Maybe we first grunted. Or perhaps we gestured to one another, relying on body language and facial expressions. There’s debate in the scientific community about prehistoric man and the way language developed. Despite a harsh, unpredictable, and even violent, existence, we managed to evolve, working together to hunt and gather more efficiently, and eventually create words and languages — arguably our greatest achievement.
Language is what makes us truly unique. Not only does it allow us to develop and share complex ideas, it lets us pass the knowledge to the next generation. But the spoken and written word is losing steam as we increasingly use images to convey thoughts and feelings on Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. And soon, we might not use words or even images at all, as neuroscience and technology push us closer to a future where we pass thoughts directly to one another, in a tech-enabled version of telepathy.
Todd Coleman, associate professor of bioengineering at the University of California, for example, is developing non-invasive means to control electronics with the mind, by placing a form of temporary tattoo on the hand. These devices, capable of reading electrical signals associated with brain waves, may eventually be used to send thoughts and ideas directly from one person to another.
From the dawn of man, images have played a primary role in communication. The oldest known cave art — images of red spheres — was found in Spain’s Cantabrian Sea coast, in a subterranean site called “El Castillo.” Joao Zihao, an anthropologist from the University of Barcelona, discovered by measuring the decay of uranium, rather than traditional carbon-dating, that the artwork was older than anyone expected.
Anthropologist aren’t sure if the Spanish renderings, which pre-date cave paintings in France’s Chauvet caves by about 5,000 years, were merely decorations or told stories, but they show how we can understand images across time and language barriers.
According to NPR, some theories maintain that language was an extension of gestures, accompanied by short noises that eventually became words and replaced the hand movements. Others suggest an origin in singing, which resonates because of the sing-song way we innately talk to children.
Whatever the reason, communicating with language freed up our hands to hold tools to hunt and gather, and otherwise do work, leading to an evolutionary advantage that would change civilization. Imagine the world today if humanity evolved without language to work together, record a shared history or develop culture. While other species communicate — bees in a hive, elephants in distress and whales navigating the vast ocean — only humans are believed to exercise the intimate ability to share and converse the way we do through language.
With the saturation of technology, we’re leaning on computers, smartphones and gadgets to communicate with images more than ever before. In some ways, it’s a return to the roots. Take a look at social media, for example. Facebook has Instagram, Twitter has Vine and chat has evolved with apps like Snapchat, which let you capture and send photos that disappear in seconds.
We’ve embraced communication by images with fervor. Facebook users share over 300 million images each day; Instagram users post around 45 million; and Vine lured more than 13 million people in less than six months. Snapchat, meanwhile, sends about 200 million messages a day. The use of texting, in fact, declined by about five percent last year, according to industry group CTIA.
Counted yearly, those millions of images are growing, giving a hint at where communication is heading. But don’t count language out entirely.
“It is important to remember that humankind — despite countless attempts — has never succeeded in coming up with an alternative to language,” Mitchell Stephens, a professor at New York University and author of “The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word,” told me. The shift to the visual won’t be language’s death knell, since society will still rely on language.
“In order to effectively communicate on a high level, images and moving images will have to be combined with language,” he said. “We already see a fair amount of that — words on-screen, narration — in the most adventurous forms of video.”
We’re already seeing a merging of words and images in how we communicate and share ideas. Rather than a traditional account of a story, USA Today, for example, relied on animated pictures to illustrate the mayhem a dog nearly caused during the Tour de France. And new media site Buzzfeed appeals to 20-somethings by covering social trends with its now-famous top-list format, consisting of animated images and short bits of text to capture the essence of viral media.
Beyond images, emoticons — those ubiquitous yellow smilies — are changing how we communicate on phones, taking the edge off jokes, adding edge to flirting and otherwise lacing subtext and dimension to simple sentences and phrases. When you need more than just words, it seems sometimes only a wink will do.
“Most of what is most estimable about humans comes from language,” Stephens said, referring to the future of language in the coming visual age. “It won’t disappear, but moving images have the possibility to enhance it.”
The shift to video and computer images still requires language — after all, what’s a meme without a witty catchphrase? Nevertheless, the shift is affecting the larger evolution of communication, but it isn’t a cause for despair.
“There is something lost anytime a new form of communication replaces an old one, including the arrival of writing and the arrival of print,” he said. “But usually the gains — particularly the gains for our ability to think out our situation — outweigh the losses.”
Some experts claim it’s just a matter of time before we communicate without language, directly transmitting thoughts to the human mind. Dave Evans, “chief futurist” at Cisco Labs, said in an interview that researchers are working towards a world where brains communicate with each other using thoughts via super-fast networks.
“It’s very nascent now, but you could make a case for network-based telepathy,” he told DNA India. “If I can read your thoughts and encapsulate it into data packets of some sort and send it, then I can implant it in someone else’s mind.”
As researchers better understand the nervous system, the kinds of mechanism he describes are becoming a reality. Neuroscientists have already pioneered innovations like Cochlear implants for hearing and robotic prosthetics for limbs, and Google’s terminator-like Glass project, among other gadgets, are spearheading wearable technology, pushing us to the next stage of communication. For example, Theodore Berger, a biomedical engineer and neuroscientist at the University of Southern California, is working on an electronic implant to help patients with severe memory loss — from Alzheimer’s and stroke to other injuries — restore the capacity to generate memories,
Think about how you’re using images to communicate: maybe you send a smiley when someone asks you how you’re doing. Perhaps you snap a photo of a business card, instead of jotting down a phone number. With gadgets like Google Glass, the process will become even more direct.
Received a text asking what you’re doing? Just click a picture of what’s in front of you — an image of a meal replies that you’re eating, a snapshot of your toes curled in a crashing wave says you’re at the beach. The next step in communicating may just remove the click, or the interface, altogether. Perhaps you’ll just need to think to pass it along — an idea that may very well leave you speechless. ♦