Must-Read Article About the Future of Media

If you read just one article this week, no, make that this month, make it Kevin Kelly’s “Becoming Screen Literate” from last weekend’s NY Times Magazine. It is essential reading for anybody who works in the visual arts. In the piece, Kelly argues that images have replaced words as our dominant form of expressive currency, though we have not yet achieved “screen fluency” that allows us to utilize and manipulate moving images in the same way that we can do with text.

It’s interesting to note that a lot of Kelly’s descriptions of contemporary live-action filmmaking basically describe the process that animation artists have been pioneering for the past century. Even before CGI, animation has always been a more flexible and fluid art form than live-action. Finally, live-action is achieving that malleability, he writes:

For directors who speak this new cinematographic language, even the most photo-realistic scenes are tweaked, remade and written over frame by frame. Filmmaking is thus liberated from the stranglehold of photography. Gone is the frustrating method of trying to capture reality with one or two takes of expensive film and then creating your fantasy from whatever you get. Here reality, or fantasy, is built up one pixel at a time as an author would build a novel one word at a time. Photography champions the world as it is, whereas this new screen mode, like writing and painting, is engineered to explore the world as it might be.

Another major theme in Kelly’s piece is that the line between creator and consumer is blurring to the point where average people are not only consuming visuals but also creating their own through remixing and repurposing existing imagery.

Rewriting video can even become a kind of collective sport. Hundreds of thousands of passionate anime fans around the world (meeting online, of course) remix Japanese animated cartoons. They clip the cartoons into tiny pieces, some only a few frames long, then rearrange them with video editing software and give them new soundtracks and music, often with English dialogue. This probably involves far more work than was required to edit the original cartoon but far less work than editing a clip a decade ago. The new videos, called Anime Music Videos, tell completely new stories. The real achievement in this subculture is to win the Iron Editor challenge. Just as in the TV cookoff contest “Iron Chef,” the Iron Editor must remix videos in real time in front of an audience while competing with other editors to demonstrate superior visual literacy. The best editors can remix video as fast as you might type.

What is most thrilling, however, is Kelly’s vision for the future of media, which is something that I’ve long thought but been unable to put so eloquently into words. Having witnessed the technological progress of the past twenty years, we’re not too far from achieving these possibilities:

With our fingers we will drag objects out of films and cast them in our own movies. A click of our phone camera will capture a landscape, then display its history, which we can use to annotate the image. Text, sound, motion will continue to merge into a single intermedia as they flow through the always-on network. With the assistance of screen fluency tools we might even be able to summon up realistic fantasies spontaneously. Standing before a screen, we could create the visual image of a turquoise rose, glistening with dew, poised in a trim ruby vase, as fast as we could write these words. If we were truly screen literate, maybe even faster. And that is just the opening scene.


  • http://hellyeahdesign.com Ken Oath

    Great! let’s hand over all our skills and proffesions to even more amateurs out there with groovy tech, so that we can further lower the value of our trade and eventually lose our jobs.

    Bring it on!

  • slowtiger

    Oh well … didn’t I read this before? I’m not too convinced about his theory. Basically he says “only if you cut up stuff, you truly understand how to make new stuff”.

    So there were no composers worth listening before the remixing DJ? No literature worth reading before Burroughs and his scissors? I think he’s a perfect example of the new “media professional” I’ve met here in Germany as well: creating big theories about all media, but having no actual experience in holding a camera. “Camera 101 we will only have in third year” I was told.

    Of course he correctly mentions the blast in activity through availeability of software, and I truely hope that I’ll see some real found footage masterpieces emerge from that. But aside from a handful of gifted VJs the vast majority of “works” will not be a new visual language, but just some optical pidgin.

  • http://www.rohitiyer.com/ Rohit Iyer

    I understand the fascination with being able to replace the need for text-based associations with images, but for some reason, my response to this is just a big ‘ol, “DUH!”

    The article reads like a high-school essay and while there’s nothing really wrong with that, I really don’t buy into this “Gee, whiz, will ya lookit that!” bit, especially when he’s stating the obvious.

  • http://blog.ninapaley.com Nina Paley

    Thanks for linking to that article, Amid.

    The author knows, but didn’t mention in that article, that such media literacy is in fact illegal due to existing copyright laws. Fortunately that won’t stop it, but it does make millions of literati criminals. Lawrence Lessig discusses this in his new book Remix.

    An example of how even basic music literacy is affected by existing copyright laws is this article, A Music Teacher Describes How Copyright Hinders Music Education.

