Wake up and smell the Post-Literacy

Iconoclast originally described those who smashed religious statues to combat idolatry but essayist Christine Rosen put a secular spin on the term in a lengthy lament entitled “The Image Culture.” In it she observes that television and new media have saturated us with images — the World Trade Center collapse, the New Orleans floods — that so dominate the public agenda that “articulate person(s are) being rendered mute, forced to communicate via gesture and expression rather than language.”

Well, fortunately that is not quite true, at least in the case of Rosen who weaves this woeful thread through an engaging 20-page piece with many a fine turn of phrase and not one rude gesture. I’ll gently dissent from her world-gone-to-hell-in-a-handbasket-view momentarily, but first let quote her own fears of a public discourse reduced to poster children, sound bytes and bumper stickers. Looking ahead to this coarsened future she concludes in part thus:

” … we will have lost something profound: the ability to marshal words to describe the ambiguities of life and the sources of our ideas; the possibility of conveying to others, with the subtlety, precision, and poetry of the written word, why particular events or people affect us as they do; and the capacity, through language, to distill the deeper meaning of common experience. We will become a society of a million pictures without much memory … “

Lovely words even if I find them overly defeatist. Like my country friend says, “That dog can hunt!” Of course dogs hunt in packs and after finishing her essay I inquired about The New Atlantis, the journal for which she wrote. It is published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, “a neoconservative Washington think tank” according to an article on NewsFactor Online magazine announcing the journal’s launch in 2003. That article noted — for those of us previously ignorant — that “The New Atlantis” harkened back to a like-titled essay — written by Sir Francis Bacon and published in 1627 shortly after his death — that describes his utopian vision. The managing editor of the modern day New Atlantis told NewsFactor the journal intended to provoke “thoughtful and candid discussion about the implications of advancing technology.”

As a newspaper reporter who has covered Northern California high-tech industries for more than a decade, that strikes me as a noble goal and explains why I’ve glanced at the cover of New Atlantis ever since it began appearing in my mailbox — and why I read Rosen’s piece all the way through. I also feel like we live in a media-saturated society and I am particularly vexed at the repetition of imagery. For instance, I walked away from the television on September 11 when the second tower began to fall down and since then I have deliberately avoided seeing those images again. I know it happened. I’m not in denial. But I’ll be goddamned before I will aid and abet the murders who performed those acts by feasting on that horror and in so doing instilling fear an anger into my own heart.

So while I am to some degree simpatico with Rosen, ultimately I think she misses two essential points. First, ideas have come alive in the blogosphere. Yes, there is lots of noise, but there are now emerging networks of like-minded people who are doing astonishing works around the globe. This gives me enormous hope. Second, we have as yet no idea of the ways in which video may be used more thoughtfully and artfully than it has been up till now. I generally subscribe to the view that the written word encourages disciplined thought and imagery inspires emotional response. But image creation and manipulation are centuries newer than written language. I do think that I succumb to technohype when I postulate that maybe as video tools proliferate into millions of hands, a new grammar of video communication will arise that will be more expressive than the grunts and gestures Rosen fears.

Anyway, gotta run to work. Have a great Christmas holiday and if I’m flaky next week and post little or not at all, have a sane and happy New Year.

Tom Abate
‘Cause if you ain’t Mass Media, you’re Mini Media