The Visual Imagery Society

This post is speculation. Just something I’ve been mulling over the the last few months.

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.

The written word has a number of advantages over the spoken word. It’s more durable than speech and less subject to loss. We don’t have a single thing that was said 200 or 2,000 years ago. We have quite some little bit of what was written down about what was said.

It was also cheaper and easier to transport the written word than it was the spoken word since transporting the spoken word required moving people while moving the written word only requires moving fairly small, durable things. Indeed, it’s been suggested that the most ancient ancestor of writing consisted of small clay images of things to be bought or sold wrapped in clay and transported that way. Sort of a prehistoric shipping document.

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.

As the technology of writing developed this changed. Writing on parchment was cheaper than writing on clay, stone, or wax. Paper was cheaper than parchment. It was easier to learn an alphabet or syllabary than pictograms or ideograms.

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.

There’s the visual lexicon of film and video but there’s also such things as the ambient orb, the first product of the company Ambient Devices.

Ambient devices utilize pre-attentive processing to display information, the ability for the brain to perceive information without any apparent cognitive load. The New York Times Magazine announced ambient devices as one of the Ideas of the Year in 2002 on the heels of a start-up company, Ambient Devices, releasing their first product Ambient Orb. The Ambient Orb maps information to a linear color spectrum and displays the trend in the data.

Ambient orb

Is this just a curiosity or the cuneiform of a newly-emerging means of communicating information?

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. I’ve written on this subject before. Communicators in an oral society tend to be additive, agonistic, redundant and repetitive, empathetic, and situational. Communicators in a literate society tend to be subordinative, analytic, objective, and abstract.

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. Consider the political blogosphere.

Whatever the political blogosphere expresses it does not have the features of the expressions of a literate society, using analysis, abstraction, and objectivity to communicate and persuade. It is polemic not reasoned discourse. That’s part of what the post Endarkenment at QandO Blog comments on, lamenting “the declining ability of people to think critically and logically”.

Certainly there are exceptions. I hope that I am one.

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?
11 comments… add one
  • Fantastic post Dave !

    You raise a number of very important questions here, that I will have to respond to at greater length in a post, but a few brief observations:

    Bureaucracy came with the rise of the state which coincided with the printing press and an explosion of information and greater societal access to information. To an extent, bureaucracy was partially the response of rulers to retain some degree of control over the uses to which printed information was put. Bureaucracy will try to adapt to the proliferation of a visual processing society but it is not itself, an adaptive response. I see it as a legacy institution.

    Most of society never processed logical argumentation because relatively few ppl ever completed their formal education until very recently. High national levels of high school graduation were achieved in the 1960’s primarly via lowering standards, grade inflation and social promotion. In 1900 only about 10 % population graduated high school and by midcentury the rate was approximately 50 %. I’m not sure the bottom quartile of H.S. graduates in 2007 are more facile with language and mathematics than were their counterparts in 1957.

    While much of society is likely to go in a visual processing direction, the elites will be hybrid and will continue to think in terms of text and equations even as they become equally fluent with visual constructions or expressions. We have seen this before in history, running from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment when it was not unusual to have scientists, artists and philosophers mixing together in salons ( and not being entirely clear where the borders between disciplines were), exchanging ideas and finding each other to be, for the most part, mutually comprehensible.

    But because text is harder, slower and the rewards in so doing represent a delayed gratification, most ppl will opt for visuals and a gulf is going to widen between elite and mass, not so much in terms of raw data flow but the ability to consider the implications of that data critically and analytically unless interactive visual analytics tools are built in to the presentation. Something that is certainly feasible but unlikely from our current media conglomerates.

  • While much of society is likely to go in a visual processing direction, the elites will be hybrid and will continue to think in terms of text and equations even as they become equally fluent with visual constructions or expressions. We have seen this before in history, running from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment when it was not unusual to have scientists, artists and philosophers mixing together in salons ( and not being entirely clear where the borders between disciplines were), exchanging ideas and finding each other to be, for the most part, mutually comprehensible.

    Yes, that’s exactly my point. Oratory is dead or dying.

    But the larger question is what are the implications of this for cognitive behavior? Are we already seeing them?

  • Larry Corbett

    What is that Chinese expression, one picture is worth a thousand words?
    Is language a fixed and finite thing, no, it evolves as we evolve..as culture evolves. And does not language develop it’s own characteristics within cultural groups, such as the culture of the scientific community..do they not have a highly specialized language that most people would find difficult to understand if they are outside of that cultural group looking in? Written language changes itself…old english is not anything like american english.. and american english has changed a great deal and will change again. Even current english is changing from region to region in America…this is just the way it works.. Look at computer language..is it the same today as it was 30 years ago and who outside of that culture of computer language would understand it, so does that have social or political cognitive behavior
    effects because most of us do not understand that language? Not really…

    What about politics as a group where language evolves to fit it specialized needs? What about the use of language to persuade others to, well agree or disagree with your political ideas? What about that Orwellian language business, where what you say is not what you really mean?

    I remember my first couple of weeks in the military..I was dumbfounded by, and lost until I learned it’s own unique language…language is just one of those adaptive aspects of being human..isn’t written language itself a visual process? We still have to see it or feel it to undersatnd it?

  • Terrific article. I’d like to ask you to rewrite it or allow me to republish it on my blog about the advancements and changes of society influenced by science and technology. You can check out the blog at http://www.fullwarp.comor e-mail me at Jason@tweednet.com.

  • model_1066

    A picture may be worth 1000 words, but the words are subjective because the viewer sees what they want to see. Images convey emotions and desires (hello advertising!) but not logical thought. Rorschact was onto that back in the day.

  • model_1066

    ‘Convey’ wasn’t the term I was looking for….more like ‘elicits’

    Cheers

  • Dave–

    This is an important post. Gives me much to ponder…

    As a child, I escaped into the world of words, ordering them, rearranging them, etc., — while my better half escaped into the world of ordering color and making it fool the eye with his arrangements.

    Now I think of our coming generation, with at least half of them non-literate in any functional sense, but able to beat out rhythms and rhymes that attract others to listen…not me, but lots of their followers…who are attracted to “singers” who give themselves semi-literate names.

    And I come full circle again to the Psalms, definitely an oral tradition before they were ever set down.

    I don’t have any conclusions, just the ponderings your essay evoked for me….

    In medieval theology the eye — sight — was associated with envy.

    I don’t know how they handled the other senses…

    Powerful essay. Thank you.

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