The news is in pictures, literally and figuratively. Visual images have exploded through our world, challenging the primacy of written text. A photograph bridges the diversity of cultures and languages. Tens of thousands of independent agents send it racing through overlapping networks. Public responses surge globally with exponential speed. Political leaders act, or fail.
Never before have visual images so dynamically pervaded our daily lives. Never before have they been so influentially generated by amateurs as well as editors and advertisers. Digitization brings the creation of images within everyone’s purview. The Internet gives the means to communicate visually and the imperative to do so. Images now form a necessary component of even heavily text-based websites. Social media coalesces around visual imagery. Written text works brilliantly in so many ways, but it has never worked in quite this way.
The convergence of technology and the visual does not announce itself with the eclat of a seminal scientific breakthrough. It claims no headlines. Our culture associates images with infancy. Pictures appear in childhood storybooks, disappearing as we progress to sophisticated novels. Our new emphasis on the image has much to surmount. In the future some critics will condemn it as the tipping point in the death of literacy. They will be wrong. It is a tipping point, and a stealthy one—but for a very different reason. It lays the foundation for the paradigm shift essential to our survival.
Reading is a linear experience. Alphanumeric text unfolds inexorably in unidirectional, chronological sequence. It calls on us to focus narrowly on symbols in lines isolated from context. To read, we retreat from our hugely complex visual environment.
Granted, the content of written text can refer to complexities. It often does. Poetic prose can use rhymes and resonances to signal relationships and make meanings potent. Always, though, alphanumeric text comprises discreet segments, not holistic representations. We read words, sentences, paragraphs, consecutively, one following another. We must gather them together ourselves to construct and consider the relationships therein.
A visual image embodies the whole at a glance. All the intangible connections, all the invisible yet pregnant relationships between the component parts, present themselves in concert. It is up to us to perceive these intertwined threads and make meaning of them. Sometimes we do; sometimes we don’t. Regardless, independent of us, in the image they always simultaneously exist.
This is how we live. We do not experience our world as a series of discreet visible components. Such distortion of reality would have compromised evolutionary success. We intuit the network of invisible relationships underlying the concrete entities we see, and create holistic meaning accordingly. Visual images prompt us to do the same.
Innovations in data visualization underscore the value of visual imagery in representing intangibles. Again, technology makes it possible. Computers find non-linear patterns in space and time embedded in huge datasets. Programs such as spatial mapping make these complex connections vivid. Scientists have long used visualizations to portray natural systems. Increasingly, social and cultural researchers choose similar software to embody subjective human experience. Today, interactive maps show dynamic networks in process, not frozen instants of artificial stasis. As technology opens new avenues for exploration of relationships, disciplines across academia embrace fresh questions in emerging forms. To focus on intangibles, these questions demand the power of imagery.
The tsunami of visual images washing over our world makes this power evident. But tsunami, though a visual metaphor, is a poor one. It implies danger. In fact, the recent immersion in visual images counters a perilously segmented perspective. Written text holds phenomenal importance in recent human history. It will continue to do so, for obvious and compelling reasons. Authentically representing reality is not one of those reasons. Visual images gain such popularity today, and such currency, because they achieve what written text cannot. They show us the intangibles that define our world.
One might think the elevation of the image will prompt us all the more to focus solely on what we see with our eyes. In fact, immersion in visual imagery mirrors how we really experience reality: constantly constructing meaning from invisible relationships in our visual field. The famous metaphor about perception, "You can’t see the forest for the trees," hints at this process, but it misses the greater paradigm shift. The forest remains a visible entity. We need to discern the invisible, intangible ecosystem that underlies our forest and drives all that happens here. Visual images carry the potential to remind us to look. They help us focus on what we cannot see.
Our future depends on how well we do that. Today’s marriage of technology and the visual gives us the means. The Internet gives us popular demand. It mirrors the complexities of holistic visual experience comprising intangible connections. Even in digital text, highlighted hyperlinks bombard us with visual reminders that relationships exist. We explore web connections in orders and directions of our own choosing. We receive information immediately thinking of whether and with whom to share it. A generation has grown up expecting assertive interaction with non-linear formats. Technology paired with imagery frees us from the artificial isolation of linear reading. We will never return to that solitary confinement.
The news is in pictures. We do stand at a tipping point, created by convergence of images and technology. In the future, this moment may be decried as the death knell for literacy, just another item in a long list of societal failings. It may be extolled as the popular vanguard of a paradigm that makes global problem solving possible. What it will mean in twenty-five years depends on what we all make it mean now.