In The Age of the Image, Stephen Apkon argues that the (moving) image is becoming the dominant language of the twenty first century, replacing the word as the primary means of communication. He also argues that the importance of the rise of visual language makes it necessary to place it at the centre of the educational system. For anyone interested in communication and storytelling, this is an interesting read.Although the book’s title refers to images of all kinds, the focus is very much on the moving image, and perhaps my main criticism of the book is that it draws too much on the movie industry without addressing the importance of other visual media.
The first part of the book deals with the history of visual language from cave paintings through to YouTube. Later he discusses the importance of visual language in terms of the working of the human mind in a chapter called ‘The brain sees pictures first’. He states that 85 percent of the brain is dedicated to processing visual information. While this figure might be higher than some would believe (more likely this represents the proportion of visual information among sensory data), it is true that visual processing is more important than any other brain function.
He goes on to say how the brain has already started categorizing and interpreting an image within 150 milliseconds of it being seen. This is why images “Hit us in the gut” more quickly and powerfully than words can. The processing of images is also more closely tied to the oldest parts of the brain, where our emotional lives are controlled. That’s why we can judge someone else within a fifth of a second based on seeing a face.
However, visual processing is not simple, as images are processed across many parts of the brain, where systems for recognizing objects and for interpreting position relative to our bodies (using colour, shape, movement and other cues to perform these tasks). And all of this is done at lightning speed, comparing our current environment with our databank of precious experiences to find similar ‘matches’.
Stephen Apkon argues that audiences are evolving , quoting famous examples from TV and movie history of the power of the image over words and sounds. Most famously, The victory of J.F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon in the 1960 US election has been attributed to his appearances on TV and especially one famous debate where Nixon had been unwell and broke out into a sweat during the discussions. Polling of radio listeners gave the debate to Nixon, who seemed better prepared on many issues, but polling of TV viewers backed Kennedy with his smile and superior demeanour. Nixon said after the election, “I spent too much time in the last debate on substance, and too little time on appearance”.
There is a also a discussion of the use of images in business, using the example of Al Gore’s climate change presentation (the basis of the documentary An Inconvenient Truth). The book also draws on conferences and the development of alternative presentation formats like Prezi to discuss the development of visual literacy in business communication.
Later chapters in the book deal with the process of visual storytelling. These will be interesting to some, but there are much better books focusing on visual storytelling and presentation style, both for fillm makers and for the more general reader in marketing or research. Nancy Duarte and Garr Reynolds are worth reading on this topic.
The final chapter of the book is an argument for placing visual literacy at the centre of children’s education as an essential tool for those who want to be successful in the future. Stephen Apkow links visual literacy to skills such as creativity, citing Sir Ken Robinson’s work on building creativity into the education system and training people to be flexible and adaptive with the ability to constantly learn new skills rather than remember facts.
Overall, this is a great read on the importance of the moving image in modern life, and the power of visualization in business communication. The central argument of the book is undeniable. Modern technology is bringing back pictures to their central place as the main language of communication. After all, image is the language of the brain.
[This review was first published as part of a series for Asia Research Online.]
The Age of the Image: Redefining literacy in a world of screens by Stephen Apkon