Literacy in the Era of the Image

The word literacy finds its roots in the eighteenth-century word literatus, which quite literally means ?one who knows the letters. But it has come to refer to much more than the ability to read an alphabet or other script. We think of literacy today as meaning “proficiency”–or more broadly, the ability to comprehend and to express or articulate.”

That’s the just the beginning of an interesting book by Stephen Apkon entitled The Age of the Image: Redefining Literacy in a World of Screens. As the title suggests, and as the introduction by director Martin Scorsese illustrates, there is more to 21st century literacy than comfort with the printed word. Apkon directs the Jacob Burns Center for Film and the Media Arts Lab, and so, he spends a fair amount of time thinking about the ways we exchange stories, ideas, and, of course, images.

ageoftheimage_255pxTrying to understand multimedia literacy by reading a book is, of course, absurd, but Apkon does the best he can within the limitations of the printed word. This adventure is made more complicated because of the necessary stops along the way: in order to understand moving images, one must first understand still images, and so, there is the obligatory tour through Civil War-era photography, and so on. I’m geeky on these subjects, so I found these chapters interesting, but the book doesn’t really take off until we get to the chapter about the brain’s responses to visual images, the one that’s called “The Brain Sees Pictures First.” The bottom line message: context is king. Individual images without connection to a story are filtered by the brain and rarely provoke any long-term impact. They may capture attention (the brain is constantly on the lookout for potential danger), but they are quickly and efficiently filtered out and almost always forgotten. Showing portions of Charlie Chaplin’s “City Lights” to an audience, researchers found that “…when you connect images in a fashion that creates a narrative story in a literate way, you elicit powerful responses.”

Apkon further illuminates and magnifies his arguments through extensive conversations with researchers, discussions about the latest MRIs and their ability to measure brain impulses, and considers our image culture from many perspectives. And yet, so much of what he writes, I think we already know from daily experience. We ignore most of the images that we see, but we recall memorable stories. With digital technology, we are as much the creator as the consumer.

Yesterday, at a wedding, I was struck by the number of photographers, and their interaction with the one professional in the room. The pro would set up a shot–a crowd shot of all of the bride and groom’s college alums–and then, he would step back so that twenty other people could take the same picture using their phone/cameras. I’ve become a fan of watching the images that people capture, in real time, on their phones. Often, the results are excellent–the technology takes care of itself so there is no focus or exposure issue (most of the time). Instead, there is only composition, and because everyone see so many images, the composition is often strikingly good.

The interesting theories explored in the first half of the book fade into a discussion of production in the second half. I suppose this is inevitable because, these days, we are all producers, directors, and cinematographers.

That’s the hard part, of course. Here, it’s expressed in book form, but we’re facing the same issue in every classroom, and with every book we read. We’ve become literate consumers, and literate creators. I read a book and then I write about it. I think about what I’ve read, and then I generate additional media. You read what I write, and perhaps, what Stephen Apkon writes, and pass it along to friends where these ideas may take on a life of their own. Memes (old usage) floating around in internet space. Some are images, some are just ideas not yet captured in visual form. Which is the relevant impetus for literacy? Is it the words I wrote so easily by punching buttons on a keyboard without leaving my chair, or is the images that I create by lifting my phone to my eye, pressing just one button to shoot and another to send it to the world? Or is the new proficiency of literacy the ability to discern whether any of this babble is worth even a nanosecond of your time and attention?

(No good way to end this one. Feel free to write your own ending.)

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