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« The Future of Entertainment | Main | Music Category »

December 30, 2005

Image and Word

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Words come easily to me. They're my most direct form of expression; they're what I turn to first when I have something to communicate. Despite being a primarily-verbal guy, though, I cheer the fact that, these days, words are taking a beating.

[Brief interruption for those who haven't run across this argument. We're said by many to be living at a time when the dominance of The Word is coming to an end. For hundreds of years -- the usual account locates the origin of this state of affairs at the time of Descartes -- words have held sway over all the other media. And modes of thinking that words are sometimes said to promote -- linearity, rationality -- have lorded it over other kinds of thinking. Nowadays -- what with computers, screens, recordings, email, advances in printing, etc. -- that super-verbal era is coming to a close. Images and sounds are turning up everywhere, and so are clickable buttons. We're moving into a less-authoritarian era -- one in which books, paper, and linearity become mere parts in a more-fluid, ever-turning-over, interactive, multimedia jumble. Such is the story anyway. Some people think this is a good development. Many people think it's a bad one. Most people seem to stare in amazement, and to feel bewildered and ambivalent ...]

As far as I'm concerned, the de-throning of The Word is a great thing. Why shouldn't words take their modest place among the other media? Why shouldn't they stop carrying on so pompously and learn how to play nice? This attitude makes me a rarity among verbal people. I have many writer friends who feel very depressed about these developments. They trained themselves in and for a very different world, and they feel as though much of what they care about is dying. There's no question it's a tough time to be a writer.

So many people agree that we're living at a time when, after a long period of subjection to The Word, The Image and The Sound are asserting themselves. And good for The Image and The Sound. Still, things can sometimes be taken too far. Graphics get used not because they work well, but because they're cool, or attractive, or punchy, or something. There's nothing wrong with words, after all. But Image-people especially seem to get carried away on a regular basis, choosing imagery and graphics when a printed word or two might have functioned far better. Perhaps they're a little drunk on their newfound power?

Here's an example. The photo is a closeup of the side of The Wife's iBook:

Power plug Ibook01.jpg

Can you tell which wire or plug is meant to be stuck into that hole? I certainly can't, and the cute graphic that Apple's designers have supplied isn't giving me any help. Would it have killed the designers to print the word "Power" next to the plug?

Why topple one tyrant (words) only to install another (graphics) in its place?



posted by Michael at December 30, 2005


Michael – I think that words and images have always co-existed. For example, cave paintings likely existed at the same time that people had the ability to talk about those paintings. I think you may also be conflating Words (spoken language) and Text (books and written media). I recall a fascinating PBS broadcast show called “Connections,” that featured an episode about the impact of Gutenberg’s printing press on the West. Instead of depending solely on the authority of the Church (and the monopoly of handwritten manuscripts), people could go out into the world, record their observations and then go to a printer to have their work published. But along with the rise of printed text also came the rise of engraving to accompany text, or to stand alone. From Durer to Audubon to comic books, pictures have been as important as words.

I welcome an era in which sounds, images, video, etc. can be as easily disseminated as text. I would love to have an ebook which contained the text of Hamlet, a range of historical criticism, and several video performances of the play. I would like to be able to read an ebook about the Civil War which also contained embedded animations of the major battles so that I could see the play of strategy more clearly.

I am not sure, however, that the coming multi-media jumble will lead to a less authoritarian era. Even the most rabid proponent of the internet has to admit that most writers desperately need editors. And although it appears that everyone has an opinion, and will soon be able to express it, not all opinions are equally well-informed. Worse, rumor-mongering, urban legends and outright lies move across the net at the speed of light. No matter the medium, authority arises in part to help separate the intellectual wheat from the chaff. I also suspect that over time Internet publishers will arise to organize the most interesting, insightful or simply most popular media creators.

Posted by: Alec on December 30, 2005 3:15 PM

This is not exactly addressing your point (about interfaces and words), but I would call the period between 1997 and the present to be more textual/verbal than any we've seen before.

