Commentary 3

Text vs. The Visual

“The reports of my death may be greatly exaggerated.” Mark Twain
Comments on the shifting nature of literacy
By Laura Bonnor

The nature of writing, reading and text are certainly changing as a result of recent technological developments. However, Bolter seems premature to predict the demise of written text in his chapter, “The Breakout of the Visual”. (Bolter, 2001) As Kress states in “Gains and Losses”, these changes must be “seen in the wider framework of economic, political, social, cultural and technological changes.” (Kress, 2005) A decade in the technology race makes quite a difference and new technology such as smart phones and blogs have brought text back to the foreground. Bolter discusses the increasing significance of visuals, pictures and icons in our hyper-textual computer-based society and sees this as ultimately leading to the end of text as we know it. Kress and Hayles note this change as well, but rather than seeing as the end of a battle where text finally loses, they see it as the remediation and negotiation process. Although Bolter refers to the remediation process, in his view, text ultimately loses ground to hyper-mediated visuals. He calls this era, “the late age of print” and muses in the last chapter about the potentially “late age of prose”. It’s interesting to note that although he predicts the end of print, he chose to write a book and that although he has created a website to accompany the book he has done it in such a way as to “not seek to render the printed version unnecessary.”(Bolter, 2001)
Bolter claims that the hypermedia in the World Wide Web, that existed in 2001, represented a direct challenge to the printed book and that the “image will take over from the written word”. (Bolter, 2001) Hayles counters this with “the book is dead, long live the book,”(Hayles, 2005) and notes that prose is alive and well and that the new media present different but still predominately text-based opportunities for writers and artists alike. Our recent fascination with texting and blogging, both predominantly focused on text and generally, as a result of bandwidth and the requirements for speed, not heavy with images, is not part of Bolter’s vision. Ten years ago Bolter may not have seen the potential for micro-content, such as tweets to significantly reinforce the value of the alphabetic system that he claims is so artificial. (Bolter, 2001)
Why does Bolter say the alphabet, a symbol system that represents spoken language, is artificial or more artificial than computer generated visuals? In fact, Hayles refers to our traditional text form as “natural language” (Hayles, 2003) as it relates most closely to our spoken word. Both are pathways to communication and both may be open to variety in interpretation. Certainly, when possible, text is balanced with images in traditional books. Bolter rightly points out that Medieval Manuscripts, ancient Greek and Chinese art demonstrated an intertwining of text and visual but goes on to suggest that the visual became subjugated to text with the advent of printing. He says that “printing has placed the word effectively in control of the image.” (Bolter, 2001) It seems more likely that the limits of technology are the basis for this. Bolter claims that the “ideal of the printed book was and is a sequence of pages containing ordered lines of alphabetic text.” (Bolter 2001) For practical reasons, printed text has been predominantly black and white with limited illustrations and not necessarily because text is seen as superior. Bolter acknowledges that technology plays a role but insists that the printing press was a promoter of “homogeneity and reinforcing the sense of the author as authority,”(Bolter, 2001) and that text itself has been waging a struggle against the visual. Returning to Kress’s idea that we consider the wider and more complex context, it seems that this apparent conflict was due to the combined forces of the limits of technology, the political climate and the dawn of the industrial revolution.
When examining electronic picture writing, Bolter, accurately, describes how the interaction of image and text interact has changed with new technology. He allows that, historically, this “juxtaposition of word and image creates a pleasing tension” and may lead to a deeper understanding. This combination develops into layers of meaning, which Bolter acknowledges was already part of the history of the codex in the Medieval Manuscripts. (Bolter, 2001) Our concept of literacy is changing but when Bolter says that “it becomes hard to imagine how traditional prose could successfully compete with the dynamic and heterogeneous visual experience that the web now offers,” it seems he is both limiting the definition of traditional prose and disregarding the significance that the visual has always played in the history of civilization. To be sure, technology is having a great effect on the way we read and write. The audience is no longer controlled by the author and the content is controlled by the interests of the reader. (Kress, 2005) Time is altered and our sense of order has changed. (Kress, 2005) (Hayles, 2003) The text, which may consist of any combination of text, visual or code, does not necessarily exist as an artifact but as part of the process and integration of hardware and applicable software. (Hayles, 2006) Although our relationship with text will likely continue, our text will also be intermingling with computer code that ultimately links us with the machine. Hayles suggests that this intermingling of text and code may lead to a “better comprehension of our post-human condition.” (Hayles, 2003)
The English language is always evolving, the endless texts and tweets, wikis and blogs that are currently being developed, although not universally of a high literary quality, certainly do not spell the death of prose. Today’s technology users are benefiting from the quickness and ease of textual exchange used in combination with visuals as needed and possible. Today’s learners have tools that can allow a layered experience that has the potential to lead to a deeper understanding of both text and visuals. These changes do not demand the end of prose or of text, or as Bolter suggests the triumph of the visual, but are steps along the pathway of communication that we are creating, as we strive for understanding of the complex interactions of ourselves as humans, our planet and technology.

Bolter, Jay David. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print [2nd edition]. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
Hayles, Katherine. (2003). Deeper into the Machine: The Future of Electronic Literature. Culture Machine. 5. Retrieved, August 2, 2009, from
Katherine Hayles, “The Future of Literature,” at UBC in January 2006. Katherine Hayles – Video Stream | Audio Stream
Kress, Gunter. (2005). “Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition. 22(1), 5-22. Retrieved, August 15, 2009, from

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