the rise of the image the fall of the word

Mitchell Stephens 

Oxford University Press (to learn more about this book)

[Please note: This chapter was selected from a draft produced on an older word processor. Footnotes and formatting information have been lost, and this version does not reflect later editing and fact checking.]

1. Introduction: "The Next Room"

"We shall stand or fall by television -- of that I am quite sure." -- E. B. White, 1938

"You are about to begin reading...," writes the novelist Italo Calvino.

Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, "No, I don't want to watch TV!" Raise your voice -- they won't hear you otherwise -- "I'm reading! I don't want to be disturbed!" Maybe they haven't heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: "I'm beginning to read...!"

In this case, however, you are beginning to read a book that looks forward to the eclipse of reading by the offspring of TV.

* * *

It is only the opening to a longer program -- the first ninety-six seconds of a one-hour 1995 ABC documentary about changes in American churches. In those ninety-six seconds fewer than two hundred words are spoken -- some by the reporter, Peter Jennings, some by ministers and church members. A book or newspaper reader could probably digest twice as many words in that period of time.

Yet those ninety-six seconds, the work of a young producer named Roberta Goldberg, also feature fifty-one different images -- most showing separate scenes: churchgoers praying, laughing, weeping and collapsing; a Christian stage show; a congregation joining in aerobics; ministers preaching; ministers using show-business techniques; ministers defending their use of show-business techniques. Intercut are pictures of religious icons, bending and blurring. Three candles are shown blowing out. Additional images are sometimes superimposed. Words from the Bible flash on the screen. Ethereal yet insistent music plays. Cameras dart here and there.

This piece uses techniques that have begun appearing with greater and greater frequency in some of the less prestigious corners of television and film -- in promotional announcements, commercials, music videos, title sequences, sports highlights, trailers and, occasionally, in news stories or on public TV. The piece has an almost ballet-like beauty, but it is not particularly profound. It is, after all, only the introduction to an otherwise traditional documentary; it lasts less than two minutes. (I will describe other, more ambitious examples later in the book.)

However, this segment of videotape, like its young cousins elsewhere on our screens, does manage to impart a remarkable amount of information and impressions in that short period of time -- to the point where the more conventionally edited one-hour documentary that follows begins to seem superfluous. This brief ABC introduction, therefore, suggests that images -- fast-cut moving images mixed with some words and music -- have the potential to communicate at least as efficiently and effectively as printed words alone.

Although moving images are gaining responsibility for more and more of our communication, this is a suggestion most of us have great difficulty accepting.

* * *

Perhaps it was John F. Kennedy's confident grin or the opportunity most Americans had to watch his funeral. Maybe the turning point came with the burning huts of Vietnam, the flags and balloons of the Reagan presidency or Madonna's writhings on MTV. But at some point in the second half of the twentieth century -- for perhaps the first time in human history -- it began to seem as if images would gain the upper hand on words.

We know this. Evidence of the growing popularity of images has been difficult to ignore. It has been available in most of our bedrooms and living rooms, where the machine most responsible for the image's rise has long dominated the decor. Evidence has been available in the shift in home design from bookshelves to "entertainment centers," from libraries to "family rooms" or, more accurately, "TV rooms." Evidence has been available in our children's facility with remote controls and joy sticks, and their lack of facility with language. Evidence has been available almost any evening in almost any town in the world, where a stroller will observe a blue light in most of the windows and a notable absence of porch-sitters, gossip-mongers and other strollers.

We are -- old and young -- hooked. While he was vice president of the United States, Dan Quayle embarked upon a minor crusade against television. It took him to an elementary school in Georgia. "Are you going to study hard?" the vice president asked a room full of third graders. "Yeah!" they shouted back. "And are you going to work hard, and mind the teacher?" "Yeah!" And are you going to turn off the TV during school nights?" "NO! the students yelled. When children between the ages of four and six were asked whether they like television or their fathers better, 54 percent of those sampled chose TV.

Evidence of the image's growing dominance, particularly among the young, can be found too in my house, a word lover's house, where increasingly "the TV is always on in the next room." (Nothing in the argument to come is meant to imply that my attempt to guide my children or myself through this transitional period has been easy.)

