Images and Video as a Literacy

Couldn’t a communications system based on images be post-literate? Imagery is exceptionally powerful and nuanced. Much of what we know and communicate is done through images. Could visual literacy become singularly more prominent and more influential? I don’t think so, although there are some strong and interesting arguments to the contrary.

As Stephen Jay Gould notes “Primates are visual animals and we think best in pictorial or geometric terms. Words are an evolutionary afterthought.” (Gould, “Evolution by Walking”, 1995). Apparently the brain can recognize and distinguish among millions of unique images. This extraordinary information dexterity results in a visual vocabulary and set of references that we use constantly. There is no question that the image is a powerful literacy.

The Noun Project is an intriguing example of a crowdsourced initiative to create an alphabet of standard symbols to represent key things in our lives. This image vocabulary is evocative and accessible, if limited currently in its scope and reach.

Noun Project

In The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word (1998), Mitchell Stephens, a professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at New York University, pushes this possibility further beginning with the impoverishment of text:

“Lines of type seem to have bent themselves into logical circles: trying to find the matter in the fact than nothing matters. In the twentieth century the limits of writing may have been written.  … Perhaps print has taken us as far as it can.”

The next phase is moving images, video. Stephens sees the adoption of video as a means to respond to the profound crisis apparent in the 21st century. Not just a new technology but a technology that brings with it new insights, new ways of thinking, and the possibility of new solutions: “It has the potential to present us with new mental vistas, to take us new philosophic places, as writing once did, as printing once did.” We may mourn the end of text, but the rise of video offers something even more effective:

“The fall of the printed word – the loss of our beloved books – is a large loss. Nevertheless, the rise of the moving image, as we perfect new, nonvapid uses of video, should prove an even larger gain. All our enlightenments are not behind us. We are beginning again, and in this new beginning is the moving image.”

How visuals influence and enable our thinking and communication has a long history. Perhaps one of the most intriguing journeys down this path is Leonard Shlain’s The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (1998). Shlain’s main argument is very simple: “writing subliminally fosters a patriarchal outlook.” By examining a number of societies and their evolution, he concludes,

“when a critical mass of people within a society acquire literacy, especially alphabet literacy, left hemispheric modes of thought are reinforced at the expense of right hemispheric one, which manifests as a decline in the status of image, women’s rights, and goddess worship.”

As a result, “whenever a culture elevates the written word at the expense of the image, patriarchy dominates. When the importance of the image supersedes the written word, feminine values and equalitarianism flourish.” Shlain and Stephens suggest that the current emergence (or re-emergence) of the image is a positive social and political influence. In fact Shlain sees this a “new Golden Age” where images are “the balm” bringing about a “worldwide healing.” The Internet is offered as an example of this:

“The computer has carried human communication across a threshold as significant as writing, and cyberspaces’s reliance on electromagnetism and photographic reproduction will only lead to further adjustments in consciousness that favor a feminine worldview.”

That video and images dominate contemporary culture is undeniable. One hour of video is uploaded to YouTube every second; it was acquired by Google in 2006 for $1.65 billion. There are 50 billion photographs on Facebook, and in 2012 Facebook acquired a photo sharing site (Instagram) with over 1billion images and 30 million users for $1 billion. Video and images are not just influential, they are very big business.

This promotional video from Video Traffic Academy succinctly outlines both the power of video and, ironically, the resilience of literacy:

Is video an example of post literacy? I think not. Embedded in the esthetic and the construction of video is a perspective or way of thinking that makes it reliant on alphabetic literacy. Video may diminish the influence of books, but it has not done the same for literacy. YouTube, like all of the Internet, is still fundamentally a literate space. Video succeeds because of literacy not because it displaces literacy.

However, the power of images is undeniable, as the Beauty of a Second project (sponsored by Mont Blanc) demonstrates:




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