My friend Dave Schuler had a very thoughtful post at The Glittering Eye , one that contemplates a quiet paradigmatic shift that may be taking place within society today. It’s one of those posts that merits being read in its entirety because excerpting it, as I will do here nonetheless for the benefit of the slothful, shortchanges the argument:
“The Visual Imagery Society“
“Until about five thousand years ago, the primary method of communication among our species, the method by which we did what Alfred Korzybski characterized as “time binding”-storing and transmitting information, was speech. When you wanted to know something, you asked someone. When you wanted to give information to other people, you spoke to them. Around five thousand years ago we developed an additional method of storing and transmitting information: writing.
….However, writing also had some disadvantages over the spoken word. It was expensive both in materials and in the investment in education and, although practically everybody learns to speak, not everybody could or did learn to read and write….Speech, obviously, has never vanished but it was supplanted by writing as the primary means of communication in any number of fields including mathematics, philosophy, and, at least to some degree, business. History, by definition, is written.
Almost 150 years ago we began to develop the technology to transmit and store first writing then speech. And a little more than 100 years ago we began to store and then transmit visual imagery…..I wonder if there are signs that visual imagery is supplanting the written word, at least in certain areas, the written word just as the written word supplanted the spoken word in some fields….The transition from an oral society to a literate one had implications that extended far beyond just the means of communication or the costs of transportation for an unexpected reason: literacy reorders consciousness.
….Will a transition to a visual imagery society result in an analogous reordering of consciousness to that of the transition from oral to literate? I think there’s reason to believe that there is, it’s happening now, and the visual imagery society resembles the oral society more than the literate society that it supplants.
….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? “
While I made a number of comments at The Glittering Eye, Dave was particularly interested in the cognitive aspects and I infer from his post that he views the trend toward – hmmm – ” Visualcy” with alarm and I would like to address that aspect here.
Increasing proliferation of visual content in the media as a percentage of net data transmission carries real risks because the visual medium is exceedingly powerful in a neurolearning sense and affect a diverse span of cognitive activity . Where simplification and sophistry took a great deal of time to diffuse through the population by word of mouth or in text, visuals in broadcast or digital format are virtually instantaneous and tend to be accepted in a cognitively passive state by the audience, in the sense of bypassing rigorous and critical analysis. Dave is correct here when he points out the dangers of the modality and liability toward abuse, distortion or manipulation.
On the other hand, visualization media need not be passive. It can easily be both active and interactive as well as an efficient method of transmission of valid data and the interactivity can be intentionally structured to require and enhance critical thinking. Unfortunately, that effort to create cognitive tools lags behind the power and range of our aesthetic tools to create the images themselves. What Dave is asking for is an effort in futurism but I’m not certain the present moment is a valid baseline given the speed with which new technologies are emerging and evolving.
To answer Dave’s first question, I think visual imagery is overtaking the written word, given that Americans reportedly watch about 8 hours of TV a day on average and newspapers are dying off for lack of new readers – though I think it is unlikely in the case of academic or scientific definitions of ” new knowledge”, where peer-review journals still rule. I also will grant Dave that a visually-oriented society, at the intellectual level of current television programming, trending toward celebreality shows and infotainment “news” is one sliding toward an anarchic mob – and not a very bright mob at that – one easily swayed by charismatic demagogues and charlatans but more likely, simply uninterested in their own governance. A dystopian Brave New World of sheep-like proles of limited attention who can articulate their interests, much less press them, only with the greatest difficulty. It’s not a vision that I find appealing.
However, I think that a visual imagery society can probably develop along the same continuum of conceptual complexity that characterized previous eras of oral tradition and the written word. Not all ancient Greeks sat with rapt attention through recitations Homer and the Romans scrawled scatalogical graffitti that would make a Marine sergeant blush more frequently than they wrote like Ovid or spoke like Cicero. Except for scholars of the mundane, we’re much more cognizant of the great cultural achievments of past civilizations than we are of their versions of bathroom humor, comic books and trashy romance novels.
Bright people will always be attracted to complexity, abstraction and depth regardless of the medium and are better placed to weigh the relative value of their choices; the less intelligent will gravitate to simpler fare and will be oblivious to what they are missing. The rub is the demographic segment of the population who have the intellectual potential, which goes wasted for lack of stimulation and engagement in serious thought. If we took greater effort as a nation to invest in and repair a declining system of public education we would have far less to fear in a future society that was more reliant upon visual imagery.