Digital Hegemony: The Clash Between Words and Pictures

Speech given during the "Spring Forum" at Middle Tennessee State University, Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Spring, 1996

Paul Martin Lester (E-mail and home page), California State University, Fullerton

Mark Twain once said that an expert is anyone from out of town. Well, I'm no expert---but I play one on the Internet. And so, from cyberspace to cybermeat, It's great to be here with you today.

I'd like to thank all those responsible for my visit here---Dean Leaming, professor Marc Barr and the Spring Forum Committee members, Professor Chris Harris, whom I knew in a former life 20 years ago in New Orleans---but I want to reserve my special thanks to your chair Mary Nichols. She was so kind to send me a parking permit. THANK YOU......but I FLEW here. So, would anyone want this? It's good for the whole day.

A wise person once said, "You know you're a success if you can't tell the difference between work and play." And so, once again, I blur that line between the two by being here with you today.

When I get to a town, I always like to buy a city map. Now, I'm not saying that Murfreesboro is a small town, but I must admit I was a bit taken aback---I never saw a map that was ACTUAL SIZE. I also like to get a T-shirt when I visit a town. My favorites from the shop I was in were:

Murfreesboro: Anagram for ROB SURFER MOE

My parents stayed home, and I went to Murfreesboro, and all I got was a good night's sleep.

But my favorite was:

Murfreesboro: Gateway to the SUPER Walmart.

But seriously...

I've been asked to consider these questions---What is the meaning of the digital revolution? How can we make sense of it? What are the implications for the future? Whatever happened to Cat Stephens? Why should we ask? Why should we care?

Why should we ask these questions?

Because big business and the government are asking, and if they find out first, the Internet will be about as creative as ordering your third Longneck Budweiser standing at a smoky bar in Michigan City, Indiana watching tournament bowling on a greasy, black and white television set.

What does it all mean?

I haven't a clue. And here's why I and we should be forgiven:

Cave drawings were first made about 30,000 years ago.

The first recorded writing was in Sumeria about 5,500 years ago.

Gutenberg's printing press was invented about 500 years ago.

Daguerre's, Fox Talbot's, and my personal hero, Hipolyte Bayard's photographic inventions were introduced about 150 years ago.

The desktop computer was invented about 12 years ago.

And the World Wide Web was introduced about four years ago.

Now if a generation is about 20 years,

from cave drawings to writing is 1,275 generations

writing to the printing press is 250 generations

from the printing press to photography is 19 generations

from photography to desktop computing is 7 generations

and from desktop computing to the Web is less than 1/2 of one generation.

We simply have not had enough time to discover and evaluate the social impact of any technology.

PLUS. Words have had their way explaining things for hundreds of generations. But suddenly we are inundated with about 5,000 mediated (from the print and screen mass media) visual messages a day. And those who use words can't figure it out because they've never learned to read images.

I love words. My father and grandfather both worked for Texas newspapers. In fact, Today is the anniversary of the Texas City ship explosion in which my grandfather covered for the Houston Chronicle.

And I love pictures. I had a bedroom/darkroom when I was 12.

But there's something I love even more---and that's an ice cold Snapple---words and pictures together.

I like the word "zero" and a picture of a goose egg. I like the graphic symmetry of a crossword puzzle as much as finding the letters that fit in the white boxes. I love what words say and how words look when they say it. And I love a good photograph and the story it tells in words.

I've discovered that taking and talking about pictures actually slows down time---or at least teaches you to spend more time to really look---to slow the relentless stream of pictures---to stop the projector in your mind---so you can carefully study a single frame---and from one frame, larger truths may reveal themselves.

We've got to learn to slow the pace because we can't wait 50 to 100 generations---THIS is my/your generation.

So...I teach visual communication/visual literacy---but what I REALLY teach is how to create your own time machine.

And as an example, I will magically shrink an entire semester's visual communication course---four months, 18 lectures, into one and 1/2 hours.

