Philip K. Dick was right but may be wrong also

For those who are not Science Fiction fans, Philip K. Dick was a writer of notable insight to cultural trends.  His books have later been turned into blockbuster movies: BladeRunner, Minority  Report, Total Recall,  and Next to name a few.  His books had a dystopian perspective to these, where governments and social agents become tyrannical.   I will not dwell on that forecast of the future of society is this post.  One interest concept I thought interesting was his focus on media.  More specifically how the media would change.  Though the movie adaptations only hinted at it media, print for example, changed from a primarily word based format to more of a graphical based one.  Well the saying goes “One Picture…”

When moveable type was created it did two things. First it made production of information cheaper.  Thus distribution of information increased and was made available to lower income people. Second, it changed the cost ratio between text and graphics.  When books were hand drawn, the cost of graphics was on a par with text.  This ratio changed only slightly over the years until the application of computer technology.

What is interesting about this was that prior to the movable type revolution much communication was through pictures and other symbols.  Dick’s prediction of the future was a return to graphical communication and a reduction in text.  This inferred a lowering of grammatical literacy within society as a whole.  Having just complete several Government RFP response marathons where reply instructions were specific about writing to an 8th Grade level that would seem to prove Dick’s point.  However, I took a few steps back in considering such.

What came to mind were presentations and proposals I’ve seen and participated in over the years.  Many times I was privy to executive decision-maker sessions.  What struck me over the years was how these sessions have changed.  Initially presentations and proposals were fully of textual information.  A slide or page was filled with paragraphs of descriptions and opinions.  A little later after spreadsheets had become the go-to business tool, these became filled with tables of data and charts.

Then as graphic software became more capable presentations in many companies became more simple and focused.  A term which was not originally meant to be complimentary became popular code for these presentations to executives: “Big Animal Charts”  I suppose this was because someone thought reducing issues down to the simplest concept was similar to old children’s books; “See Spot Run, See Tiger run…”   A sort of arrogance was hidden in this comment lay just below the surface.  That is “I’m the expert and you’re not.  I have fancy jargon”  While jargon is useful to shortcut the communications process, its also an inhibitor for those that are not dedicated to a particular discipline or domain.  What many proposers and presenters forget, myself included, is that the presentations and proposals are not about me but about the audience.  So any means to make understanding easier for the audience is good.

Now I get back to my most recent RFP and presentation efforts.  After writing my technical responses I ran a reading level analyzer.  The results didn’t shock me.  The text was rated at Ph.D or beyond.  A far cry from the 8th grade level requested.  After significant effort I managed to reduce it down to 12th grade reading level. There I was stuck and required assistance from team mates, who thankfully jumped in.  What I found interesting beyond the reading level issue was that when I presented similar or more complex material I used very little text, choosing to use pictures, diagrams, and charts.  When I asked several audience members if the material was too complex and I should simplify it, thinking the words needed to be “dumbed down” I got a surprise.  They hadn’t even read the words, instead they got all they needed from the charts and spoken words, even though I used very technical jargon.

Which brings me back to Mr. Dick’s forecast of the future of media.  That graphics would dominate communications in the future.  Interesting points to consider: Look at Steve Jobs presentations, Nancy Duarte’s books Slid:eology & Resonate or books on Storyboarding –Hollywood’s go-to method to organize and present complex information.  All of which rely on graphics.  May be Philip was right in his forecast of the rise of graphics but others were wrong in thinking that graphics is dumbing down the communications.


About briankseitz
I live in PacNW in a small town and work for Microsoft as a Enterprise strategy and architecture SME. I enjoy solving big complex problems, cooking and eating, woodworking and reading. I typically read between 4-8 business and technology books a month.

3 Responses to Philip K. Dick was right but may be wrong also

  1. Karen Morphy says:

    Brian I love this! Can I be your blog final editor though before you post these – the grammar errors are killing me 🙂

    Sent from my iPhone

  2. davidwlocke says:

    When type came on the scene, not only did books change, churches changed. The Gothic cathedrals in Europe provided the Bible through art. The modern church, the textual church, is an empty room even to the point of being in a warehouse. Back in 2002, The Byzantine Fresco Chapel held the frescoes that were peeled from the walls of a chapel in Cyprus. Those frescoes were displayed inside a modern church supported by an iron structure in the shape of the original chapel. The contrast was stark. The graphical church held within the textual church.

  3. davidwlocke says:

    I was asked by a lawyer to mind map his book on a narrow legal field. We ended up having a conflict because the lawyer wanted to map at the level of sentences. Lawyers think that way, in sentences. I mind map at the level of nouns. This distinction is like yours of grade level. I get down to noun level because I can see more opportunities there.

    Agile forces down the stack. I’ve put together roadmaps at the level of the cognitive model. Powerpoint works fine at that level. If the system can’t be described at that level, you have more problems than powerpoint even as it, as a media, does impose a cognitive limit. I’ve also put together a roadmap at the level of tweets. Same point. Have I parsed the system down fine enough?

    The lawyer’s sentence level parsing is about constraining thought. The more clauses they add to the sentence, the more constrained the law gets, or the larger the gray areas of the law becomes. Laws are asymmetrical, so the law is a matter of learning. There will always be more law to discover so the sentences will get longer. This until even law like powerpoint bumps into the cognitive limits of the smartest lawyers.

    The gunk in those sentence and mind maps is a matter of how you glue it all together. Or, solder the circuit components together. You know you have done a bad job soldering when you’ve piled on the solder.

    Parallel processing will bring back the semicolon since x;y;z all happened at the same time. Who knows that rule? Again, the gunk. We learned to gunk up our text back in high school with all those syntactic constructs. We didn’t have to use them. Writers are measured by their transitions–nonlinear text to the contrary, but not really, rather we express those transitions differently. Much is just glue.

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