compared to the effort of doing the same with a video player. Re-playing an idea on a video player isn’t just inelegant, it’s so inelegant that I imagine it’s almost never done, even when the consumer would benefit from considering the idea again. Indeed, far from making it easy to go back, video pushes relentlessly forward, force-feeding the next sentence with utter disregard as to whether you are finished with the last.

Some may retort that this argument smacks of intellectual elitism, and that video content makes material accessible to the less educated. I wonder whether such people are confusing functional illiteracy (mercifully rare, even if not rare enough) with learned helplessness. Facility with reading develops with practice, and suggesting that reading is too tough for large proportions of the population is defeatism. I’m not even sure if it’s true in the narrowest sense that it’s easier for people to understand video than text (though it may be easier to consume without understanding): I can read a newspaper in French with some success, but give me the same news report in video form and I’m quickly drowned in unfamiliar language.

It’s not just on the consumption side. Composing a text is (to me at least) a calm, intellectual and rewarding process, where care can be taken over structure and thoughts can be put down, picked up and re-polished until they represent the absolute limit of the author’s capabilities. No matter how video recording and editing technology improves, a video blog post still needs to be recorded in one or at most a small number of takes, and considerable effort must go just into making the delivery flow naturally, at the expense of actual content. I’ve paused several times during the writing of this post to re-think, even though I started writing with a fairly clear idea of what I wanted to say.

I’m not naive enough to suppose for a moment that these arguments, even if correct, will slow the adoption of video in place of text. In the end, we choose what to consume more with our instinct than with our intellect. I’d be happier if a few more people displayed evidence of understanding the down side, though.

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