Television began its invasion about fifty years ago. The extent to which it has taken over -- familiar as the statistics may be -- remains dazzling. No medium or technology, before or after, "penetrated," as the researchers put it, our homes more quickly. It took seventy years before half of all American homes had a telephone; it took only eight years, after the arrival of commercial television in 1947, before half of those homes had a black and white television set. We each sit in front of a TV an average of, depending on which estimate or survey you believe, anywhere from two and a half to almost five hours a day. Four hours and fifty minutes a day, according to a Nielson survey in January 1997; again viewing hours would be somewhat lower in the summer.� The average fifth grader reports (They likely are underestimating) spending almost seven times as much time each day watching television as reading. We are as addicted to television as we, as a society, have been to any other invention, communications medium, art form or drug.

Recently, it is true, television has begun to seem like yesterday's invention. Digital communication has mesmerized the technologically advanced and won most of the press. Tens of millions of people have already begun using computers and the Internet to work, send written messages, do research and explore new corners of our culture -- all with unprecedented speed and efficiency. This is certainly impressive. But television, which is less than a generation older than the computer, has already won over humankind.

Reliable global statistics are hard to come by, but the evidence indicates that almost three billion people are already watching television regularly, for an average, according to one international survey, of more than two and a half hours a day. The international figures are from a study coordinated by Roper Starch Worldwide, co-sponsored by the Discovery Channel, in 1995. That means most of the world's inhabitants are now devoting about half their leisure time to an activity that did not exist two generations ago. Most of the rest are held back only by the lack of electricity or the money to buy a set.

Why? Television's unprecedented appeal rests in large part on the easily accessible, seemingly inexhaustible diversions it supplies. But it goes beyond that. We have not sufficiently recognized the power of moving images. There is a magic in their ability to appear on command in our homes, and more significantly, there is a magic in them, a magic that may come to dwarf that of other forms of communication.

"The [World Wide] Web is going to be very important," computer pioneer Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computer, was quoted as saying in 1996. But then he added, "It's certainly not going to be like the first time somebody saw a television....It's not going to be profound." It would be a mistake to underestimate the impact of our new digital communications systems, particularly their likely role in distributing moving images, but video remains the communications revolution of our time.

This does not mean we will continue to have what computer mavens dismiss as "dumb metal boxes" facing our couches -- boxes to which we can do little more than change the channel and adjust the volume. Moving images undoubtedly will find new, more flexible, more clever means of presenting themselves. Silicon chips will be increasingly involved in their distribution. Perhaps we will soon locate our video at sites on the World Wide Web or some similarly interactive, global, cross-referenced, content-rich successor. Stations, networks, schedules and sets may all go the way of rabbit-ear antennas. However, if humankind's preferences over the past half century are any guide, whatever screens and services do find their way into our homes in coming decades are going to be filled not so much with words or still graphics but with moving images.


The word television appears often in these pages. This is the form of moving images at which we have directed most of our attention and most of our criticism, the form that has conquered the world. However, this book views television as only one stage in a larger movement. Photography and film provided the initial thrust for the image's rise. And new kinds of moving images viewed in new ways are likely to lead to its triumph. A term is needed that encompasses the stages to come, that recognizes the increasing interchangeability of television and film, the coming "convergence," to use the lingo, of television and the computer. The best alternative seems "video" -- a compact word with a suitably broad meaning, derived from the Latin verb vide, to see.

When I talk of the video revolution, I mean video as content, not any particular size screen or variety of box. I mean that, by whatever improved means, we are going to continue staring at those magical moving images and obtaining more and more of our entertainment, information, art and ideas from them. "When I began here, I thought the writing was all that mattered," recalls the producer of that introduction to ABC's documentary on churches, Roberta Goldberg. "Now not only do I think the visuals matter, but I think they matter more than the writing." That too is what I mean.

* * *

What's missing from these pictures?

What is missing, of course, is the venerable activity you are engaged in right now. And such pictures are not difficult to supply. Reading is now missing from countless scenes it once dominated: at kitchen tables, on buses and trains, in beds at night, on couches, even in some classrooms.