I always considered myself the king of letter writing, but now everybody sends everybody else a bundle of emails. (I'm not even including chat transcripts or threaded discussions or blog comments).

People have more opportunity (and need) to verbalize away. I once counted that for two years between 2001 and 2003 I wrote 4700 emails. Some of them were forwards and one line messages, but I also sent a lot of tomes. And it is surprising how often people I would never regard as "letter writers" end up sending me 5 paragraph emails every month or so.

As it becomes easier to stream your voice and video online, I guess we'll send fewer emails, but let's not lose sight of how much people are writing nowadays, not just bloggers but ordinary people too.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on December 30, 2005 3:33 PM

I forgot to address the hole. Everyone who does stuff with computers knows that they are supposed to be intuitive and that the user just tries every plug in every hole that it will fit. And some holes don't fit anything, like that little air hole or whatever it is.

Some people's theory of human relations is much the same.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 30, 2005 3:35 PM

Apple will certainly save on locaization costs since there is no need to translate a little graphic/icon.

Posted by: Nate on December 30, 2005 3:39 PM

This is the post that was supposed to go BEFORE the one about the hole, as nearly as I can remember, because I accidentally erased it.

There is a close relationship between the U of Chicago Div School and the Second City Comedy Company in that both depend upon the trick of turning everything upside down. Some scholar, tired of studying the "either/or" theories of Kierkegard, decided to invent a German theologian who believed in the "both/and." Naturally his name began with a B -- namely, Bibfedlt. I find his theories endlessly useful and would apply it to the word/image dilemma. I like the idea of the text, the performance, the opera version, some commentary, the movie and a time-line all on the same DVD. In that instance, one would have to move to the principle of "the more the merrier."

There are a small percentage of people on the planet -- possibly increasing due to mutations or environment or both -- who can read only with great difficulty or not at all. These people are not victims of bad educations -- their brains are wired differently. Some of them are excellent at verbal pursuits -- a surprising number of lawyers whose staff does all the reading.

In Asia poetry has long been presented in a way that is a relevant image and that's before English was sometimes printed on the page to imitate a snake.

The truth is that the problem is not a war between word and image or even the informed versus the ignoramus. The problem -- which is actually a disguised opportunity -- is that our delivery systems have gone haywire. Publishing, distribution, access, promotion -- all dumped out on the ground without form. Hopefully we will emerge from all this with something both new and worth preserving, both brilliant and challenging.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 30, 2005 3:48 PM

-People who don't read/write much.

-People who prefer ambiguous graphical depictions to simple written descriptions.

-People who mistake cleverness of design for usefulness of design.

-People who are cool. Cool people are too cool to ask questions. Cool designers design cool products for other cool people. Adding clarifying words to those cool little diagrams wouldn't be cool.

-All of the above.

Posted by: Jonathan on December 30, 2005 5:32 PM

Here's a fun article Dave Lull pointed out: a prof complaining that her students think reading is uncool.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 30, 2005 5:57 PM

"Why topple one tyrant (words) only to install another (graphics) in its place?"

Good point indeed.
There are symbols used by ITunes which I have still not figured out after a year's use.

Posted by: David Sucher on December 30, 2005 6:30 PM

Working title for the post: "Froggytime Part 3: How to flirt with Frenchwomen."

Don't know if I buy it... but even if true, images and sound will never replace words, for just the reason you note w/ the Mac plug: non-linguistic signs are too abstract to effectively communicate. Gesture-miming or image-miming somewhat do the job, but non-linguistic sounds are even more difficult to work with. Assuming you want more than suggestive impressions, words are all you've got. So I doubt that they're going anywhere.

Just in case what you're saying is true for the media world, though, it'll mean lots fewer women in the media. Men outnumber women in visual media pretty decently, and when it comes to non-linguistic sound (like music), it's not even a contest. In linguistic media, though, women are pretty well represented. We'll see.

