My last post for this blog was a summary of some of the potential applications of Virtual Reality technology to the field of education. It was a fairly optimistic take on how emerging technology can be harnessed for improving learning experiences. So, this time, I’ll explore the opposite side: what’s lost when, over the course of years, we train our minds to interpret images on screens more effectively than text on a page?
My hope is that children nowadays will grow up “bi-lingual” — by which I mean, fluent in both text and image — and I would be excited to see what kinds of new thinking follow from that ambidextrousness. But I confess to feeling some trepidation when I realize my students gain their information about the world primarily through images.
I won’t try to defend that feeling here. Instead, I’ll just excerpt a couple of texts that come to mind when I consider this question.
The first is a passage from one of my favorite writers, Richard Rodriguez. In his memoir Brown, Rodriguez describes his reaction to the death of one of his favorite authors, journalist Carl T. Rowan:
Hearing the news, I felt the sadness one feels when a writer dies, a writer one claims as one’s own—as potent a sense of implication as for the loss of a body one has known. Over the years, I had seen Rowan on TV. He was not, of course he was not, the young man who had been with me by the heater—the photograph on the book jacket, the voice that spoke through my eyes. The muscles of my body must form the words and the chemicals of my comprehension must form the words, the windows, the doors, the Saturdays, the turning pages of another life, a life simultaneous with mine.
It is a kind of possession, reading. Willing the Other to abide in your present. His voice, mixed with sunlight, mixed with Saturday, mixed with my going to bed and then getting up, with the pattern and texture of the blanket, with the envelope from a telephone bill I used as a bookmark. With going to Mass. With going to the toilet. With my mother in the kitchen, with whatever happened that day and the next; with clouds forming over the Central Valley, with the flannel shirt I wore, with what I liked for dinner, with what was playing at the Alhambra Theater. I remember Carl T. Rowan, in other words, as myself, as I was. Perhaps that is what one mourns.
While not its focus, the passage describes an aspect of reading not commonly discussed: its materiality. For me, this captures a feature of reading not remotely replicated by image/screen-based media. (As much as I truly, deeply enjoy a number of TV shows, films, and video games.)
And one more— here’s an excerpt from an article by Will Self in last week’s Guardian, about memory, location, and narrative, and how these connect to different types of media (e.g. text, image, audio). Here he glosses the findings of a study on the “visualization hypothesis”:
It will come as no surprise to Gutenberg minds [i.e. text-inclined minds] to learn that reading is a better means of forming memory than watching films, as is listening to afternoon drama on Radio 4. This is the so-called “visualisation hypothesis” that proposes that people – and children in particular – find it harder not only to remember film as against spoken or written narratives, but also to come up with novel responses to them, because the amount of information they’re given, together with its determinate nature, forecloses imaginative response.
In all likelihood, it will be many years before we really understand what cognitive functions are strengthened (or weakened) by immersion in our new digital world. One of the pleasures of teaching reading comprehension to teenagers is that you get to see up close how a dozen different minds process the same text—and I do wonder, at times, what types of minds a LogicPrep reading instructor will see in 2026.
-Alyssa L, Instructor