The Third Culture James Bailey

The Spread of Universal Visual Literacy

Beneath Keith Devlin's "Death of the Paragraph" lies a deeper and even less reported story: the spread of Universal Visual Literacy. Visual Literacy is the ability not just to understand knowledge in visual form but also to create it. Future generations of scientists (and poets) are growing up with Photoshop in their fingertips. To them, a conjunction is a video fade or wipe as much as a but or a yet. A modifier is a texture on a 3D model as much as an adverb. With the (under-reported) close of the Gutenberg Era, young scholars are no longer constrained to old textual modes of communication. With the aid of new electronic tools for expressing knowledge visually, they will go back and forth with a facility unknown since Leonardo.

The reason this matters hugely is that visual modes of knowing can accurately apprehend and communicate realities that are parallel, whereas paragraphs and equations force us to pretend, with Descartes, that life really happens in the single-step-at-a-time sequences that the printing press demands. In the Gutenberg Era, the master scientific concept was the equality of two strings of symbols on a printed page. For young scientists growing up today, the master scientific concept is the all-at-once docking of one molecular shape onto the binding site of another on a computer screen.

Perhaps the most egregious example of using the old sequential concepts of the Gutenberg Era to try to express parallel reality is our current enthusiasm for the lame assertion that life is speeding up. Here is a candidate for the most over-reported story of our time. As a culture we are stringing together whole bookloads of paragraphs trying to apply the centuries-old sequential concept of speed to whatever is going on right now, because that is the best that text seems to be able to do. Count on todayÜs fourth-grader, with her iBook and her Chime plug-in in her back pack, to do a whole lot better some day. But by the time she finishes high school, she will still be able to understand our old ways, because, along with her daily biology and art classes, she will humor her physicist parents and take two days a week of Algebra Appreciation.

JAMES BAILEY is an independent scholar focusing on the impact of electronic computing on the overall history of ideas. He is the author of After Thought: The Computer Challenge to Human Intelligence.