Where will writers like you be needed and appreciated most as society progresses? Isaac Asimov — bestseller, futurist, and soothsayer — points the way in this essay from the May 1986 issue of Writer’s Digest.
By Isaac Asimov
Writer’s Digest, May 1986
I: Do You Have a Future?
You may have heard the statement: “One picture is worth a thousand words.”
Don’t you believe it. It may be true on occasion—as when someone is illiterate, or when you are trying to describe the physical appearance of a complex object. In other cases, the statement is nonsense.
Consider, for instance, Hamlet’s great soliloquy that begins with “To be or not to be,” the poetic consideration of the pros and cons of suicide. It is 260 words long. Can you get across the essence of Hamlet’s thought in a quarter of a picture—or, for that matter, in 260 pictures? Of course not. The pictures may be dramatic illustrations of the soliloquy if you already know the words. The pictures by themselves, to someone who has never read or heard Hamlet, will mean nothing.
As soon as it becomes necessary to deal with emotions, ideas, fancies—abstractions in general—only words will suit. The modulation of sound, in countless different ways, is the only device ever invented by human beings that can even begin to express the enormous complexity and versatility of human thought.
Nor is this likely to change in the future. You have heard that we live in an “age of communication,” and you may assume, quite rightly, that amazing and fundamental changes are taking place in that connection. These changes, however, involve the transmission of information, and not its nature. The information itself remains in the form it was in prehistoric times: speech, and the frozen symbology of speech that we call writing.
We can transmit information in sign language, by semaphore, by blinking lights, by Morse code, by telephone, by electronic devices, by laser beams, or by techniques yet unborn—and in every case, we are transmitting words.
Pictures will not do; they will never do. Television is fun to watch, but it is utterly and entirely dependent on the spoken and written word. The proof is this: darken the image into invisibility but leave the sound on, and you will still have a crude sense of what is going on. Turn off the sound, however, and exclude the appearance of written words, and though you leave the image as bright as ever, you will find you understand nothing of what is going on unless you are watching the most mindless slapstick. To put it even more simply: radio had no images at all and managed, but the silent movies found subtitles essential.
There is the fundament rule, then. In the beginning was the word (as the Gospel of St. John says in a different connection), and in the end will be the word. The word is immortal. And it follows from this that just as we had the writer as soon as writing was invented 5,000 years ago, so we will have the writer, of necessity, for as long as civilization continues to exist. He may write with other tools and in different forms, but he will write.
II: What, Then, Is Your Future?
Having come to the conclusion that writers have a future, we might fairly ask next: What will the role of the writer be in the future? Will writers grow less important, play a smaller role in society, or will they hold their own?
It is quite certain that writers’ skills will become steadily more important as the future progresses—providing that is, that we do not destroy ourselves, and that there is a future of significance, one in which social structures continue to gain in complexity and in technological advance.
The reasons are not difficult to state.
To begin with, technological advance has existed as long as human beings have. Our hominid ancestors began to make and use tools of increasing complexity before the present-day hominid we call Homo sapiens had yet evolved. Society changed enormously as technology advanced. Think what it meant to human beings when agriculture was invented—herding—pottery—weaving—metallurgy. Then, in historic times, think of the changed introduced by gunpowder—the magnetic compass—printing—the steam engine—the airplane—television.
Technological changes feeds on previous technological change, and the rate of change increases steadily. In ancient times, inventions came so infrequently and their spread was so slow that individual human beings could afford to ignore them. In one person’s generation, nothing seemed to change as far as social structure and the quality of life was concerned. But as the rate of change increased, that became less true, and after 1800, the Industrial Revolution made it clear that life—everyday life—was changing rapidly from decade to decade and then from year to year and, by the closing portion of the 20th century, almost from day to day. The gentle zephyr of change that our ancestors knew has become a hurricane.
