The Houston Chronicle

December 13, 1998, Sunday 2 STAR EDITION


LENGTH: 704 words

HEADLINE: Looking at the pictures ; Writer sees 'new video' as possible improvement over books

BYLINE: DAVID DONNELLY; David Donnelly is on the faculty of the School of Communication at the University of Houston. He is co-director of the International Telecommunications Research Institute and the creator of the Media Futures Archive.


By Mitchell Stephens.

Oxford University Press, $ 27.50.

THE premise of The Rise of the Image, the Fall of the Word is contained in the title. While the declining significance of words and the increasingly central role of images in our culture is not an original idea, this book offers a new take on a familiar lament.

What makes this volume unique is that the author, Mitchell Stephens, a professor of journalism and mass communication at New York University, argues that the trend should not trouble us. Video has the potential to, in his words, "present us with new mental vistas, to take us to new philosophic places, as writing once did, as printing once did." It has, he asserts, the potential to be "better than print."

Every medium takes awhile to develop its own aesthetic. Video today is fairly derivative, borrowing genres, styles and content from previous media such as radio, theater and film.

Stephens is not a defender of television or what he calls the first era of video. What he champions is "new video." This new video will be fast and densely packed, will venture beyond narrative, rely heavily upon computer graphics and upon juxtaposition, and be structured more like music than prose.

Although he provides some examples that hint at the power of this new mode of expression, examples pulled from popular culture (MTV clips, Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, the first 96 seconds of an ABC News documentary), he contends that the movement is just now starting to unfold.

Once mature, video will be able to communicate highly complex ideas and thought without words; it will be "a form of communication powerful enough to help us fashion new understandings, stronger understandings."

While people have long possessed the tools to acquire moving images, now theyhave access to both hardware and software to manipulate and edit images. They also have a vast, new, unprecedented vehicle for distribution, the Internet, which will soon become a more video-friendly channel. Such trends will help promote the aesthetic development of a visual mode of communication.

Stephens expects many of his ideas will be controversial. He addresses the common rebuttals. He points out that a look back reveals the unease with which people faced writing and printing in their infancy. The sweeping warnings of the damage that the handwritten or machine-printed word would bring seem ludicrous in hindsight. We are, it would seem, merely overreacting the way others did. If words and books didn't bring us down, then video won't either.

This book does not belittle the power of word. Stephens is an admitted book lover and author, and he notes the word's powerful ability to help us look inward, to explore inner states and the inner worlds of hidden thoughts.

Yet, he argues, today the magic of print has begun to run out as we have "explored our insides to the point of self-obsession." Perhaps the most controversial idea in the book: It is time for print to fall. We are no longer on print's quest for the essence of a person; we are now on a quest for "an understanding of the perspective of people: how and what they see," a quest best fulfilled through the power of new uses of video.

This book offers a unique and refreshing perspective on what has mostly been a one-sided debate over the linked fate of words and our culture. For Stephens, the fall of words is not the end of the world but a new sort of beginning, and in the long term the "moving image is likely to make our thoughts not more feeble but more robust."

Is his optimism founded? It is too early to tell. Is his argument totally convincing? Not entirely, but it is certainly compelling and engaging, and it isnot as easy to dismiss as one would think.

It is unlikely that this book will convince bibliophiles that their beloved medium has inherent weaknesses and may not be the most appropriate or vital for the 21st century. Will this book prompt people to change their positions on the debate over the rise of the image and the fall of the word? Perhaps. It will undoubtedly require skeptics to rethink their prejudice against the power and potential of the moving image.