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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

In The Beginning Was the Word

An excerpt from an article entitled "Becoming Screen Literate" by Kevin Kelly, which appeared in the New York Times Sunday Magazine on November 23rd:


Once, long ago, culture revolved around the spoken word. The oral skills of memorization, recitation and rhetoric instilled in societies a reverence for the past, the ambiguous, the ornate and the subjective. Then, about 500 years ago, orality was overthrown by technology. Gutenberg's invention of metallic movable type elevated writing into a central position in the culture. By the means of cheap and perfect copies, text became the engine of change the foundation of stability. From printing came journalism, science and the mathematics of libraries and law. The distribution-and-display device that we call printing instilled in society a reverence for precision (of black ink on white paper), an appreciation for linear logic (in a sentence), a passion for objectivity (of printed fact), and an allegiance to authority (via authors), whose truth was as fixed and final as a book.

Now invention is again overthrowing the dominant media. A new distribution-and-display technology is nudging the book aside and catapulting images, and especially moving images, to the center of the culture. We are becoming people of the screen. The fluid and fleeting symbols on a screen pull us away from the classical notions of monumental authors and authority. On the screen, the subjective again trumps the objective. The past is a rush of data streams cut and rearranged into a new mashup, while truth is something you can assemble yourself on your own screen as you jump from link to link. We are now in the middle of a second Gutenberg shift - from book fluency to screen fluency, from literacy to visuality.

The intensely collaborative work needed to coddle chemically treated film and paste together its strips into movies meant that it was vastly easier to watch a movie than to make one. A Hollywood blockbuster can take a million person-hours to produce and only two hours to consume. But now, cheap and universal tools of creation (megapixel phone cameras, Photoshop, iMovie) are quickly reducing the effort needed to create moving images. To the utter bafflement of the experts who confidently claimed that viewers would never rise from their reclining passivity, tens of millions of people hav in recent years spent uncountable hours making movies of their own design. Having a ready and reachable audience of potential millions helps, as does the choice of multiple modes in which to create. Because of new consumer gadgets, community training, peer encouragement and fiendishly clever software, the ease of making video now approaches the ease of writing.

This not how Hollywood makes films, of course. A blockbuster film is a gigantic creature custom-built by hand. Like a Siberian tiger, it demands our attention - but is also very rare. In 2007, 600 feature films were released in the United States, or about 1,200 hours of moving images. As a percentage of the hundreds of millions of hours of moving images produced annually today, 1,200 hours is tiny. It is a rounding error.

We tend to think the tiger represents the animal kingdom, but in truth, a grasshopper is a truer statistical example of an animal. The handcrafted Hollywood film won't go away, but if we want to see the future of motion pictures, we need to study the swarming food chain below - the YouTube, indie films, TV serials and insect-scale lip-synch mashups - and not just the tiny apex of tigers. The bottom is where the action is, and where screen literacy originates.


Fascinating, no? And the article goes on for several more pages in which the writer posits quite convincingly that the moving image has replaced the written word and that anybody can make a movie. Certainly he is convincing on many points but what he doesn't really address is the human need for STORY - in whatever form - preferring to focus instead on literacy. Yes, YouTube had 10 billion video views in September,2008, but it's not tough to hold someone's attention for 3 minutes, is it? What does it really mean at the end of the day? Is this type of video enduring? Does it create the same depth of emotional connection and catharsis that a story told on the big screen over two hours does? I doubt it.

Nobody really knows the answers - I mean, Hollywood wasn't sure talkies were going to catch on and couldn't possibly have imagined the THX surround sound some people have in their very living rooms today. One thing is for sure - humans are continuing to evolve and we do take in information more visually now than ever.

But does this mean that the authors of visual entertainment need not have a facility with the written word in order to create and contribute to the visual medium? That would be nice, wouldn't it? But I don't think so. In the beginning was the word. And the word was good. One must take ideas out of the ether and commit them to the page before they can be translated unto a visual image. Unless you plan to make videos of funny stuff your dog does, or clever edited mashups of bits and snatches of movies for a living. Not sure who's going to pay you for that but hey if you get 1 million views of how funny your kitty is wearing sunglasses, go nuts.

Carry on.

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Luzid said...

The *lion* is the king of the jungle, not the tiger. The tiger's the upstart who's planning a coup. But he will fail. Oh, how he will fail.

I mean, sure, anyone can make a movie or write a script -- but not everyone can do it *well*. That's the point that these "creative revolution of the masses" types gloss over.

We're not in danger of going extinct. If anything, this new frontier is ripe with opportunity for good writers who seize on it.

Désirée said...

We still do what they did before Gutenberg's revolution. We make notes. We make notes to remember and to share with others. That's why writing was invented.

The oldest writing found is financial notes. Not stories. Stories were passed from mouth to ear. There were no need for a correct original to refer to. But to trust a person's memory about financials, no.

As long as films are longer than three minutes and made by more than one person, notes are needed. Because everybody need to know exactly what they are doing.

James said...

I actually agree with you for two different reasons.

1) We've been literate in "moving" pictures long before the ability to create our own.

You don't see many audience members cowering in fear when a gun is pointed directly at them by a bandit who has just robbed a train now do you?

The medium may change, but the need for story remains a constant.

2) Yes, 1200 hours of content -- how many billions of dollars in revenue?

The internet has this part of the business equation upside down.

ASIDE: I'd also hazard a guess, that you'd be hard pressed to find 1200 hours of equivalent quality in internet content.

And I say this being a HUGE fan of webisodes. There truly are some high quality shows.

But ten 5-minute shorts are a season on the internet. That's only ONE hour episode of anything on network TV.

DR. HORRIBLE'S SING A LONG BLOG is one episode of Buffy. And this is an example of the most professional web content to date.

Let's face it. An overwhelming majority of what is solely internet content is utter crapola that no one would ever pay for. TV and movies still put out a much greater mass of quality content than the internet does.

Maybe, the next step in evolution is a filter for quality?

KevinRWright said...

This is a wonderful counter point. I myself got caught up in the business of making short films and videos specifically for youtube and other video distribution channels. After about 2 years of doing this and being mildly successful, i'm back to concentrating purely on writing.

Making a short video has an instant gratification to it, but the feeling doesn't last. Your video, regardless of how popular it becomes, will eventually be lost in a sea of bad videos.

Writing to me, the art of creating a story, is infinitely more challenging AND rewarding.