text messaging is unnatural

Recent research indicates that human visual processing capabilities have shaped text. Letters in 96 non-logographic writing systems, Chinese characters, and natural scenes all have similar distributions of topological configurations. The human visual system evolved to process natural scenes. Writing systems from around the world and throughout the history of written language appear to be well-matched to the evolved visual capabilities of human beings.

This same research indicates that motor complexity of writing is less important than visual processing for reading in shaping the distribution of topological configurations. The frequency ranks of topological configurations in widely used writing systems are not significantly correlated with a measure of the motor effort required to produce the letter or character. Moreover, shorthand, which is designed to be written quickly, has a significantly different topological distribution of letters than does more widely used writing systems. Young children’s scribbles, which reflect relatively weak motor capabilities, also have a significantly different topological distribution than widely used writing systems. Within the space of relatively simple topological possibilities, motor complexity seems not to have strongly affected the design of writing systems.

from the sky

This research suggests that the design of text favors reading over writing. That’s a plausible design orientation. The invention of text was probably oriented toward the market for memorializing events and storing knowledge. Those are communicative functions that involve writing that is read many times. Text messaging among family and friends is not that type of communication.

Text has other disadvantages as technology for personal communication. Compared to audible language, text has a relatively high bodily cost. Babies easily learn audible language. In contrast, the capability to read and write requires from humans a large, specialized investment in time and attention (schooling). Moreover, broad patterns of media use indicate that persons prefer spending time with audiovisual media than with text. This suggests that the marginal bodily processing cost of reading is higher than for audiovisual communication.

The design of text and the design of the human body disadvantage text messaging for presence-oriented, personal communication. Experts in the field assure me that their teen-aged daughters find great value in text messaging among their friends, value that voice communication does not provide. I respect this expertise. The research discussed above, however, at least indicates the importance of considering carefully how text messaging creates value relative to voice communication.

reaching down to the well

Addendum: The research on topological configurations in written languages is brilliant, pioneering research. Extensive discussion of the analysis and duplication of the findings would help to ensure that they are correct. I noticed that the analysis did not weigh topological configurations by frequency of use in representative text. Perhaps this wasn’t done because generating such weights might require considerable additional effort. I would like to see future research at least consider the significance of use weights.

The full citation for the research on topological configurations is:
Mark A. Changizi, Qiong Zhang, Hao Ye, and Shinsuke Shimojo (2006), “The Structures of Letters and Symbols throughout Human History Are Selected to Match Those Found in Objects in Natural Scenes,” American Naturalist, v. 167, pp. E117-E139.

Update: Included in Tangled Bank #54, hosted by Science and Politics. Check out that carnival for other interesting science posts.

8 thoughts on “text messaging is unnatural”

  1. Regarding your idea about investigating the weights of relative configurations in representative text:

    I’m not sure what conclusions could be drawn if the weighted frequency resulted in higher or lower correlations. The selection of letters in the design of written languages for ease of visual recognition is a plausible hypothesis. The design of a language such that certain configurations that are easy to recognize (L, T, X, etc.) seems to be a rather improbable event. This phenomenon, if true, would seem to suggest that either (1) the population using the language adjusted words accordingly to use “easy” letters more frequently or (2) at some point, they decided to rearrange the letters so that “easy” letters came up more often.

    For certain languages, this analysis might prove useful. Relatively recently designed alphabets, such as Hangul (used in Korean) could very well have a weighted frequency that is highly interesting to study.

    Also, I’m flattered you think I’m a professor. Check back in say 7 years. (5 for Ph. D and 2 for postdoc)

  2. Hao,

    The difference between the unweighted and weighted frequencies might indicate the extent to which the design of letters evolved with the use of writing. If letters in writing systems that evolved over time (compared to those that a specific person invented at a specific date) vary in frequency in use to the extent they do in English (about a factor of 100), this would seem significant relative to the differences among configuration frequencies that you measured.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. The advantage of text messaging is that it is easier to control who “hears” it, and who doesn’t. This seems to be quite important to some people (particularly teenagers) when communicating in a crowded environment. Also, it seems to me that there is an increasing use of text messaging (IM) in office environments as well, and away from the telephone. In the cubicle farms where many of us now work, this can be a blessing…

    Personally, I hate it; I’m not even that fond of the telephone and avoid it when a face-to-face conversation is possible.

  4. The other nice thing about text messaging is its asynchrony. Email is even better for that, but presumably texting strikes a different balance that’s better for social purposes than email is.

    It would be interesting to try to devise a communications method that has the advantages of texting (mild asynchrony, able to be used in a crowded/busy environment without sacrificing privacy, etc) but which is optimized for “write once, read once or twice” rather than “write once, read a thousand times”.

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