  • http://blog.ninapaley.com Nina Paley

    Pardon my double-posting, but I wanted to quote this from the article:

    To the utter bafflement of the experts who confidently claimed that viewers would never rise from their reclining passivity, tens of millions of people have in recent years spent uncountable hours making movies of their own design.

    Contrast this with Ken Oath’s comment above:

    Great! let’s hand over all our skills and proffesions to even more amateurs out there with groovy tech, so that we can further lower the value of our trade and eventually lose our jobs.

    Audiences are active and creative. I’ve come to see culture not as some rare commodity dished out from a creative class to the riff-raff, but rather as something audiences and artists do together. In fact artists are also audience members, and audiences are rich with artists (I’ve recently screened “Sita” to audiences consisting of mostly other artists). I come from the “audience class,” an “amateur with groovy tech.” Maintaining a class of creative nobility at the expense of audiences may preserve an outdated business model and some fragile egos, but I believe creative democracy is better for art itself. I certainly like having a voice.

  • Brian D. Scott

    Interesting – very Farenheit 451. So does this mean we’ll start to lose more and more text and move to more and more images? It goes back to the joke about how at McDonalds they have a cash register that uses icons of food instead of requiring the operator to know the price of an item. Are we reverting to a society that uses pictures for communicating rather than words?

  • Graham

    I recently had an interesting discussion with an artist about how digital manipulation and means devalues the cost of art. There is only one Mona Lisa, only one Van Gogh self portrait. But if you can make countless digital prints of an object, or perhaps rework a bit of photography however you see fit…

    Personally I see no problem in reusing elements for your own means. People have been ripping each other off for decades for their art. What I have a problem with is when people forget the foundations of art, or they “steal” as opposed to “lift” or “be inspired from”.

    The convergence of digital mediums is going to happen whether we like it or not. But we must never forget our history and never use technology as an excuse for why a piece of art looks like garbage.

  • steppo

    I think it’s an exciting notion!

    YES. There will be tons of crap. YES. A lot of that crap will become popular. YES. In the midst of that crap we’ll find something amazing. Something new. Us whose livelihood rests in the motion picture arts will choke ourselves out if we continue to stonewall ourselves against a new tide.

    Dance halls have not replaced ballet. Singing in the shower has not replaced the Opera. Tourist Polaroid cameras have not cheapened Alfred Stieglitz. Remember – cinema came from the roots of vaudeville. The “common person’s” amateur theater. Buster Keaton crawled out from that rock and delivered us something amazing. He didn’t come from the Royal Shakespeare Academy.

    What we fear is the death of classical moving pictures could very well be the birth of a new kind of digital jazz. I say – let the average person become literate in the moving picture language and we’ll discover some amazing things under certain rocks we never dreamt to look under. Long live the arts!

  • http://rauchbrothers.com Mike Rauch

    A lot to digest and think about here. I’ll have to reread and think about some of his ideas. I’m a bit skeptical about the line of thinking at first blush though. To suggest that there’s no point in taking any more pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge? Come on. That’s really too much.

  • http://questioncopyright.org/ Karl Fogel

    What Nina said.

    It’s interesting to note how “remix” literacy has been part of music education for centuries, actually. Part of Bach’s music education, for example, was to transcribe and rearrange the music of others. That’s how one was _expected_ to learn…

  • http://www.thevalve.org/go/valve/archive_author/bbenzon/Bill%20Benzon Bill Benzon

    I really don’t know what the future will bring. Will visual media eclipse print (have they done so already)? I don’t know. Either way, I’m not terribly worried – though, in the interests of full disclosure, I should say that I’m trained as a literary critic.

    But I think the proliferation of digital media is all to the good. I figure that, as more people become actively involved in making images and films, their visual literacy will increase. And hence they’ll be a more sophisticated audience. The pros aren’t going to be replaced by the amateurs. Not at all. They’re going to have to produce into a more sophisticated audience. That’s a good thing, no?

  • http://zekeyspaceylizard.blogspot.com Zekey

    I was with him until the part about AMV’s. Haha, no.

  • http://hellyeahdesign.com Ken Oath

    To quote a pal of mine, “Yeah, you can do what you like, but in the end the question remains, “is it good?”
    The proportions will stay the same-99 percent crap, half a percent good by accident, and half a percent good by design.
    A random session on U-Tube will confirm these statistics.”
    Creative democracy only fuels the untalented.

