The Tyranny of the Visual

Many observers have noted that our culture is increasingly dominated by the image. Indeed, a recent book was entitled, The Rise of the Image, the Decline of the Word. There is certainly no doubt that the image plays a larger role in our culture now than at any time past. And in many ways this is good. It’s much harder to glorify war, for example, when the news douses us with images of the horrible reality of war. This even applies in fictional representations. Old war movies showed victims clutching their chests and sanitarily falling face down, but a movie like "Saving Private Ryan" shows heads being blown off bodies and people being ripped apart with such graphic realism that a friend of mine, after watching the movie, declared that he could not see how anybody could ever again support a war.

Tremendous effort has gone into improving the quality of the images we see. Computer graphics has absorbed billions of dollars of research and development money and consumed the energies of thousands of our brightest minds. Hundreds of people will labor over the computer graphics in a major movie, and their efforts are usually rewarded with bounteous ticket sales. Television is looking forward to the rise of HDTV and the huge improvement in image quality it will bring. Our electronic networks are increasing their capacity dramatically, primarily in order to transmit images. The text we type amounts to a few kilobytes, while images gobble up megabytes.

I won’t condemn the rise of the image in our culture, and I will not bemoan the decline of the word — at least not in this essay. What I want to concentrate on here is the way in which visual thinking has come to dominate our thinking, to the exclusion of everything else.

Here’s a simple experiment: close your eyes and walk around your house. Can you do it? Probably not. You’ve been walking those halls and crossing those rooms for years, and yet you don’t have any kinesthetic sense of what your house is like. Moreover, observe the sense of panic you feel when you’re unable to see your surroundings. You feel like a fish out of water, don’t you?

Since my youth, I have enjoyed the occasional mental exercise of walking in total darkness. I keep my eyes open but don’t bother with visual cues. I try to navigate by anything but vision. I touch walls and chairs with my hands, feeling the textures, and I pay close attention to the subtle shifts in the auditory environment as I move around. Closer to a window, outside sounds like crickets and cars are louder. As I move closer to the kitchen, the steady hum of the refrigerator grows stronger. A ticking clock is a navigational beacon, guiding me steadfastly past the rocks and shoals of a furniture-strewn room. Above all, I use my imagination, and not just my visual imagination. Yes, I imagine the layout of the room I’m crossing, but it’s not just a visual map that guides me. It’s the sense of proximity to familiar things, the echoes of my breathing off a close wall, the overall sense of things that guides me. It’s hard to explain to a purely visual thinker (as most of the readers of this essay will likely be) — which is why I recommend the experiment to you. If you can’t move through a pitch-black room, then clearly you have not developed some thinking patterns that could have been developed. You have narrowed your perception of your universe.

Of course, walking through a pitch-black room is not a particularly useful skill, especially when you can flip a switch and bathe the room in dazzling light. I offer this as only an example of how visually intense our approach to everything has become. Where it hurts is in the matter of thinking.

I have long noted that I seem to think differently than others. There’s something about my mentation that’s eccentric. And occasionally this gives me an advantage. I have long pondered this. I reject the whole notion of intelligence and its suggestion that I can think better than others because I’m smarter. What’s the definition of "smart"? Why, the ability to think well. So I can think better than others because I’m smarter, which means that I have the ability to think better. That’s not very illuminating, is it?

And so I have gone into more detail, examining what it is about my thinking that differs from others, and what advantages and disadvantages these differences confer. And one factor that has consistently emerged is my refusal to allow the image to dominate my thinking.

When you gaze upon a scene, do you imagine that you are perceiving reality? I certainly don’t. I imagine that I am perceiving a tiny fragment of reality, perceiving reality through the narrow window of the visual. I look at a tree and perceive so much more than a simple visual image. I imagine the fluids slowly creeping through its cambium, the photosynthesis taking place in its leaves, the absorption of nutrients from the soil — all these invisible processes that are central to the life of a tree. My eyes don’t tell me much about the tree; there’s so much more going on out of my view.

Note that this perception of the tree is informed, indeed driven, by my education. Because I have read about biology and trees and physics, I bring to bear an understanding that allows me to see deeper inside the tree. My perception of the universe is an integration of my knowledge and my senses.

Thus, I look upon the world with different eyes than you do. My real eyes exist inside my mind, and bring to bear everything I perceive and know about reality. Here’s an analogy for you. Suppose that you are watching a black-and-white movie. You see an apple. It’s presented in shades of gray, but you know that the apple must be red. Your real eyes see a gray apple, but your mind’s eye fills in the color. Now extend that analogy in a hundred different directions. What if you also perceived the smooth texture of the apple’s skin, the slow oxidation of the apple’s flesh as oxygen seeps through the skin, the slow loss of water moving in the opposite direction, the water gradient inside the apple — everything going on in that apple. I can "see" those things when I gaze upon an apple. So I ask you: by living solely in the world of the visual, are you "seeing" less of the world than you could?