We know that change is a confusing and unsettling matter. It is difficult for human beings to adjust to change. There is an automatic resistance to change and that resistance diminishes the advantages we can obtain from change. From generation to generation, then, it has become more and more important to explain the essentials of change to the general public, making people aware of the benefits to be derived from change, and of the dangers that they must beware of as a result. That had never been more important than it is now; and it will be steadily more important in the future.
Since almost all significant change is the result, directly or indirectly, of advances in science and technology, what we’re saying is that one particular time of writing—writing about science—will increase in importance even more quickly than writing in general will.
We live in a time when advances in science and technology can solve the problems that beset us: increasing the food supply, placing reproductive potentialities under control, removing pollution, multiplying efficiency, obtaining new sources of energy and materials, defeating disease, expanding the human range into space, and so on.
Advances in science and technology also create problems to bedevil us: producing more dangerous weapons, creating more insidious forms of pollution, destroying the wilderness, and disrupting the ecological balance of Earth’s living things.
At every moment, the politicians, the businesspeople and, to some extent, every portion of the population, must make decisions on both individual and public policy that will deal with matters of science and technology.
To choose to the proper policies, to adopt this and reject that, one must know something about science and technology. This does not mean that everyone must be a scientist, as we can readily see from the analogy of professional sport and its audience. Millions of Americans watch with fascinated intentness games of baseball, football, basketball, and so on. Very few of them can play the game with any skill; very few know enough to be able to coach a team; but almost all of them know enough about the game to appreciate what is going on, to cheer and groan at the appropriate times, and to feel all the excitement and thrills of the changing tides of fortune. That must be so, for without such understanding, watching a game is merely a matter of watching chaos.
And so it must be that as many people as possible must know enough about science and technology to be members of an intelligent audience, at least.
It will be the writer, using words (with the aid of illustrations where that can make the explanation simpler or raise the interest higher, but primarily using words), who will endeavor to translate the specialized vocabulary of science and technology into ordinary English.
No one suggests that writing about science will turn the entire world into an intelligent audience, that writers will mold the average person into a model of judgment and creative thought. It will be enough if they spread the knowledge as widely as possible; if some millions, who would otherwise be ignorant (or worse, swayed by meaningless slogans), would, as a result, gain some understanding; if those whose opinions are most likely to be turned into action, such as the political and economic rulers of the world, are educated.
H.G. Wells said that history was a race between education and catastrophe, and it may be that the writer will add just sufficient impetus to education to enable it to outrace catastrophe. And if education wins by even the narrowest of margins, how much more can we ask for?
III: How Do You Prepare for Your Future as a Writer?
Nor is a world that is oriented more in the direction of science and technology needed merely for producing better judgments, decisions, and policies. The very existence of science and technology depends on a population that is both understanding and sympathetic.
There was a time when science and technology depended strictly on individual ideas, individual labor, and individual financial resources. We are terribly attracted to the outmoded stereotype of the inventor working in his home workshop, of the eccentric scientist working in his home laboratory, of the Universe of ignorance being assaulted by devices built of scraps, string, and paste.
It is so no longer. The growing complexity of science and technology has outstripped the capacity of the individual. We now have research teams, international conferences, industrial laboratories, large universities. And all this is strained, too.
Increasingly, the only source from which modern science and technology can find sufficient support to carry on its work is from that hugest repository of negotiable wealth—the government. That means the collective pocketbooks of the taxpayers of the nation.
There never has been a popular tax, or an unreluctant taxpayer, but some things will be paid for more readily than others. Taxpayers of any nation are usually ready to pay enormous sums for military expenses, since all governments are very good at rousing hatred and suspicions against foreigners.
But an efficient military machine depends, to a large extent, on advances in science and technology, as do other more constructive and less shameful aspects of society. If writers can be as effective in spreading the word about science and technology as governments are at sowing hatred and suspicion, public support for science is less likely to fail, and science is less likely to wither.