Posted by: Agnostic on December 30, 2005 8:37 PM

Now I'm reflecting on books as the basis of law -- WRITTEN law is pretty key to Western Civilization. Bible, Koran, various constitutions and declarations. Instructions, guarantees, contracts -- can't be done in images. No equivalent to fine print in images. It's how we keep track of a reference point, what was agreed upon.

But if these are too unclear and confused to be useful, can images provide any help? Having the object at hand can be useful. I've assembled furniture kits by using BOTH words and images, schematics and arrows. I learned computer programs by following videotapes. (Spoken word plus demonstration.) Only rarely from books. Least of all in groups, classes.

It seems to me that computer screens mix words (spoken and printed), images (moving and still) in a way that is more effective than any communication since Charlie Russell illustrated his letters by drawing on them, but you still need Charlie Russell to get such good results. In the right hands, so many resources are wonderful. In unskilled or purposeless hands, it's just jumble.

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 30, 2005 9:09 PM

Long live words. The only reason the nonlinear can exist is because the linear exists. All those nonlinear plays, movies, ect. rely on the linear, so much so that it is ridiculous. The linear is the chicken and the egg, and the nonlinear is the breakfast sandwich served at your fast food shack.
The fall of words is fine now, because we still live on their (WORDS') inheritance. We can frolic amid the images and marvel at them (and much of them deserve to be marveled at). But we can already read the writing on the wall (or for those who need it -- the pictures on the wall) as a major study just showed many college students --COLLEGE STUDENTS -- can't follow arguments and in some cases decipher labels. It's just as we as a country can spend hundreds of billions in credit now because our past gives us a global credit rating. But the bill will sooner or later be due.
We will pay a bill for abandoning words. I ask the ladies and gentlemen of the jury to picture that day and fight against it.

Posted by: steve A on December 30, 2005 9:24 PM

Michael --

With regards to the iBook example, only the power plug fits the power socket, so the symbol is merely provides a shortcut to picking the right plug. The symbol/wording trade-off is one of how to deal with non-English speakers. The symbol is presumably easier to distinguish than "Power" for a non-English speaker.

Besides, once Steve Jobs has sold every human being one of these gizmos, we'll all recognize this symbol.

Posted by: anon on December 30, 2005 10:02 PM

I think that words, at the authoritative level, have been replaced by mathematics and other kinds of formal thinking. Even more linear, in other words. Sometimes that quantitative stuff is fake, but a lot of it isn't, and if you're weak at math (as I am compared to sharp people, but not compared to other intellectuals) you can be out of luck.

I think that the multi-media jumble leads to a heavily-manipulated kind of mob populism. I lose both ways -- I'm not one of the manipulators, and I can't join most mobs, especially not recently. (Yes, granting the realities in force, if I could form and manipulate my own mob I would. But I don't have those skills).

Posted by: John Emerson on December 31, 2005 7:32 AM

Here's something to contemplate. I wrote a book and friends and relatives clamored to read it even before I had a publisher. So I sent it to two of them, one on a CD, making sure they had the right software and so on. (Partly I was thinking about New Orleans and thinking it was a good thing to have copies in faraway places.) One on paper to the person who has for forty years declared himself a devoted fan. Neither of them read it.

This year I send to four persons (including these two) a story read out loud onto a CD. (I'm trying to learn how to do this on my computer and to move towards podcasting.) So far two out of the four have sat down and listened to it. All these people are literate, achieving, reading people -- over 60. But they'd really rather see the movie.

Of course, maybe the writing just isn't that good. In that case, I've got some real hypocrites for friends. Sigh.

Oh, and when I got a strong flashlight to check out the holes in this computer, I discovered they all have little symbols that match the appropriate little plugs. It's just that they're sub-visual to retired persons.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 31, 2005 9:42 PM

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