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On the Virtues and Vices of “Visualcy”

One of my most thoughtful blogfriends, Dave Schuler, is worried about the downstream cultural effects of a creeping cognitive reliance on visual media:. A selection from different posts on the subject by Dave:

“I Can Read a Passage in a Book 20 Times and It Doesn’t Click”

More On Visualcy

The Visual Imagery Society

The old methods of handbook and lecture don’t work anymore-the new crop of trainers can’t learn that way. They need visual training-simulations and hands-on. The performance of the new trainees was characterized in the feature as “improving”. No word on whether it’s come up to the standard of their old-fashioned literate predecessors

Not only are the arguments not subject to logical refutation, logical refutation may not be comprehended by those for whom visualcy is the primary communication modality.

What I find most concerning about this trend is that developments in government paralleled the transition from oral to literate societies. Divine and semi-divine chiefs and monarchs were replaced by representative government. Is bureaucracy the analogue in government of visual imagery as a dominant communication modality? Chaos? Autocracy? The only notable developments I’ve seen over the last couple of decades are an increasing tendency in the Western democracies towards bureaucracy as the operative form of government and a greater tendency to follow charismatic chiefs, the societal modality that John W. Campbell characterized as “barbarism”.

I’ll conclude this speculation with questions rather than answers.

  • Is visual imagery overtaking the written word as the dominant form of communication, especially for communicating new knowledge?
  • If so, what are the cognitive implications of the change?
  • What are the social and political implications of the change in cognitive behavior?

As it happens, I have another thoughtful blogfriend, Dave Davison, who is a foursquare enthusiast for emergent visualcy technology. Davison was, if I recall correctly, involved in the development of some of the ambient devices on which Schuler opined.  A few representative posts from Davison:

MuralCasting – Improving ROA (Return on attention) -corrected 2.8.08

Logic + Emotion: Developing an Experience Strategy in 4 Parts

Too many ripples in the pond?

The problem with “visualcy”, as I interpret Schuler’s posts, is if it were to become a successor and replacement for the Western culture of  “literacy” that stretches back, with sporadic interruptions, to classical Greece. Visualcy, in the hands ( or eyes) of someone who has never learned to think logically or coherently in a textual format, is a dangerous thing as it powerfully lulls them into a false sense of comprehension. Visualcy, used by someone with the requisite analytical cognitive skills, would be a powerful tool for efficient data compression, synthesis and communication. From personal experience, I can attest that well constructed visual models can be a gateway to understanding for some of my students.

The underlying problem to this discussion is that too large a segment of our population never become truly literate as they pass through our public education system – they are disjointed “scanners” of words rather than readers who habitually fall prey to the maxim of “Garbage in, Garbage out”. What non-emotionally driven thinking they attempt based on information from a  text is often from significant misunderstanding; and if they do not have the good fortune to have teachers who can engage them with mathematics, they might never pick up logical reasoning at all.  Math instruction, I am convinced, despite my own struggles with that subject, is one of the “thin blue lines” holding our civilization together.

What to do ? The attractiveness of visual imagery would appear to be a neurological constant of our brain structure and the potential of visual analytics as field can hardly be ignored so our fallback must be attention to fundamentals. Education has to be a process that ends for the great majority in minds that are trained to think critically and creatively. We are maxing out our legislative strategies on societal and institutional accountability here and will have to contemplate greater emphasis on student and parental responsibility for the education of children than we have so far been willing to countenance.

12 Responses to “On the Virtues and Vices of “Visualcy””

  1. Moon Says:

    I have always been drawn to both modes of learning/thinking:  the logical/critical/serial AND the visual/visceral/parallel.  And have always found a more natural facility with the latter.  It takes more energy and skill to massage information in a format suitable for logical analysis, so it is unnatural.  I love it, but it’s still hard (for me).

    Zen, to your proto-rant on institutional education in your ultimate paragraph, I’d like to add two issues of my own:
    cohorting students into age classes enforces us (students) versus them (teachers) — I believe I would have learned much more deeply had I been in a "class" of both younger and older students — such an arrangement may compel one to become a teacher as one gained some seniority in the "class" — as anyone who has ever taught anything knows, you never really even *start* to understand something until you teach it — likewise, a "teacher" becomes a student to some extent in that situation, and that arrangement mitigates any us-versus-them dynamics that might distract from the transmission of knowledge and skills.  Student-teacher should be continuum not polarity.
    I challenge the temporal boundaries conventionally placed on education — is the graduation / commencement clean break the most appropriate for the most citizens?  The present model is:  learn and study for 8 or 9 months, then go play and/or work for 3 or 4 months, each year (with a few additional breaks during the 8-9 months).  Then suddenly (at age 18 or 22 or whenever) you jump into the "real" world where there are no  expected learning-study periods and an expectation of all work-play periods thereafter.  I see the lack of *expectation* of life-long learning as a detriment.  Continuing education is alive and well but it is discretionary, not expected by most citizens.  Awarding degrees gives the false sense that one is "done" learning, and that the opinion of others (professors, administrators) is central to the value of what one has learned.  Instead of going cold turkey at graduation, society should expect learners to return to their school (in whatever fashion is appropriate) to teach and, of course, learn, for a minimum of 3-4 months every year.  So the two ends of the spectrum are 3-4 months of work/play when you are "young" and 3-4 months of learn/teach when you are "old".  Some would accelerate quickly through this arrangement, and never come back.  Others would linger through and never really leave the school, just like things are now but without the formality of roles and degrees and life phases.  I ruminate on this for self-centered reasons:  although I did well enough in the school system, I didn’t develop a thirst for learning until well after the learning years.  Graduation and commencement at 18 and 22 years was really not appropriate for my rate of cognitive / psychological development.  And I’d wager that this is true for many others.  Some people learn very well at a young age and not so well later; others learn not so well at a young age and make their greatest progress later.