When "the TV is always on in the next room," eventually large numbers of us stop yelling, put down what we were reading and go into that room. The result -- the opposite and (more or less) equal reaction to the arrival of the moving image -- has been a significant lessening in the importance of the printed word.

The anecdotal evidence that print is in decline is copious and compelling. "When I go out socially in Washington," confides Daniel Boorstin, the historian and former librarian of Congress, "I'm careful not to embarrass my dinner companions by asking what they have read lately. Instead I say, 'I suppose you don't have much time to read books nowadays?'" Novelists perceive the same situation, with perhaps even more dismay: "There's been a drastic decline, even a disappearance of a serious readership," moans Philip Roth.

This much-remarked-upon decline, nevertheless, is not easy to capture with statistics. Books seem to be doing reasonably well. Publishers, in fact, are churning out more and more of them -- 142,124 new titles in 1995, according to Books in Print. Books in Pring now lists more than eighteen times as many titles as did its first edition, printed in 1948. Reports of the death of the book have been exaggerated.

Ah, but are those books actually being read? Not, in many cases, from cover to cover. The Gallup Poll found many more people in 1990 than in 1957 who said they are currently reading a book or novel, but many fewer than in 1975 who said they have completed a book in the past week. In a society where professional success now requires acquaintance with masses of esoteric information, books now are often purchased to be consulted, not read. Almost one quarter of the money spent on books in 1994 went for business, legal, medical, technical or religious books. Another large chunk was spent by or for the captive audiences in schools.

Fiction and general-interest nonfiction for adults represented only about $4.3 billion of the $18.8 billion dollar book industry in 1994. Such "trade" books have also been filling a function other than their ostensible one. Instead of being read, they have been replacing the bottle of scotch and the tie as gifts -- with about the same chance of being opened as those ties had of being worn.®FN1 The number of bookstores in the United States was growing for a time at a rate second only to that of fast-food restaurants, but according to statistics supplied by the American Booksellers Association, more than one-quarter of all their sales are in November and December -- before the holidays.�

In 1985, Michael Kinsley, then with the New Republic, conducted an experiment. He hid little notes, offering a five-dollar reward to anyone who saw them, about three-quarters of the way through seventy copies of certain select nonfiction books in Washington, D.C., bookstores. These were the books all of Washington seemed to be talking about. "Washington" was apparently basing its comments on the reviews and maybe a quick skim. No one called. "Fortunately for booksellers," Kinsley wrote, "their prosperity depends on people buying books, not on people actually reading the bulky things.

Public library circulation in the United States has grown from 4.7 "units" per capita per year in 1980 to 6.4 in 1990, according to a study by the Library Research Center at the University of Illinois. However, the "units" we are checking out of the library now include not only lots of school and business readings but cassettes, CDs, CD-ROM disks and videotapes.

Here is perhaps the most frightening of the statistics on books: According to the Gallup Poll, the number of Americans who admitted to having read no books of any kind during the past year -- and this is not an easy thing to admit to a pollster -- doubled from 1978 to 1990, from 8 to 16 percent. "I cannot live without books," Thomas Jefferson, certainly among the most dedicated readers of his era, once confessed to John Adams. More and more of us, apparently, can.

Magazines would appear better suited to life with television, if for no other reasons than that they require a smaller time commitment than books and that they themselves contain plenty of pictures. However, because magazines come in so many different varieties, gathering evidence to confirm or deny this surmise is not easy. The best indicator of whether we are spending more or less time with magazines may be "time-use" studies like those compiled by John Robinson at the University of Maryland. These show that the proportion of the population that reads a magazine on a typical day dropped from 38 percent in 1946 to 28 percent in 1985. Magazine publishers, however, can take some encouragement from the fact that most of that drop occurred with the first onslaught of television in the 1950s.

The statistics on newspaper readership are much less ambiguous and much grimmer. According to those time-use studies, published in American Demographics, the share of the adult population that "read a newspaper yesterday" declined from 85 percent in 1946 to 73 percent in 1965 to 55 percent in 1985. The numbers on per capita newspaper circulation and the percentage of American homes that receive a daily newspaper form similar graphs -- graphs you could ski down.

