One picture ≠ a thousand words

July 8, 2019

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?

Our observations

  • The oldest form of transportable communication (i.e. communication that can be “transported” across time and space) that has been found, dates 40.000 years back and origins from Borneo, Indonesia. It is an image of a bull on the wall of a cave. Written language (beyond mere numbers) was first developed much later in Sumer (the earliest known civilization of the historical region of southern Mesopotamia, modern-day southern Iraq) and dates back to roughly c. 3500 and c. 3000 BC.
  • The role of written language is profound in our civilization. Science, for example, took a flight when the printing press became available as it enabled insights to be be shared in detail over time and space. Likewise, legal systems are highly dependent on written language to formally record any agreements and (try to) make sure everyone gets treated equally.
  • Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2019, reports that for the last two decades, people are increasingly making use of image and video in their transportable communication. For example, in 2006, all of the twitter messages were in text only, while in 2019, more than half of all messages contain an image, video or some other medium. Furthermore, in the U.S over the last two years, online users’ spent most of their time on Instagram and YouTube. Both happen to be dominated by images and video.
  • As we have written before, and as reconfirmed by Mary Meeker, YouTube is the preferred learning tool for Gen Z. In order to anticipate the preferences of young students, some schools have already started an education channel on YouTube for their students, a tendency that might continue on a global scale. However, there is no scientific evidence that students actually learn better from video, but merely that they prefer it over other learning tools. This is reason for caution; not every topic might be suited for being taught through video.

Connecting the dots

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.


  • For a long time, written language was only available to the elite, as it takes a considerable amount of time and study to master it. Many people simply did not have the time or money to put their children through education. The use of voice and images in technology interaction lowers the threshold for those who are in regions with low literacy rates to use technology and access the internet. In this sense, the trend of communication trough images and videos leads to a more inclusive society worldwide.
  • Some fear that, when images become dominant in guiding us, we will become accustomed and accepting towards probabilities and poor defined concepts on reality, instead of insights and knowledge that demand sound reasoning and patience to understand their meaning and describe it with precision. In 1859, Oliver Wendell Holmes predicted that the “image would become more important than the object itself and would in fact make the object disposable.” In other words, the truth could become less important than the image that represents it. Ironically, when this happens, the literate might not once again be the elite in our society but the exile or outcast that no one understands.

About the author(s)

Jessica van der Schalk's research at FreedomLab is primarily centered on the impact of technology on education and the nature of virtual reality and artificial intelligence. Integral to her personal and professional development, Jessica delves deep into literature concerning the philosophical relationships between humans and nature, and the importance of critical thinking and human autonomy vis-à-vis the impending wave of technological revolutions.

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