Two weeks ago I was riding a ferry between the island of Cozumel and Playa del Carmen on the Mexican mainland. In the passenger compartment, a TV was showing music videos and commercials in Spanish. Many of the passengers appeared to be Anglo tourists like me, escaping the frigid US. The view outside was breathtaking blue-green Caribbean perfection. It didn't matter: Nearly everyone was watching the TV.
Such is the power of the moving image - the same power that makes fans at ballgames look at the giant video screen rather than the action on the field. Video is not just the sights and sounds of life, it's "better" than life - faster, closer, more entertaining.
All this troubles philosophers and media critics - and rightly so. People are spending more time - much of it passive and detached - watching screens and less time doing things like reading books and talking with other people. How is this changing them?
New York University journalism professor Mitchell Stephens comes to some bold conclusions in a new book, "the rise of the image the fall of the word" (Oxford University Press). Yes, video is the future. Yes, it's actually changing the way thought processes work. And, yes, concerned people will try to fight a vigorous rear-guard action against this change.
But it will happen anyway, Mr. Stephens says. Resistance is, well, futile. Better to plunge ahead, he argues, and move into the post-word world at warp speed.
Video rules. Get used to it.
What happens to linear, cause-and-effect thinking that thousands of years of learning via the printed word has taught us? (In text, idea follows idea: As the Bible puts it, "precept upon precept, line upon line.")
Scrap that. Think of frantic MTV videos, fast-cutting commercials, and staccato movie trailers as hints of where we're headed: images that explode across the screen, sometimes many per second, images that combine, distort, re-form, change ... communicate.
Here's the good news: What we lose will be offset by gains. Those fast-moving images will reveal new juxtapositions between ideas that plodding through an argument in print never will.
Stephens knows he's way out there with this idea that video will eclipse the word. But he reminds us that writing itself was once looked upon with suspicion: Great thinkers worried that putting thoughts in writing would destroy the ability to memorize, to remember. And reading couldn't possibly replace a Socratic dialogue as the vehicle for profound learning.
It's time to think about what it means if we're at the dawn of the video age. Maybe someday I'll be "writing" to you in a video expressing these ideas - and we'll both understand what Stephens is predicting a little better.
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