  2. zen Says:

    Hi Moon,

    Alvin Toffler has recently written on education in the 21st century along the same lines of your second paragraph, that you might be interested in trying to Google.
    Regarding your first paragraph, used judiciously, ability grouping students rather than by chronological age peers, can provide some real benefits both academic and psychological, to the students involved. You will see this in most Montessori programs, partly by default due to their small size. However, I have to offer a few caveats:
    1. Most larger public school systems will do ability grouping primarily to save money by not hiring an additional staff member, rather than out of any kind of philosophical commitment and subsequently get rid of it the instant the budget or student body size permits.
    2. The teacher should be experienced and motivated to making this format work – it requires more planning, creativity and far greater facilitation skills than teaching a "normal" class. I’d be hesitant to allow my own children to be placed in such a class unless I had a good handle on the teacher’s capabilities and whether the school was tilting the class in terms of the students themselves toward enrichment or remediation.  Ability grouping can also be an administrative dodge around providing special education servies to kids with genuine problems but quantifiably "borderline" scores, in terms of selection criteria. No child should have to endure a "lost year" in school so as to benefit a differently abled set of kids.
    3. While academics are not sufficiently stressed in our culture ( I say "culture" rather than "schools" because educational expectations of a school are driven by the home and the community – when there are million dollar sports facilities at a school but high staff turnover, old textbooks and an absence of basic supplies, the community has it’s spending priorities askew) there are legitimate social and developmental concerns about the age span in an ability grouped classroom. 8th and 9th graders do not belong with 6th graders, nor seniors with middle-school kids

  3. Moon Says:

    Zen, thanks for the references.  I’ve heard *of* Toffler and Montessori (maybe from reading your posts) but haven’t studied them.  I take your points 1. and 2.  W.r.t. your point 3, why do the kids of different ages not belong with each other?  What are the social/developmental concerns?  Thinking of a family reunion, folks of all ages are in the same setting, and the storytelling (teaching) seems to work just fine.  (I realize that mathematics, science, and other technical knowledge cannot be easily transmitted in that ad hoc setting.)  I’m not a (professional) educator and I don’t have children yet, so you’ll have to excuse my obscene ignorance on these matters.  ;-\

  4. Moon Says:

    I just took a quick spin through Toffler via Google.  Found "Future School" and "School of Tomorrow" summaries.  The guy seems bang-on to me in this regard.  Thinking back, I do recall now that I have heard of his book Future Shock, and I may have even skimmed through it at one point.  Since I hadn’t read Toffler’s educational ideas before, I wonder why the easy alignment of my loose thoughts with his rigorous ideas?  I’m a Libertarian do-it-yourselfer, so I wonder if he and/or wife Heidi come from that same frame?

  5. zen Says:

    Questions are good.
    You have to be careful, when you deal with the broad spectrum of society, to realize that while all children need to be educated not every child is trustworthy – some are emotionally disturbed, occasionally severely so, others are prone to physical violence, criminal activity, bullying and even sex offenses.  Younger children are far more vulnerable to mistreatment when their peers are two to three years older and for that reason, you do not want the age-spread to be too wide.
    Toffler’s politics do not fit very well into a Left-Right spectrum. He’s been a futurist since the mid-1960’s and has collaborated with political figures of both parties (  notably Newt Gingrich, Al Gore) who have shown interest in his ideas or advice. Sort of  techno -Libertarianish but with Green and communitarian elements too. Synthesizers are square pegs.

  6. Smitten Eagle Says:

    I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned Edward Tufte:


    It seems that as literacy declines the omnipresence of the .ppt file rises.  Surely this has political and governmental relevence.  Tom Ricks, in his book Fiasco, relates that much of the planning for OIF was transmitted between staffs on PowerPoint slides.  Tufte relates in his essay that critical thought is reduced when placed in such a visual/bulleted form, and consequently it is easy to see how Phase IV/reconstruction operations planning was papered-over–er–powerpointed over.