Moreover, science and technology cannot be carried on without a steady supply of scientists and engineers; an increasing supply as the years go on. Where will they come from?
They will come from the general population, of course. There are some people who gain an interest in science and technology in youth and can’t be stopped, but they, by themselves, are simply not numerous enough to meet the needs of the present, let alone the future. Many more youngsters would gain such an interest only if they were properly stimulated.
Again, it is the writer who might catch the imagination of young people, and plant a seed that will flower and come to fruition. Thus, I have received a considerable number of letters from scientists and engineers in training who have taken the trouble to tell me that my books were what had tuned them toward science and technology. I am quite convinced that other science writers get such letters in equal numbers.
Let me make two points, however.
First, in order to write about science, it is not entirely necessary to be deeply learned in every aspect of science (no one can be, these days) or even in some one aspect—although that helps. To know science well can make you a “science writer,” but any intelligent person who had a good layperson’s acquaintance with the scientific and technological scene can write a useful article on some subject related to science and technology. He can be a writer dealing with science.
Here is an example:
Digital clocks seem to be becoming ever more common these days and the old-fashioned clock seems to be fading away. Does that matter? Isn’t a digital clock more advanced? Doesn’t it give you the time more accurately? Won’t children be able to tell time at once as soon as they can read instead of having to decipher the dial?
Yet, there are disadvantages to a possible disappearance of the dial that perhaps we ought to keep in mind.
There are two ways in which anything might turn—a key in a lock, a screw in a piece of wood, a horse going around a race track, Earth spinning on its axis. They are described as “clockwise” and “counterclockwise.” The first is the direction in which the hands on a clock move; the second is the opposite direction. We are so accustomed to dials that we understand clockwise and counterclockwise at once and do not make a mistake.
If the dial disappears (and, of course, it may not, for fashion is unpredictable) clockwise and counterclockwise will become meaningless and there is no completely adequate substitute. If you clench your hands and point the thumbs upward, the fingers of the left hand curl clockwise and those of the right hand counterclockwise. You might substitute “left-hand twist” and “right-hand twist,” but no one stares at clenched hands as intently and as often as at clock dials, and the new terms will never be as useful.
Again, in looking at the sky, or through a microscope, or at any view that lacks easily recognizable reference marks, it is common to locate something by the clock dial. “Look at that object at 11 o’clock,” you may say—or 5 o’clock or 12 o’clock, or whatever. Everyone knows the location of any number from 1 to 12 on the clock dial and can use such references easily.
If the dial disappears, there will again be no adequate substitute. You can use directions to be sure—northeast, south by west, and so on, but no one knows the compass as well as the clock.
Then, too, digital clocks can be misleading. Time give as 5:50 may seem roughly 5 o’clock, but anyone looking at the dial will see that it is nearly 6 o’clock. Besides, digital clocks only go up to 5:50 and then move directly to 6:00 and the youngsters may be confused as to what happened to 5:60 through 5:99. Dials give us no such trouble.
One can go on and find other useful qualities in dials versus digits, but I think the point is clear. An article can be written that has meaning as far as technology is concerned and will provoke thought and yet not require a specialist’s knowledge. We can’t all be science writers, but we can all be writers about science.
The second point to be made is that I do not say that writers won’t be needed in increasing numbers in other fields.
As computers and robots take over more of the dull labor of humanity and leave human beings to involve themselves in more creative endeavors, education will have to change in such a way as to place increasing emphasis on creativity. No doubt, education by computer will become more and more important, and a new kind of writer—the writer of computer programs for education—will arise and become important.
Again, as leisure time continues to increase the world over, writing to fill that leisure time, in the form of books, plays, television, or movie scripts, and so on, will be needed in greater numbers.
In other words, more and more writers of more and more different kinds will be needed as time goes on; but, of them all, it is writers about science for whom the need will grow most quickly.
Learn more about how to incorporate science in your writing, even if you’re not a scientist, with this WD article.
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