The Wachowski brothers created a stunning visual analogy to this process in their Matrix trilogy:

It comes at the climax of the first Matrix film. Neo has returned from the dead and can now see the Matrix for what it is. He looks down the corridor at the three agents and sees not the corridor, but the code behind it. The image communicates the idea of seeing the processes behind reality rather than just the visual skin of reality. Isn’t it odd that we need a visual representation of an idea that attempts to get around visual thinking?

I was motivated to write this essay by several experiences I have had over the last few weeks. In each case, I found myself trying to communicate a simple, obvious idea to somebody who was hopelessly locked into visual thinking patterns. For example, in one case I was discussing geosynchronous satellites with a fellow. At one point in the discussion, I pointed to the southern sky as I explained something. My interlocutor stared at me in disbelief; what the hell was I pointing at? Why, the satellite, I explained. He laughed; there was no satellite up there. It was broad daylight, and besides, you couldn’t see these satellites with your naked eye. I stared back at him in comparable incomprehension. Of course we can’t actually see the satellite, but it’s there, right there at that point in the sky, as certain as the sun in the sky. We know its altitude and azimuth coordinates and they’re right there in the sky. But my friend was just not willing to think of a satellite existing somewhere that he couldn’t actually see. Seeing is believing, I suppose. But I didn’t need to see it to believe it.

Here’s an even more important example: I was explaining the operation of a new idea for interactive storytelling to a friend, and after much patient listening, he demanded to know what the player would see on the screen. I dismissed his question with the brusque observation that we could use any reasonable presentation scheme; what was important was the function of the system. But he insisted, so with patent exasperated patience, I laid out some of the options for the visual appearance that the system could use. He then started to argue with me about petty details of the presentation. This argument persisted for several moments until I exploded, "I’m talking about an automotive engine that runs on water and you want to argue about the shape of the tail lights!" It shut him up, and it hurt his feelings. Why do people have to be so narrow-minded?

Another issue in which visual thinking seems to blind people is in the use of stages in drama. In my designs for interactive storytelling, I have always used a simple arrangement: space is composed of individual stages with no spatial relationships whatever between stages. Actors simply disappear from one stage and reappear on another. Inside a stage, all actors are able to interact with each other without any spatial considerations. It’s a simple, robust model and it closely approximates the way in which space is used in most stories.

I suppose I have to substantiate my claim that stories don’t rely on spatial considerations; most people react to it with incredulity. Consider the interactions between actors on a stage; how many times do the spatial relationships affect those interactions? Don’t think in terms of movies, because the visual element of movies automatically includes spatial factors, thereby biasing the analysis. Let’s consider a medium in which spatial factors are not automatically included: literature. How often do spatial considerations actually show up in that medium?

At first, one is tempted to claim that spatial considerations are common in stories. For example, the Odyssey is at heart a story of a journey around the Mediterranean. Isn’t that fundamentally spatial? Indeed, the journey motif shows up repeatedly in literature, from the Odyssey to Huckleberry Finn to Star Wars. But I ask, are the spatial motions central to the story? Are they not merely transitions from one stage to another, without any genuine spatial content? The best evidence we have for the chimeric nature of spatial factors in story is the fact that the actual spatial relationships are never specified. Odysseus travelled for many days and came to the Land of the Lotus Eaters — where is that? How far away is it from Scylla and Charybdis? Is it closer to Troy or to Ithaca? We don’t know any of these relationships, because they aren’t specified in the Odyssey — because they’re not important.
The same thing goes for the other journey stories. Huckleberry Finn takes place on a specified river, with specified places that could, I suppose, be established on a map. Yet, many of the details just aren’t there. Where was it that Huck saw the body of his father? And how far away was that from the town where they tarred and feathered Huck’s shyster buddies? Or the place where the feud led to the murders of his hosts? We don’t know, because those spatial relationships are irrelevant to the dramatic matters addressed in the story.

Even within a stage, spatial relationships are unimportant. Some people have contested this claim, observing that Cary Grant has to get really close to the actress if he’s going to kiss her. But in literature, they never write,"Overpowered with passion, he walked over to her, seized her in his arms, and kissed her frantically." No, the sentence is more like "Overpowered with passion, he seized her in his arms and kissed her frantically." Look at it from the other extreme: "Overpowered with passion, he walked over to her, seized her in his arms, moved his head directly in front of hers, rotated his head slightly to avoid a collision of noses, then closed the gap between her lips and his and kissed her frantically." Pretty silly, eh? Spatial factors just aren’t important in drama. If an actor needs to alter a spatial relationship to get something done, he simply does it, and we don’t need to worry about the mechanical details of how that’s carried out. Stories are about the exercise of emotion, not musculature.

And yet I never seem to get through to people on this simple point. They are so locked up in their visual representation of the universe that they simply can’t conceive of the universe as anything more than a set of images. There’s no deeper reality to such people; to them, reality is WYSIWRE: What You See Is What Really Exists.

It’s a big world out there, and we humans will never understand it, but those of us who confine their thinking to the purely visual are narrowing their vision.