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
As an artist I am deeply concerned with the value of
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.
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
"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
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.
"Technologies create the ways in which people
perceive reality" (pg. 21).
From Wilber (listed below),
"[things in the visible world] are neutral, value-free"
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.
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
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.