The Changing Spaces of Reading and Writing

Images Before Computers

 “My sense is that this is essentially a visual culture, wired for sound – but one where the linguistic element… is slack and flabby, and not to be made interesting without ingenuity, daring, and keen motivation. (Bolter, p. 47.)  Bolter quotes Jameson in The Breakout of the Visual for the purpose of illustrating how “very different theorists agree that our cultural moment – what we are calling the late age of print – is visual rather than linguistic.” (Bolter, p48)  One needs only to look around us and see how prevalent images are in our everyday life especially when pertaining to advertising on the outside on billboards, busses and storefronts.  The space is limited therefore the images have to be much more compelling without actually using a lot of words. 

Both Kress and Bolter assert that the use of image over print is a relatively new phenomenon which has happened as a result of computer use and hypertext.  If we look at the history of advertising, we can see that the shift was occurring and becoming culturally entrenched before the wide use of computers. Bolter asserts that “in traditional print technology, images were contained by the verbal text.” (p.48)  He is absolutely right when referring to books and magazine articles but when looking at printed ads, we can see that images play a more primal role. 

Since we live in a commercially driven capitalist (market) society which is highly dependent on the sale of unnecessary items, much capital and research has gone into how to sell every product imaginable.  It may have become a cliché, but only because it is true – sex sells.  Here is a very interesting web site that highlights some of the more ludicrous examples.  (

United States and Canada are made up of many people, representing various diverse cultures and languages.  Images are pretty much universal although we do have to be careful as some may not be as universal as others.  “The main point is that the relationship between word and image is becoming increasingly unstable, and this instability is especially apparent in popular American magazines, newspapers, and various forms of graphic advertising.” (p.49)  I would assert that the relationship was already unstable when computers became prevalent.  Computers allowed people the forum of discussion and quick access to the images which were previously viewed in isolation.  There is no doubt that hypertext allows a further foray into the world of image and freed the image from the binding of the text.  Kress points out the obvious and is not always correct.  When he states that “[the] chapters are numbered, and the assumption is that there is an apparent building from chapter to chapter: [they] are not to be read out of order. [at] the level of chapters, order is fixed.” (Kress, p.3)  It is a mistake to limit our study of the remediation of print by simply looking at text in books.  If we expand our focus, as we must to properly discuss the subject, and include magazines and printed ads, evidence clearly points to the fact that the image was becoming more dominant before the prevalent use of computers.  Like books, magazines and authors who wrote for them also knew “about [their] audience and … subject matter” (Kress p.3).  Unlike books where the order is very rigid, a magazine can be read in any order you like. 

Bolter acknowledges the influence of magazines and advertising on remediating text and images by stating that in Life magazine and People magazine “the image dominates the text, because the image is regarded as more immediate, closer to the reality presented. 

Bolter’s use of the shaving picture from the USA Today is an excellent example of images becoming central in print.  However, I think he is being generous when he states that “designers no longer trusted the arbitrary symbolic structure of the graph to sustain its meaning … .” (Bolter, p.53)  I see it more as more pandering to the lowest common denominator.  The designers do not trust the public’s ability to read a graph rather than the graph’s ability to “sustain its meaning.” (Bolter, p. 53)  It seems that the need to dummy text down is a comment not only on the writer’s faith in the public’s ability to interpret text but also to interpret images.  Images are becoming more and more basic and try to appeal to our primal senses and needs – for instance, using sex as a vehicle to increase sales.   

 The existence of the different entry points speaks of a sense of insecurity about the visitors.  This could also be described as a fragmentation of the audience—who are now no longer just readers but visitors, a different action being implied in the change of name, as Kress points out.

Kress succinctly addresses the power of the image in the example of Georgia’s drawing of her family.  We can clearly see the differences and interpret them the way the creator of the drawing intended.  The placement of the little girl in the drawing tells us about how she views herself in terms of her place in the family.  There are no words and none are needed for the image really is worth a thousand words. 

Perhaps it is fitting that in this fast paced world we live in, we are moving away from the art of writing, which does take time to both produce and consume to the image which takes time to produce but is designed to be consumed very quickly.  However, to tie this change directly to the rise in the use of computers is to blind oneself to the rich legacy of printed images in advertising prior.

Bolter, D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Kress, G. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge, and learning. Computers and Composition, 22(1), 5-22.

Inventor Spot.  (2009).  15 Ads That Prove Sex Sells… Best?  Retrieved 12 November, 2009, from

1 comment

1 Clare Roche { 11.29.09 at 8:55 am }

My students would agree that images tell a story more clearly than words.

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