TV Good. Reading Bad.
At the turn of the 15th century, books were a scarce commodity, rarely used outside of the church. For centuries, they were handwritten by monks — often the only literate figures in their community — with quill and ink. To complete an original text or reproduce a small volume could take months. A larger volume, like The Bible, could take years.
The arrival of Gutenberg’s printing press, with its moveable metal type, was a revolutionary piece of technology. In less than a century its reproductive powers changed the face of Europe. By the turn of the 16th century, it was responsible for over 150 million new pressings, and a massive spike in literacy rates.
Knowledge — once a precious tool wielded solely by the Church and society’s elites — began to trickle down to the masses, slowly disintegrating long-held monopolies. This explosive spread of knowledge and the ideas it seeded led directly to the Protestant Reformation, the Scientific Revolution and the European Renaissance.
Humans & Storytelling
Despite this massive shift in the delivery of knowledge — oral to textual — the main attraction remained the same: storytelling. Whether cave painting, volumes produced by the Guttenberg press, or Snapchat Stories, narrative has always enabled us to rationalize and understand our world.
The following study by experimental psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simme is a prime example. After watching an animated short featuring a handful of basic geometric shapes, the study’s subjects were asked to describe what they saw.
As you might guess, nearly all of the participants anthropomorphized the shapes and laid out the events in the form of a story. The shapes were given a wide range of characteristics: evil, brave, jealous, bad-tempered, and the traits guided their tales of onscreen action. Narrative applies substance to otherwise meaningless events; it also aids our memory and our ability to absorb information.
Our attraction to story likely stretches back to the genesis of language, but the way we tell and interact with them has evolved along with technology. Our symbols, once vague images on walls, evolved and became complex systems of written text. Basic guttural sounds soon gave way to oral traditions. Photography gave way to moving pictures, blazing the trail for video and digital media.
The array of outlets, applications and affordable digital hardware at our disposal is creating an extremely rich experience that is revolutionizing the way we create and consume knowledge. While it’s true that Gutenberg’s press did the same thing several hundred years ago, it could only deliver the experience through text and static images, with a comparatively limited reach. In contrast, the visual aspects of present day digital media are far superior.
Just a handful of people could read or write at the dawn of the 15th century — even fewer had any intention of distributing their written content. Almost overnight, the printing press made it possible to mass produce the written word, sparking a transformation of global society and culture.
YouTube is the video equivalent.
From the dawn of cinema to the 1980s, filmmaking required expensive, highly technical equipment and a distribution outlet. Of course, home video cameras became fairly popular in the ’80s, but the quality remained poor until the mid-2000s.
Fast forward to the present, and the technological puzzle pieces have snapped into place. Not only is it possible to shoot a feature film on a shoestring with digital equipment, there are a variety of platforms where an artist’s work can be seen by millions.
On July 24th, 2010, Ridley Scott and Kevin Macdonald did just that, exploring the democratic nature of our new era. Their project, Life in a Day, prompted filmmakers across the globe to film slices of their lives and submit their footage. As the day wound to a close, the filmmakers were tasked with editing over 4,500 hours of footage from 192 countries. The results, once pared and polished, were remarkable:
The ubiquity of digital technology has not only broken down the barriers of distribution, it’s placed a recording device in the palm of everyone’s hand. For the first time in history, nearly everyone on Earth will own a camera in the form of a mobile phone. The result?
50 times more photos were taken last year than had ever been taken in the history of film.
Until fairly recently, we’ve wielded these powerful devices (and the limitless images they produce) as replicas of older forms of technology: the camera, the video camera, the dark room, the editor’s reel, the telephone.
However, early visual applications like Snapchat are beginning to alter the way we tell our stories.
A tiny wrinkle, like the fleeting existence of a Snap, seems to wink at the present day ubiquity — and disposability — of the visual content we create and consume. Where photography used to be a weeks-long undertaking that included the purchase of film, shooting and development; we now film, edit and say goodbye to our material in less than 24 hours.
The blueprint for traditional visual storytelling is being rapidly reimagined.
The increasing ease with which we create, store, and edit video is creating a new visual language that allows us to develop and understand increasingly complex narratives. And now that our material is shared freely on accessible platforms, our peers can re-manipulate our work as they please.
As with text, moving images are now subject to a wide variety of rearrangement: they can be compressed, stretched, chopped and duplicated an infinite number of times. With this newfound fluidity, our moving images possess the same level of access to creation and consumption as text.
Just as our technology has given us myriad ways to talk to others outside of a phone call or text message, there will soon be a wide variety of ways to capture, manipulate and distribute our visual stories.
Several millennia of oral culture eventually gave way to a literary revolution at the behest of the printing press. Poised at the edge of a digital revolution, it appears that another large shift may soon decrease the importance of literacy and transform us into a culture of visual storytellers.
Our world is constantly recording and broadcasting, and there’s no question that video provides a much richer experience than text.
What’s more, our digital hardware is rapidly transforming.
Cameras have shifted from machines that absorb and produce images to machines that are able to identify and visually augment objects around them.
Snapchat’s lens effects and the capture mode within Pokemon Go are prime examples.
The camera in the iPhone 7 cost Apple just $26 to produce, suggesting this technology will not only become much more affordable, but more compact.
As it becomes a larger part of our lives, the virtual aspects of our surroundings will blend with the physical.
What’s interesting to note here, is just how integral this will be to our learning processes. How helpful will it be to flip on an augmented filter and be guided through open heart surgery, instead of having to read diagrams and fill in the gaps of a static medium like traditional text?
This increased richness will apply to storytelling as well. How fascinating would it be to walk through a city, flip on an augmented filter, and take a historical tour of your choosing? Paris could suddenly appear as it did during the Belle Epoque, or the first World War. Or perhaps the streets become an expansive RPG with a handful of augmented characters guiding you through a series of storylines.
Of course, there will be applications we can’t foresee, but the key element will be the camera’s ability to act as a lens that can identify elements in our surroundings.
Knowledge will no longer be at our fingertips, it will surround us, constantly accessible.
Whether we’d like to inspect a breed of butterfly flying through our field of vision, check the route # of a passing bus, or learn more about the history of the neighbourhood we’re strolling through, our surroundings will soon become pockets of information that our lenses will allow us to explore and analyze as we please.
The immediacy of this technology will slowly remove our need to consult texts.
Instead of retreating to a library or popping open our phones or laptops, we’ll have a world of information before our very eyes — an augmented reality interface that will revolutionize and enlighten the world as the printing press did several hundred years prior.
Note: The authors acknowledge their reliance on the written word in lieu of the approaching augmented utopia.
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This article was co-authored by Shaun Roncken.
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An interactive essay I wrote exploring the past, present, and future of anthropomorphic design. Also available as a talk for conferences, events, etc.