Word and Pictures

I

At this year’s World Wide Developers Conference, Apple announced its long-awaited update to the Mac Pro.

Reports about the announcement focused on three things: its capabilities, its appearance, and its price. I’ll spare you any discussion about the Mac Pro’s capabilities mostly because it would require talking about hardware that’s as foreign to me as it probably is to you.

Regarding its appearance, the words “cheese grater” and “Mac Pro” yield more than 7 million hits on Google, including this one.

As for price, the Mac Pro starts at $6,000, which does not include Apple’s new monitor, never mind the $999 stand that’s supposed to keep the monitor upright. (You can get a much better equipped iMac Pro, complete with a monitor that won’t topple over, for a lot less.) From there, it’s not inconceivable or even improbable that people will spend more than $40 thousand dollars for the whole megillah.

Another word that continuously popped up in reports about the new Mac Pro was “creative,” as in new machine is for “creative professionals” or just plain “creatives.” By “creative,” what the people meant was graphic designers, video, and photo editors, and anyone else who works with images.

This is undoubtedly injured amour-propre speaking but why aren’t writers also called “creatives?” Sure, they don’t need a $40 thousand computer to do their job or even their best work, but creativity, as in “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something,” is not a function of the hardware required in the “something’s” creation.

Yet, to listen to and read the repeated references to “creatives” and “creative professionals,” you would think that editing video for uploading to YouTube is somehow “creative” in a way that the work of Amitav Ghosh, the author of the magnificent Ibis Trilogy is not. Or that the non-fiction work of Siddhartha Mukherjee isn’t every bit as imaginative and filled with original ideas as editing photos for display in the pages of Vogue or some other magazine.

As I said, there’s an element of wounded pride at work here – “What am I? Creative chopped liver?” –but that’s not all there is. This use of “creative” is yet more evidence, if we needed any more, of the triumph of the image over the word.

II

To state the obvious: We live in a visual age. Since 2004, “The share of Americans who read for pleasure on a given day has fallen by more than 30 percent.” In 2017, the average American read just seventeen minutes a day.

In contrast, the average American adult watched six hours of video a day. That’s more than twenty times as much.

It isn’t only video. This 2015 Arc Reactions article discusses how static images, i.e., pictures, influence what we pay attention to when it comes to what we ostensibly reading. “The role of photos and images has reversed; smart marketers [realize] you no longer pin a relevant picture to the persuasive text – it’s the other way [around]. You pin the relevant text to the persuasive picture.”

“You pin the relevant text to the persuasive picture.” It’s difficult to imagine a better statement about the word’s subordination to the image than this.

You have no doubt heard the expression “a picture is worth a thousand words.” It’s not true, at least not all (most?) of the time.

Sure, if you ask me “What do you look like?” a picture would do a better job than any verbal description I could come up with. And, of course, a great deal of what is best and most sublime about being human is, to borrow a title from one of my favorite albums, beyond words.

But when it comes to expressing ideas (never mind explaining them), answering questions about how now shall we live and what is to be done, or simply stating the facts, what a friend once called the “fuzzy grammar” of the image makes it poorly suited to these vital tasks. Images generate impressions, not informed opinions.

That is when they’re not lying altogether. As philosopher Regina Rini wrote in the Times, “We live in a time when knowing the origin of an internet video is just as important as knowing what it shows.”

III

That’s, to say the least, troubling because the image has become our “teacher.” So much so that even our words are becoming increasingly image-like: crafted to grab our attention, not to inform us in any meaningful way.

It’s not just Twitter. Even longer pieces, such as op-ed columns, have more in common with images than they do with actual discourse. Most of them can be fairly characterized as “hot takes,” which is “a piece of commentary, typically produced quickly in response to a recent event, whose primary purpose is to attract attention.”

In photographic terms, these are, at best, snapshots, and, as often as not, selfies. What’s being drawn attention to isn’t the ostensible subject – it’s the author.

Images and image-like words work together to make us collectively dumber. Think of another picture, say this one. Within minutes, at most hours, of its appearing online, hot takes rained like men (Hallelujah!) and millions of people had formed opinions about the event, despite an almost total lack of knowledge, a lack of knowledge that, it should be emphasized, persists to this day.

IV

In 1967, the Marxist philosopher Guy Debord published “The Society of the Spectacle.” As with a lot of Marxist historiography, philosophy and social criticism, if you’re willing to wade through the stuff about the “means of production,” “the proletarian movement,” and “revolutionary critiques of the present society,” you will be rewarded with some important insights that you probably won’t find elsewhere.

Thankfully, in this instance, the insight is near the beginning. Debord begins by saying that in (trigger warning!) modern capitalist societies, “all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.”

The “spectacle” he refers to “is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.” According to Debord, this “social relation” serves to reinforce and justify the “existing system’s [i.e., capitalism’s] conditions and goals.”

Ignore the Marxism and you’re still left with the bit about social relations being mediated by images, which pretty much describes the world we live in. It’s a world of “persuasive pictures” where words are only “relevant” if they service these pictures.

And you don’t have to be a Marxist to be suspicious of what these pictures are trying to persuade us of. (Hint: They don’t have your best interests in mind.)

Now the snake was the most cunning of all the wild animals that the Lord God had made. He asked the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You shall not eat from any of the trees in the garden’?”  The woman answered the snake: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; it is only about the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden that God said, ‘You shall not eat it or even touch it, or else you will die.’” But the snake said to the woman: “You certainly will not die! God knows well that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods, who know good and evil.” The woman saw that the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eyes, and the tree was desirable for gaining wisdom. So she took some of its fruit and ate it; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

Our first parents disregarded what they had been told (“God said . . .”) and, instead, were seduced by what was “pleasing to the eye” and made promises it couldn’t possibly keep. It didn’t turn out so well for them or for us. I guess we haven’t learned much, if anything, since then.


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