The computer provides the only kind of unity now possible in our culture: unity at the operational level. Hypertextual publication can accommodate all the mutually incomprehensible languages that the intellectual world now speaks, and this unification of technique must serve as the consolation for the lost unity of purpose.
Could there, on the other hand, be a culture in which writing did not need to be transcended—a culture, in which perception was given priority over representation, so that minds were conceived of primarily as perceptual agents and only secondarily as symbol manipulators? Could we imagine a culture in which neither written nor spoken language was primary? Perhaps our evolutionary ancestors did live in such a state of immediate perception, and perhaps other animals still do. Pessimists might argue that our culture is approaching such a state today—through the magic of television. Television, at least American television today, is primarily a perceptual rather than semiotic medium: it encourages its viewers to react by empathy or antipathy to what is on the screen, not by the reading of signs.
But the presence of the keyboard and the text on the screen still remind us that the computer is a writing technology—that the electronic signs in the computer are separate from our thoughts. Therefore artificial intelligence programmers are pursuing the obvious solution of eliminating the keyboard in favor of a computer that can master spoken language. A computer that understands the human voice would take advantaged of the prejudice that speaking is not a form of semiotic communication at all. Spoken language seems to have immediate access to the mind, and therefore a hearing and speaking computer would seem to collapse the distance between human and machine.