To make sense of a visual message (note that I don't say "visual image"---I mean, when is an image NOT visual?), you've got to become familiar with its visual grammar---the rules for processing, presenting, and analyzing pictures. If you don't, you lose a picture's purpose and most always, it loses a place in your long-term memory. Here are two guys that have lost much of their long-term memory a long time ago:

[Wayne and Garth MTV video excerpt commenting on music videos that make no sense.]

MTV-style music videos are a complicated art form combining words and music of the song, visual messages that sometime and sometime not compliment those words, special visual effects---with editing, multiple images, colors, video clip art, and text, and maybe more importantly, your experience with the group, song, MTV, and so on.

So give Wayne and Garth a break.

Here are some still images that should be a bit easier to figure out.

[Slides that are actually, difficult to figure out what's going on.]

So even stills offer challenges. To try to come to an understanding about visual communication, we must start at the beginning.

Light. You must understand light. Wonderful invention, as James Burke might say, it burst on the scene about 50 billion years ago and was all over the place at a speed of about 186,000 miles a second.

Then, the eyes---windows to the soul.

Then there's the brain. We are born with all the brain cells we will ever have---about one trillion. About 100,000 die every day (and if you just say "yes" you lose a few more), but there are plenty left. (Nigel Holmes, the great infographic innovator once told me that the difference between a million, a billion, and a trillion is more than just simply adding zeros. Translate the three numbers into seconds and: a million seconds ago is about 12 days ago, a billion seconds ago would put us sometime around 1963, and a trillion seconds ago is about 30,000 years ago.) The brain is designed to notice four basic visual cues that not coincidentally, graphic designers put to their advantage getting you to notice a visual message---color, form, depth, and movement.

And then there are the visual theories---sensual ones such as the gestalt approach that says we notice things because of their graphic relationship to each other element and to the frame and the perceptual theories such as semiotics that says we notice things because of what they mean to us.

You also need to know about visual persuasion. I know most are concerned about digital manipulation of documentary photography, but the mixing of advertising, public relations, and journalism largely because of corporate influences on the newsroom is far scarier because they often control when a picture or subject is manipulated.

And then you need to know how pictures stereotype people from diverse cultural groups. I'll talk more on that later. [See Images that Injure]

You need to know about typography.

Graphic design.

Informational graphics.




Television and video.


And networked interactive multimedia.

It's been said that a picture's worth 1,000 words. many have said that the Chinese philosopher, Confucius said it in 500 BC. But what kind of picture was Confucius talking about? Probably a simple line drawing. And as it turns out, in most word processing programs, 1,000 words is about 11K---equivalent to a simple line drawing. But when Hollywood digitizes a frame for a special effect, a single frame is about a 40 Meg file. So, a picture today is worth about 25 million words!

Frederick Barnard in 1927 is actually to have made up the quote so companies would buy streetcar advertising cards that were loaded with pictures from his company. [See 1000 Words]. To his credit, he used actual Chinese letters for his phony quotation. But when translated, the words are not:

A picture's worth a thousand words, but

A picture's meaning can express 10,000 words.

The first version sets up a clash between words and pictures, while the second, an equivalency.

A picture is not literally the same as any number of words, but its meaning can inspire thousands of words. So the quotation, regardless of its origination, suggests that a picture is filled with words---every picture tells a story---while every word forms a picture.

As Aristotle once said,

There is no word
Without an image.

Now I want to show some pictures that tell many stories in hundreds of thousands of words.

[Images that Injure slide show as seen here.]

Show members of diverse cultural groups in everyday life situations.

Have the courage to explore in words and pictures the underlying social problems at the heart of a violent act.

Learn all you can about visual literacy so you can really look at the images in newspapers, magazines, and on your local television news show.

Take the time to study the snapshots of your friends and family and the images printed, broadcast, and downloaded and question yourself and all who will listen about the meaning and ethics of the images we make and see.


Each one of us s a medium for communication.

Each one of us is a river that flows to the sea.

Each one of us is an individual---

Independent, unique, and linked

To all who have been and all who will be.

Thank you.