The Electronic Image versus the Written Word


The graphic below illustrates a standard opinion about pictorial versus textual information as it’s represented on the Internet, an idea that has influenced information representation in other mediums as well: books, newspapers, signs, posters, advertising messages.

visual ly picture sails through sea words 600x307 Images versus Text The Data on Visuals Winning

(Source: )

This question was recently taken up in separate commentaries by film critic Dana Stevens and author Rivka Galchen in a New York Times Sunday Book Review article (June 17, 2014) titled:-

Has the Electronic Image Supplanted the Written Word?

Unfortunately, Dana Stevens entirely avoided the question, attempting instead to one up Marshall McLuhan (unsuccessfully) by illustrating the inadequacies of his thinking in his most important book Understanding Media (1964), the 50th anniversary of the publication of which is being celebrated this year. Here is her conclusion:-

 “If “Understanding Media” has any lessons for users of, and thinkers about, the Internet, they may have less to do with  the book’s content (as “the medium is the message” slogan makes clear, content is hardly the point) than with  McLuhan’s method — his idiosyncratic form, his fits and starts of visionary brilliance, his bursts of utopian rhetoric  suddenly weighed down by intimations of cultural doom. Contemporary digital scholars have devoted considerable ink to deconstructing or rehabilitating McLuhan’s thought for the 21st century. But to feel the effect his gospel of discontinuity, fragmentation and renewal had on the intellectual landscape of his time, we would need our own kooky,  charismatic prophet in the wilderness, a McLuhan 2.0”.

Dana Stevens is the film critic at Slate and a co-host of the Slate Culture Gabfest podcast. She has also written for The Atlantic and Bookforum, among other publications.


Fortunately, author Rivka Galchen does grapple with the question and her answer makes for interesting reading:-

“The written word has been dying for so long!!! Exclamation points have finally revealed themselves as the sleeper cells of Image?! Image, which is so much better at getting us to buy something? You’ve read this argument before….

That said, I am pretty sad that the written word is dying. Because it is dying. Even if it never entirely expires, other mediums of expression are consuming the limited oxygen. And I prefer (just personally) the written word to all the other mediums out there, so no amount of compensatory greatness in some other medium mitigates (again, just for me) the melancholy of the written word’s decline. Babies may be adorable, but they don’t make the obituary page any less moving.

Still, the stag at eve, to happily borrow Sir Walter Scott’s phrase, has a singular magnificence, and the forest we are entering is fabulous and dark. As a form fades, we often get a late strange renaissance”.

Rivka Galchen is a recipient of a William J. Saroyan International Prize for Fiction, a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a Berlin Prize, among other distinctions. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications, including Harper’s and The New Yorker, which selected her for their list of “20 Under 40” American fiction writers in 2010. Her debut novel, the critically acclaimed “Atmospheric Disturbances,” was published in 2008. Her second book, a story collection titled “American Innovations,” was published in May.

  Read the full article at

Two quotes by Neil Postman underline the conflict between media images and texts:-

“A new technology usually makes war against an old technology. It competes with it for time, attention, money, prestige and a “‘world view’”.

” Technological change is not additive; it is ecological.  A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything”. – Postman, N. (1995). The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School.  New York: Knopf, pp. 192 – 193.

2 Responses to “The Electronic Image versus the Written Word”

  1. 1 Malcolm Dean

    Why didn’t these critics just use images?

    Who says cave paintings aren’t texts?



    • “The medium is the message!” These critics were writing for a print medium – the newspaper, where can images seem like an intrusion, at least to the literate. Furthermore, images would tell a different story.

      Stereotypical Images Can Overwhelm a Nuanced Text

      By: Tom Jacobs

      The October 2003 issue of National Geographic magazine featured a 40-page cover story on the nation of Saudi Arabia. The lengthy article and 27 photographs both attempted to paint a portrait of a complex society in which modernity and tradition coexist, sometimes easily, sometimes not.

      But in spite of the editors’ best intentions, the text and images actually conveyed quite different impressions, with the visual information ultimately undermining the thrust of the story. That’s the conclusion of a study just published in Journalism, an academic journal.

      In the study, conducted by Andrew Mendelson and Fabienne Darling-Wolf of Temple University, 42 undergraduates were presented with a version of the
      2003 magazine feature. One-third of the participants read the text only.
      Another third only saw the accompanying photographs, while the final third saw the text and photographs as they were originally presented in the periodical.

      Afterward, their impressions were shared in focus-group interviews.

      The encouraging news is that “all versions of the story successfully managed, at least to some extent, to challenge previously held perceptions,”
      the researchers write. Even those who viewed only the photos were struck by images of Saudi cities, which were far more modern than they had imagined.

      However, “participants having only viewed the photographs were more likely to remain focused on the more exotic, foreign and tribal characteristics of the Middle Eastern nation than those having read only the text,” they note.
      “Despite their initial surprise at photographs of cities, suburban homes, and car-filled parking lots, photos-only participants repeatedly chose to focus on one image of a camel.”


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