  • http://www.cementimental.com Tim Drage

    “Standing before a screen, we could create the visual image of a chrome sphere, floating above a chessboard, as fast as we could write” :)

    Seriously tho; further reading: http://www.mnsi.net/~pwatkins/ – Peter Watkins ‘The Media Crisis’

  • Chris Sobieniak

    > Are we reverting to a society that uses pictures for communicating rather than words?

    It’s getting there.

    The whole anime remixing thing isn’t really new in the fandom. The OLDEST known accounts go back about 25 years ago when several such fan-made videos based on existing anime footage had been edited through analog VCRs and presented at sci-fi conventions, club meetings and the like. Recent video editing software has since simplified this practice ten-fold. It doesn’t take too long for anyone to slap together clips to music, but it takes a real pro to find synchronicity to pull off a masterpiece of editing gold. I’m usually sick ‘n tired of the same AMV stunt of making the character’s mouth move to the lyrics over and over.

    Course I can see where all these YouTube Poop’s are gonna lead to in the coming years!

  • http://www.spiteyourface.com tony mines

    Sorry.
    I read this interview with a paranoid szichophrenic the otherday. This read like a combination between that, the coked up late night witterings of a serial youtubist and, well, somebody having a wank over a copy of Wired.
    I’ve heard all these arguments before, and they were all at 3am, and I didn’t hear anything here that sounded like it came from anyone who had ever been within a mile of a professional film shoot.
    I’m glad Kevin Kelly thinks that AMV editors are the avant garde and that colour correction excites him so much. But if it’s all the same i’ll stick with to pointing my eyes in the direction of media made by skilled grown ups with actual ideas.

  • http://www.animationarchive.org Stephen Worth

    If our society is becoming less verbal and more visual, why are cartoons today much more dialogue heavy and much less dependent on pantomime?

    It seems to me that society is becoming less literate overall. We also seem to have a bad case of cultural amnesia. When I was a kid, I was aware of characters and stories that went back to the silent era of filmmaking and over a century of literature. I knew about Treasure Island, Captain Nemo, Robin Hood and Lancelot. I knew Charlie Chaplin, Lon Chaney Sr and Barrymore. Today, kids are lucky to know who the Beatles are, and the oldest movie they probably have seen is Star Wars. This isn’t because kids are dumber- it’s because television is dropping the ball and not airing older films.

    When I was a kid, I was perfectly capable of identifying with pirates, astronauts and bears with slouchy hats and ties around their necks. I didn’t have to have stories about kids like me in schools like mine. Kids today are no different.

    Encourage cultural literacy, both visual and verbal.

  • http://electronghosthouse.com/ Paul K.

    It must be rough writing forecasts for future trends, considering how these kinds of articles are usually received poorly in the present and are worth a few retrospective laughs from the “World of Next Tuesday.”
    This article is gushingly naive, and much of it reads as “Wouldn’t it be great if you could do a bunch of cool stuff?” Yet when you attempt the logistics of how and who will suddenly enable the hoards of amateurs these capabilities, there aren’t any suggestions. Just the blank sentiment of “someone will, they always do” or “computers can be taught to figure it out” or “there’s some initial research in this one promising field, but even all the funding in the world cannot make up for all the tedious hours of setting up this grand Fruitopia.”
    In anycase, I’d welcome this visual mega-encyclopedia (if is even possible). Furthermore, I like the idea of the general public being more fluent in production, this will only increase their appreciation when it is done right and has lasting effects. Anyone can make art, but you’ll still need training to be an Artist.
    “Audio/Video Doujinshi” may be the next culturally excepted activity– but it’s only a place to sharpen teeth and/or kill time, I don’t see how anyone could ever hope to make a living doing “mash-ups.” (I do enjoy Sailor Moon Abridged series of episodes on YouTube though).
    Now if someone could only make a device in which projected thoughts could be recorded and edited to sound… [/sarcasm]
    Bring on the mass-acceptance of “screen fluency,” directors are always finding ways to challenge audiences…

  • http://blog.ninapaley.com Nina Paley

    tony mines:
    But if it’s all the same i’ll stick with to pointing my eyes in the direction of media made by skilled grown ups with actual ideas.

    I like reading literature by skilled grown ups with actual ideas, yet I also benefit from reading blog comments by non-professional writers like you.

    Stephen Worth:
    This isn’t because kids are dumber- it’s because television is dropping the ball and not airing older films.

    Because older films are locked up by copyrights controlled by Big Media corporations who don’t want them competing with their latest releases. Also because most TV stations now belong to media conglomerates controlled by those same corporations.

  • steppo