"I'm not sure how much people read anymore," H. Ross Perot commented shortly before announcing his candidacy for the presidency in 1992. "What happens on TV is what really impacts on people." During the 1996 presidential campaign, only 18 percent of a sample of voters in the United States said they received "most" of their information about the campaign from newspapers.

Those time-use studies actually discovered an increase of about thirteen minutes a week from 1965 to 1985 in the amount of time people say they spend reading books and magazines. But if you throw in newspapers, the total time people spent with reading as their primary activity has dropped more than 30 percent in those years -- to less than three hours a week.

And this drop has occurred at the same time that the amount of formal education Americans obtain has been rising dramatically. The percentage of Americans over the age of twenty four who have completed four years of high school has more than tripled since 1940, according to the Bureau of the Census Current Population Survey. It increased from 69 percent to 82 percent just from 1980 to 1995. And since 1940, the percentage of Americans completing four years of college has increased by a factor of five. If education still stimulated the desire to read, all the statistics on reading would be expected to be shooting up. That they are not may say something about the quality of our educational system and about the interests of the students it now attracts. It certainly says something about the word and its future.

Reading's troubles are not difficult to explain. A hundred years ago, on days when no circus was in town, people looking for entertainment had few alternatives: eating, drinking, strolling, procreating, singing, talking, reading. Those looking for information were restricted to the latter two. Many of our ancestors, to be sure, were unable to read, but many of those who could relied upon it, as Thomas Jefferson did, with a desperation that is difficult for us to imagine.

The printed word, in those days, had a unique power to transport. "There is no frigate like a book," writes Emily Dickinson, "To take us lands away." Now, of course, that journey can be undertaken by a different route, one that allows us to see that which is beyond our experience. Another way of summarizing what has been happening to reading, and to our lives, is that the image is replacing the word as the predominant means of mental transport.

* * *

The image's ascent has certainly occupied its share of spoken and written words. Most of those words, however, are tinged with anxiety, annoyance, even anguish. We fret; we bemoan; we hope against hope; we indulge in righteous indignation. The revolution we are undergoing may be acknowledged, but only with chagrin. The photographer Richard Avedon recently dared state -- on television -- that "images are fast replacing words as our primary language." He did not display the requisite gloom. He was assaulted. "That, precisely, is the problem," thundered New York Times television critic John J. O'Connor, "as Amerian culture drifts ever more distressingly into superficiality."

This is no easy subject. We are talking not only of the present, which is hard enough to see, but of the future. In which direction are we currently "drifting"? In which direction are we likely to "drift"? Formidable questions. Still, on issues of this importance, we should not have to settle for fretting, bemoaning, wishful thinking and indignation. The discussion does not have to be so windy and predictable.

I recently came upon a calender decorated with this quote from Patrick Henry: "I know of no way of judging the future but by the past." When pondering the implications of the image's rise, we have no difficulty working up nostalgia for the past, but we tend not to put much stock in the lessons of the past. Contemporary society -- with its mastery of circuits and bits -- chooses to think of its problems as unique. However, the video revolution is, by my reckoning, humankind's third major communications revolution, and the disruptions occasioned by the first two -- writing and print -- are surprisingly similar to those we are experiencing now. The stages in which the new technologies were adopted seem comparable, as does the profundity of the transformations they cause. Even the anxieties and anger sound familiar.

The first part of this book, consequently, spends much of its time with subjects that do not often find their way into discussions of television: one-hundred- to five-thousand-year-old episodes in the history of the word. The book begins by looking to the early development of writing, print and a few other communications technologies for perspective on what we have seen from television and are likely to see from video.

The book's second part mines a different history. The rise of the image begins not with CNN or even See It Now but with photography and film. Many of the issues raised by video productions like Roberta Goldberg's introduction to that ABC documentary can be traced to disputes over early photographs and over the work of such filmmakers as D. W. Griffith, Sergei Eisenstein and Jean Renoir. I revisit these disputes in an effort to rethink these issues.

The history of television itself and of the creation of a new kind of video weave in and out of these first parts. But only in its third and final part does the book restrict its attempts to understand the future and consequences of video to an examination of what has been appearing on screen in our time. Otherwise this book employs Patrick Henry's method.