We communicate increasingly through images, videos or emoji’s instead of written language. Even when we do use written language in our everyday communication, the amount of words is shrinking and we use more and more acronyms (e.g. FYI). A common saying is that a picture says more than a thousand words, but some content might not be communicable without written language and some information might even be communicable solely through images or video. So, what is the implication of us communicating less and less in writing?
As the rapport of Mary Meeker demonstrates, people are increasingly telling their story though images and videos. According to the founder of Instagram, Kevin Systrom, this is a good thing. He states that telling our story trough images comes more natural to us than it does trough written words. According to Systrom, Instagram should therefore be understood as a story-sharing platform instead of merely an image sharing platform. It is clear that people have first developed transportable communication through images and only later switched to written language. Also, most would agree that that images have a great impact on us and are more rapidly perceived as meaningful than written language. A picture of a drowned toddler, for example, communicates rich meaning in a split second, whereas a written description of the same situation could not accomplish such impact that quick, if at all. In our cognitive development, perceiving content and meaning trough images is prior to written language and learning a language is often supported through images. Images can be shared without written-, verbal- or symbolic language. In this sense, it seems more inclusive: no matter where you are from, whether you are literate or not, an image speak to us all.
There is a common saying that a picture says more than a thousand words. Because of its innumerable visual details (e.g. the angle with which the object is portrayed, the colors that are present etc.), an image can show us nuances that can hardly or even not at all be captured in a written text. This is easily demonstrated when reading a book compared to seeing a movie. People who have read the same book, no matter how good a writer might be, can still have a different representation in their mind of the main character’s face and the setting in which the events took place. On the other hand, when people watch the same movie, they all perceive the face of the main character and the setting in which the story takes place similarly. However, there are also limits to the “power“ of images. Written texts have their own territory in which they can be more precise and nuanced than images. The precision and depth of a complex argument are very hard or even impossible to translate in images. One of the most famous philosophical arguments on the non-existence of time by J.E. McTaggart, for example, uses such highly abstract terms and logical formulas, that it seems impossible to be translated to image(s). But even more simple content is often more suited for written language than images. In law, for example, it is far easier to communicate through written text that ‘all humans have the right to choose their own religion’ then trough an image or video. How are we, for example, to depict the concept ‘all human beings’ in an image or video? An image is far less precise in these matters because it is always about a particular case. This is why science in general, whether it concerns the Humanities or empirical studies, is highly dependent on written language. Even spoken language could not serve us quite as well as written language, simply because it is harder to grasp complex meaning such as philosophical arguments or scientific studies trough listening compared to reading. A study showed that the difference in understanding complex content trough podcast and written text is the difference between a D and an A grade.
Furthermore, images, whether moving or static, merely appeal to our emotions instead of our reasoning faculties. That is, reasoning faculties, which, by definition, rely only on (written) language, are traditionally considered crucial when it comes to being able to adequately ask questions, reflect on one’s thinking, exercise conceptual analysis and master good judgement. Reasoning abilities that foster good judgement are for example drawing all sorts of (logical) inferences, identifying the assumptions that underlie statements, recognizing relationships between information, detecting inconsistencies, being sensitive to context, search for an explanation of obscure points within a hypothesis etc. These abilities might diminish when transportable communication is dominated by images. As we wrote before, this can have real cognitive implications. Dr. Aboujaoude, for example, warns that the result can be an avoidance or oversimplification of complexity and exchanges of information that are reduced to decontextualized opinions, abrupt declamations, or rapid transactions. So, although the increasing emphasis on image in transportable communication might be more inclusive and more quick, it might also lead to a more shallow and dogmatic understanding of our world.