A slide flashed on the screen—the Taj Mahal. The audience was initially taken by its physical beauty. But upon closer inspection, we were told, one would find much of the text of the Koran chiseled into this wonder of the ancient world.
What a brilliant way to preserve text against the ravages of time. Carve the most important words into the stone of a marvelous structure.
Text—its physical structure, its preservation, its manipulation, interpretation and cultural transformation—was the topic of the sixth Future of Text Symposium on the Google campus in late August.
For the second year, Wiki Strategies founder Pete Forsyth was among the speakers, who each had 10 minutes to describe a particular personal text passion, followed by five minutes for questions and discussion. Wiki Strategies co-sponsored the symposium.
The symposium exists because Frode Hegland cares deeply about text and had been searching for a vehicle to bring together kindred spirits to probe text’s evolution. As he has said in explaining the need for such a gathering, “The written word is a fundamental unit of knowledge and as such is of universal importance.”
Hegland, a teacher, lecturer, software developer and author, hosted the first Future of Text symposium in London six years ago. He intentionally keeps the crowd small, intimate and engaged; expanding to a three-day conference in a hotel ballroom is not his idea of thought leadership.
His co-organizer is Houria Iderkou—without whom, he says, the symposium would not be possible. Houria is an e-commerce entrepreneur who flawlessly manages the many details of hosting a symposium.
This year they again brought together leading thinkers in the various disciplines that are united by text. Among the two dozen presenters: Google hosts and innovators Vint Cerf and Peter Norvig; Ted Nelson (via Skype); Robert Scoble; Jane Yellowlees Douglas; Livia Polanyi; and Adam Hyde. The full roster can be more thoroughly appreciated here.
The passions unleashed and the intellectual exchanges that occurred that day in Mountain View paid tribute to text’s contributions to human culture. For one day, the written word was celebrated as the miraculous gift to mankind that it truly is. Frode admitted to being a bit discouraged at day’s end–not by the discussions that took place, but by the weight of responsibility mankind has to hand text along from generation to generation, and to use it to its full potential to support the human endeavor.
It is, after all, the accounting and preservation of the human experience, as well as an essential ingredient of that experience. When one considers what has been irrevocably lost of the experiences of humans who did not have a written language to pass their tales on to those who came after them, then perhaps Frode’s anxieties come sharply into focus. The responsibility is on us to preserve in text what we have learned, what we have seen and heard and touched and felt and smelled.
So perhaps we should ask: What will be our Taj Mahal?