The Dishonesty of Visual Culture

This page contains an abstracted version of a talk I gave at Siggraph 96, in a panel called "Breaking the Myth: A Picture is Not (Always) Worth 1000 Words." As an artist I am deeply concerned with the value of images, and as a writer I am equally concerned with words. I think we are moving towards a culture where images will matter more, and this disturbs me. The talk explains why.

Pictures Lie
All images are bounded in time and space. Whether they are photographic or synthetic, stills or films, they still capture only some specific region of space and time. Anything that goes on outside of that region is unknown. The simple act of framing in time and space expresses value judgements and relationships. In expressing subjective opinions such as these, one must commit sins of omission and commision.

Visual Culture Prefers Pictures
In a visual culture, pictures are more important than words. This is because images are often considered more truthful than text, which obviously requires interpretation. Phrases like "The camera never lies" and "I'll believe it when I see it" express the value we place on the seemingly direct interpretation of images.

"Did you get it?" becomes "Did you see it?" An image is expected to speak for itself. Text becomes only another visual design element, no more nor less important than any other. Magazines like Mondo 2000, Ray Gun, and Wired are all but unreadable, and they don't seem to mind; the text is not terribly important.

Pictures Show Things
Images present external representations: ads, faces, products. Internal human states can only be communicated by their physical manifestation. Strong moods and emotions that read clearly work best for imagery. These tend to be negative or confrontational: anger, conflict, and competitiveness work well.

But they must be physical; millions watch athletics, but people laugh at televised chess. Even though two world-class players are facing off one-on-one with enormous stakes at risk in an environment of fierce competition, chess is not visually exciting. Important human states are all but unapproachable: how do you make an image of integrity?

The Promises of Visual Culture
Visual culture promises that it's good news. We are told that images need no interpretation, and any bias they might have is obvious. Visuals are honest, objective, and true. And because they can be so easily decontextualized, they are unifying.

The Deceit of Visual Culture
These promises are false. Visuals are inherently ambiguous, and require text for specific interpretation. An image that is unambiguous in meaning must be shallow in content; with increased depth comes increased uncertainty about what is being said.

"You can't trust everything you see" becomes "You can't trust anything you see." Even before deliberate high-quality image manipulation, the message carried by images was doctored to tell a specific story. Now, visual images have no reliability as an accurate representation of external consensus reality.

Presentation Triumphs Over Idea
How you appear is more important that what you say. This is true throughout the visual culture. You can see it any weeknight when the visual culture is at its most profound - the "serious" TV news shows such as MacNeil-Lehrer or Nightline. While claiming to provide content, they damage an issue simply by the way they must force it into the format of the show. People try to win, not discuss. You win with the best argument, not the best information. The so-called Presidential debates every four years are nothing but image.

Images cannot discuss themselves. Images cannot provide a forum for discussing the inherent limitations of images. And visual imagery has no mechanism for discussing other modes of discourse that can present other interpretations; that is, visual imagery cannot go meta and it cannot go outside itself.

The Fate of Citizens
Mander has pointed out that a creature can respond to its environment in four basic ways, depending on the demands and rewards of the environment and the preferences of the creature. This extends to the visual culture, where our choices are to adapt, rebel, go crazy, or die.

The Dishonesty of Visual Culture
The problem is not imagery itself but the increasing dominance of imagery over text. The visual culture does not deliver on its promises. Images are deeply biased, and inherently ambiguous. Decontextualization destroys meaning and invites fragmentation. Critical individual thought is devalued.

Fight Back: Read and Think!
Here are six books that I recommend for stirring up the juices. The first two are novels, the next three are social criticism, and the last is contemporary philosophy.

by George Orwell (Signet, ISBN 0-451-52493-4)
The classic vision of an oppressive dystopia. Orwell gave us Big Brother, the controlling language of newspeak, and the soul-destroying concepts of doublethink and crimethink.

Brave New World
by Aldous Huxley (Harper, ISBN 0-06-080983-3)
Another classic dystopia. Huxley argued that a happy but carefully controlled society would be crippling to the soul. In an atmosphere of culture control and drugs, people can live calm, simple lives of ease, but human beings deserve the chance to develop as individuals.

Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television
by Jerry Mander (Quill, ISBN 0-688-08274-2)
TV turns off thinking and manipulates feeling. Because it thereby damages the spirit of the viewer, Mander wants people to turn off their TVs, for good. His well-presented argument has two steps: TV stinks, and a whole lot of TV stinks a whole lot. He's right on both counts.

by Neil Postman (Vintage, ISBN 0-679-74540-8)
Compare two quotes. From Postman: "Technologies create the ways in which people perceive reality" (pg. 21). From Wilber (listed below), "[things in the visible world] are neutral, value-free" (pg. 309). Postman argues that the latter belief is the more common one, and that it's dangerously wrong. The physical artifact that is an automobile carries a social change. Adopting automobiles into one's life means that one then comes to a value choice between using up the oil in the ground, alternative energy sources, or giving up cars. So the car brings with it the industry and results of oil drilling. So it is with all technologies, including computers; accepthing these machines invites the social changes that are inherent in their function.

Manufacturing Consent
by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (Pantheon Books, ISBN 0-679-72034-0)
What the heck is "news"? Millions of people read newspapers, watch TV news shows, listen to the radio, in efforts to stay in touch with some important information. Where did this concept come from? Who is choosing this information, and when and where and how it gets communicated? Herman and Chomsky argue that news is not objective information, but more like fairy tales with a truthful element surrounded by many layers of fantasy. This fantasy is made up by, and for the benefit of, the deep mutual interests of government, very large corporations, and the news industry itself. They argue that we live in a world of propaganda, not information.

A Brief History of Everything
by Ken Wilber (Shambhala, ISBN 1-57062-187-X)
Wilber is a philosopher in the traditional sense, but he is also interested in psychology and human development, and that makes his approach interesting. He argues that there are two main philosophies that drive our society, and that they are mutual enemies: heart versus mind. Wilber describes how he thinks that division came about, and the importance of integrating these approaches. I don't agree with everything he says, but I think a lot of the basic ideas are pretty good.