Yesterday's New York Times Magazine was headed "The Screen Issue" and dedicated to an exploration of how screen-based media are changing our world. I was particulary intrigued by Kevin Kelly's essay "Becoming Screen Literate", in which he describes his view that "We are now in the middle of a second Gutenberg shift — from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality."
He is not alone in this view, and there has been much written about how new screen-based media are transforming the very way we think. Wht struck me about this article was Mr. Kelly's description of literacy as requiring a rich set of tools far beyond the basic building blocks of the ability to comprehend the meaning of a word on a page:
But merely producing movies with ease is not enough for screen fluency, just as producing books with ease on Gutenberg’s press did not fully unleash text. Literacy also required a long list of innovations and techniques that permit ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that make it useful. For instance, quotation symbols make it simple to indicate where one has borrowed text from another writer. Once you have a large document, you need a table of contents to find your way through it. That requires page numbers. Somebody invented them (in the 13th century). Longer texts require an alphabetic index, devised by the Greeks and later developed for libraries of books. Footnotes, invented in about the 12th century, allow tangential information to be displayed outside the linear argument of the main text. And bibliographic citations (invented in the mid-1500s) enable scholars and skeptics to systematically consult sources. These days, of course, we have hyperlinks, which connect one piece of text to another, and tags, which categorize a selected word or phrase for later sorting.
All these inventions (and more) permit any literate person to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, quote experts and sample bits of beloved artists. These tools, more than just reading, are the foundations of literacy.
He then goes on to propose that rapidly advancing computer technologies, including the use of technology to harness "the collective intelligence of humans", are enabling the application of the building blocks of textual literacy described above to be applied to visual images so that they can be searched, sorted, organized and retrieved much as words and text are today.
"As moving images become easier to create, easier to store, easier to annotate and easier to combine into complex narratives, they also become easier to be remanipulated by the audience. This gives images a liquidity similar to words. Fluid images made up of bits flow rapidly onto new screens and can be put to almost any use. Flexible images migrate into new media and seep into the old. Like alphabetic bits, they can be squeezed into links or stretched to fit search engines, indexes and databases. They invite the same satisfying participation in both creation and consumption that the world of text does."
Unwritten, but implied, is a sense that this new "visuality" will supplant text-based literacy as the primary means of communicating ones thoughts and ideas. I have to admit that as someone who loves the written word this makes me a bit apprehensive. Ispend very little time watching movies, television, or YouTube because I prefer to read instead; and while I love the new Web 2.0 and social networking tools I am drawn to those that are primarily based on the written word, such as blogs and written status updates from my Facebook Friends.
One of the things I love about reading is that the words on the page are transformed through my own experience and imagination into images of my own making, and I avoid seeing the movie versions of books that I have loved because the visual images on the screen rarely live up to what I have imagined.
I can't help but wonder whether something will be lost when communication is via a visual depiction in glorious technicolor that leaves little to the imagination, rather than words (whether spoken or written) that demand transformation into an image of my own making....but what do you think?