John Seven: Emphasis on visual communication comes with a blind spot
Posted Monday, May 15, 2017 12:54 pm
By John Seven
NORTH ADAMS — A number of writers have lately taken to analyzing Neil Postman's 32-year-old book, "Amusing Ourselves To Death," in context its prophetic tone about the current state of our nation.
My particular contribution to the current discussion is an embarrassing confession — I've never read the thing. I've read articles about it, I've read interviews with Postman, but I've never read the actual book. In that way, I feel I've let myself down, since I am in agreement with the things the book was prophetic about.
Postman wrote the book before there was an internet, and before there was social media, and before there was micro-blogging and image sharing and all that, but he predicted a world where everything, all knowledge, all experience, all emotion, would boil down to one thing — noise.
And he predicted a world where noise would compete against itself for your attention. The common link between what gets your attention is that it meets your needs in regard to holding your attention at that moment — that's all. That makes for a strange intellectual experience for anyone lost in the barrage and trying to grasp onto something, anything.
Many of Postman's ideas are wrapped around the notion that as the written word becomes less our focus, visual communication stands at the center, but that's less capable of expressing the complications that words do. I agree and disagree with this. I'd say visuals express different types of ideas than words, and that the complexity of the ideas expressed in visual language is only as sophisticated as the visual being presented.
Over the last 30 years, visual communication might not have overcome verbal communication, but it's seized a position of equality. This makes it unfortunate that while we still mostly value a verbal education, we are less inclined to acknowledge the importance of a visual one. I attended NYU film school, and one of the main points of that major is not just teaching you the technical side of how to make a movie, but helping you learn to dissect an image, and then a series of images, to know how to read a picture and to view the visual as a form of communication that passes on information and poses questions.
How sad that our society devalues an art education to the degree it does. We've placed the visual at the center of our form of communicating, but we feel disdain for the idea that ordinary people should have the opportunity to learn how to use it with any sophistication. We have agreed on a language, but we are less sure that people should be allowed to learn it beyond the basics.
It's no wonder we have such a hard time talking to and understanding each other anymore. Add to that the sheer barrage of information competing for attention, a situation where any sane human being is going to latch onto the information that is the least painful to absorb, and we're in big trouble. Our culture has fractured into a million choices created by technology, and while I see this freedom as a good thing, I also view it as coming with a cost. Everything comes with a cost, even good things.
The cost here is shared experience, created through shared culture and manifesting as shared language. The younger you are, the more likely you are to have this common space, but it dissipates with each year passing. By the time you're 40, your language is vastly different to that of many other citizens. We have become pockets of society sewn together by our systems of communication.
Mandatory visual arts education is a good start to a remedy. Demand visual literacy. Don't just stare at pretty pictures anymore — learn to listen to them, too.
Contact John Seven at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @damnjohnseven. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.