    And nothing has changed since OIF I.  PowerPoint slides are still the primary medium of thought in the modern military.  The last time I saw a real OpOrder was 4 years ago at a Combined Arms Exercise at 29 Palms, CA.  Since then I have seen nothing but PPT.

  7. Moon Says:

    Concur with the concern re: abuse of younger kids.  In my naive vision, the older kids would be responsible for ensuring that the young kids protected the even younger kids.  It’s that downward directed chain of responsibility that is one the most important lessons I have learned.  Protect those below you and they will follow you anywhere.  (And those above you will protect you in kind.)  Set that tone at the top.  You can perhaps infer here my military background.
    Re: Toffler, well, Libertarianism doesn’t fit well with the Left-Right spectrum either, eh?  (I suppose that was your point.)  I’m not much of a political animal, and though I shun the big politics of Green (or of any stripe), in my personal life I act Green (in a conservationist and minimalist way).  "communitarian"; will have to look that term up.  I appreciate the opportunity to attend the zenpundit comment dojo.  ;-\

  8. Dave Schuler Says:

    It’s not merely that it has the potential of lulling one into a false sense of comprehension.  Communications modality has cognitive implications.  Primary oral communicators differ from primary literate communicators in a number of ways that I’ve outlined in my posts among them abstract thinking and agonism.  My concern is that there are aspects of our society, e.g. liberal government, which are artifacts of primary literacy.

    As far back as 50 years ago scholars were noting that those who exploited visual communications modalities, even when nominally literate, resembled oral communicators more than they did literate communicators.

  9. zen Says:

    Hi Smitten Eagle
    Tufte is good. I’ve dealt with his ideas in the past here but not recently.
    "PowerPoint slides are still the primary medium of thought in the modern military.  The last time I saw a real OpOrder was 4 years ago at a Combined Arms Exercise at 29 Palms, CA.  Since then I have seen nothing but PPT."
    Perhaps everyone simply shared an intuitive grasp of the commander’s intent?…..ok, no, that’s a worrisome anecdote, in my view.

  10. zen Says:

    hi Dave,

    I agree there are some negative cognitive implications. Nor do I think visuals should be anybody’s primary epistemological filter; however, I’m not sure that *all* visual modalities in terms of thought are of the kind associated with pre-literate, oral societies. There’s ample anecdotal reporting from very abstract thinkers, such as theoretical physicists, whose bursts of insight had an imaginative-visual component.

  11. Chicago Boyz » Blog Archive » Visualcy at Complex Terrain Laboratory Says:

    […] decades ago. But because images have powerful cognitive responses in the brain, the "Visualcy" effect is a factor that cannot be ignored in COIN, IO or public diplomacy. Images will have […]

  12. dave davison Says:

    Sorry to be so late to the party. Our world is becoming much more complex and rapidly changing in ways that require all of our senses to comprehend. Our visual faculties allow us to "grok" very complex images and should be trained in tandem with our literate and mathematical "senses" so that students will be able to extend their abilities for critical analysis to encompass "visualcy" as a necessary skill set in our modern world.

    In this digital age we are witnessing an explosion in the participatory capture and publishing of imagery from mobile camera phones, digital cameras and videocams, so that, like it or not, the events of our world are being recorded visually and made available for general public consumption on flickr, YouTube, Facebook, Vimeo etc. etc.

    IMO we need to educate our students and the public at large to adapt their thinking processes to include the critical thinking skill of visualcy along with its counterparts of literacy and numeracy as a companion sensory gateway to the knowledge of our world that cannot be captured in numbers, and words alone.  Pictures are worth a thousand words and require "visualcy" to properly parse and understand them, just as we teach students to read, write and calculate.

    As Zen knows, I have been studying and applying the "art" of visualcy in a systematic way to allow me to synthesize and  portray complex subjects in ways not possible except through combining visualcy with my other thinking skills. My learning so far is that visual imagery, Powerpoint slides, YouTube videos and powerful visual interpretations created by graphic facilitators require one to hone the critical faculties of pattern recognition and spatial awareness in order to deal with the increasing flood of visual imagery that is unlikely to abate in our digitally enabled world.  It helps to recognize that it is possible to personally analyze, edit and absorb the images we are subjected to and that teaching visualcy in our schools is necessary to prepare our student’s minds for input from the visual world that they cannot ignore, and more, are likely to be personally engaged in creating.

    Linda Stone has opined that we live in a world of "continuous partial attention (CPA)" from constant emails, texting, reading blogs like this one, and  twittering away in the "flow" of our  "always on" digital lifestreams.  I believe that visualcy, if you want to call it that, enables a crucial part of our cognitive apparatus we need to deal with CPA and keep afloat in the turbulent flow of our digital world.

    I guess it would be appropriate to add a picture here to express what I mean that can’t be handled with just words – so here it is http://thoughts-illustrated.blogspot.com/2007/02/continuous-partial-attention-too-much.html If you haven’t got the time to read the text of the post, just scroll down to the picture at the bottom – IMO it summarizes CPA pretty well and makes the case for visualcy in a way that only a picture can.

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