Difficulties Created by the Videographic Presentation of Information

Compiled by Robert Harris
Version Date: December 20, 1996

Writers on information theory have commonly noted the following difficulties created by the movement from textually presented information to videographically presented information:

1. No time is available for analysis. Before one image, statement, or idea can be analyzed for its completeness, fairness, intent, or impact, it has been replaced by another. In a book, an idea can be read (and read at a slower or faster speed as desired), reread, contemplated, annotated, or otherwise treated for any length of time before another idea is encountered. The idea can also be returned to after many more pages and ideas have been encountered to see how the author "set up" the argument. This tracing and retracing cannot be done while watching TV or a movie (unless on videotape).

2. There is a bias toward the visual. Movies and news both strongly tend to choose subject matter that has high visual value. You will see news of a remote fire rather than of a highly important debate in Congress because the fire is more visual. Those with their fingers on the controls of picture and sound are also tempted toward turning up the volume, so that exaggeration and excess become more common.

3. Non-argumentative persuasion is increased. The visual rather than textual presentation of information more readily lends itself to the manipulation of the audience. People agree with the saying that "seeing is believing" when in reality "seeing is deceiving." In advertising, for example, it is common to show a picture that does not at all support the verbal claims being made, but which the viewer assumes offers "photographic proof." The experiential orientation of young people especially leaves them open to manipulation because they generalize from stories (whether representative or not, whether rigged or not, and sometimes whether even true or not), believing that what they see, they experience, and what they experience, is true. Such hasty generalization is less common in textual information presentation.

Visual "demonstrations" have the ability to bypass the thoughtful mind and appeal directly to the feelings, making manipulation much easier.

4. The commercialization of the video world and the competition for ratings influences program material. In a library, a student might choose Cicero rather than a romance novel; there will be no such choice in the video arena, where the lowest common denominator appeal precludes niche audiences. Whether 500 cable channels will alter this fact remains to be seen.

5. Receiving information visually is more passive. Reading a book requires the reader to translate the ink symbols into ideas and thereby interact with them; suggested images must be generated in the mind from the text. Visual information presents the images immediately, requiring no such creative generation. Brain wave experiments show that watching television puts the brain into a state of passivity not much different from hypnosis. Reading calls upon the imagination, while watching visual media often precludes the imagination.

6. TV news reduces all events to nearly the same level of importance. The report on the hurricane that killed 130,000 is followed immediately by a report about a dog show (segued by "and in other news") and that is followed by a commercial for a mouthwash. The dog show may, in fact, receive more air time. The practice of newspeople of treating every event with the same flat demeanor only enhances this seeming equivalency. No event is taken to be any more disturbing than any other.

7. Video presentation simplifies reality much more than textual presentation. Condensing a heated political debate to a 30-second spot leaves the viewer with little more than the reporter's bias as a means of forming a judgment. A novel that took the space to carefully set up complex motivations, conflicts, situations, or events, turns into a movie where characters seem to act irrationally or for immediately accessible motivations, like greed or lust.

8. So much exposure to the three-second scene is being blamed for reduced attention spans among young people. As the little boy Calvin says in a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon, "I figure that anything that can't be explained in ten seconds isn't worth knowing anyway." Lengthening attention span used to be used as a measure of development and maturity. Quickly changing scenes seem to be delaying the lengthening of or even reducing attention span.

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About the author:
Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com