Visual Literacy Means Better Thinking

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about the world moving from text-based to visual communications, an underlying angst was touched upon. A fear exists that visual literacy may mean more ignorance and the general dumbing down of society as a whole.

First, let’s be clear. Visual literacy is not a new concept. It dates back to the sixties.

The recent media trend towards communicating with video, pictures and graphics has inspired people to building methods of encouraging visual literacy. The Internet world has started wrestling with this as an entire culture, but some thought leaders were earlier in driving visual media. Others have even published a strong how-to book for marketers looking to master visual in the social context.

Yet the tension remains. What will a society where people learn and communicate visually — and struggle with reading and writing — look like?

Will we become a society of ignorant fools? Will superstition and bogus news stories dominate our thinking? Will violence and polarizing behavior continue to trend upwards? Will there be so much visual bait demanding our attention that image pollution and desensitization are the next battle after content shock?

This is the End

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Context means everything in this conversation. Ignorance or lack of education has been best typified by the inability to read or write effectively, the common definition of illiteracy.

People who were bright, but didn’t know how to read or write effectively or didn’t have a college education were dubbed “street smart.” This is how we were raised to think when I was a kid (back in the neanderthal era). I know I’m not alone.

When someone from this kind of upbringing encounters an inability to speak and write well, we think illiterate. This also assumes ignorance. Afterall, the written word was the foundation of civilization, preventing us from sinking back into the Dark Ages.

This well-rooted historical view creates a prejudice steeped in an increasingly archaic definition of information literacy.

Once can come to understand concepts and communicate extremely well through other means. And if the devolving state of writing coming from most college graduates is any bellweather, let us hope some improvement in communication arises soon.

And the Beginning

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We as a species process visual information faster than than the written word. We come to understand objects as infants and toddlers well before we can read or write. I’ve heard that we understand visual information 500 to as much as 60,000 times faster than text.

Perhaps visual is the way we are meant to digest information. It’s just that historically we needed a Gutenberg press or its derivative to exchange ideas. Now we just need an S5 or an iPhone.

As we move forward into an era of visual learning and media, it could be argued those of us who only use and understand text to communicate will become the illiterate ones.

Now that’s a scary thought.

Using objects to learn from as opposed to words may lead to more and faster growth of knowledge. Those who master visual learning may be able to create and evolve ideas, concepts, and technologies faster than their counterparts in prior eras. They will need to build from a foundation of knowledge. Innovation requires understanding the current state of things, and the historical predecessors that got us to the present.

Traditionally, ideas and concepts have been retained for our reference through books, papers and articles. This was the classic role of the library. In the modern era, right or wrong we find this information through Wikipedia, Google, and other perhaps more qualified sources online.

But some search on YouTube for answers now. One of my favorite sites to search for photography information is KelbyOne. There are tons of answers to all sorts of questions, but the answers are in a video format. I prefer this kind of reference information than reading my Nikon D7100 manual or the Adobe Photoshop help guides.

Libraries recognized visual literacy well before it became hot as a trend. Microfiches, video libraries, etc. have all existed for decades. Now the visual may become the primary media form within the libraries of the future. And perhaps those libraries will only be online with a Siri-like interface much like Neal Stephenson envisioned so long ago in Snow Crash.

Part of literacy in my mind is being able to delineate quality information from bad data. In the visual world, that includes producing and consuming quality media in a loud world.

People struggle with seeing things and understanding whether they are real or fake. They think the unfiltered is filtered and vice versa. They believe the video clip rather than question if it is a screenplay. The infographic is trusted even if it doesn’t cite sources.

Separating good visual commmunication from the bad, the signal from the noise, will mark the literate mind of tomorrow.

What do you think?

The Screen Time Dilemma

Like most parents, I am concerned with my daughter Soleil’s welfare and education. One of the most disconcerting things about this time period is her interest in video and games, and what is an often poor reaction to being separted from the media.

Soleil throws sever temper tantrums when she video and ipad time ends, which is now causing us to discipline her more frequently. Specifically, we are using corner time, room time, restricted access to video, and grounding to work through this period.

She doesn’t go to school yet, but her start is imminent (waiting on pddy training to take hold). Until then we’re actively reading with her and more. We’d love interactive games and fun learning to be a part of this. She’ll need the skills to succeed later in life, but the impact on her mental and emotional development requires close moderation of use and access.

The Need to Be Engaged

With education in the United States continuing to deteriorate (41st int he world), parents need to be more involved in their children’s welfare. It’s important for parents to actively participate in their child’s education. It’s not enough to go on autopilot and let schools and tools (technology and media) lead the way.

This is one of the reasons why I am thrilled to help my client the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL) with its first annual Big Give, or the #BigGive4Families, this November 1. More on this at the end, but in short NCFL’s mission is to use the family as the focal point for learning.

I think that’s more imperative now, thanks to technology. Digital media are advancing so quickly that parents have to be actively involved in their child’s activities. There are many unexpected traps.

One example is the application PBS Kids. PBS offers great programming, but it’s also addictive and creates the Soleil zombie state where she won’t do anything else, and then throws temper tantrums upon separation. Perhaps that’s Soleil’s personality at play, but I would normally feel safe trading on the PBS name. Sorry Daniel the Tiger, but access to you has become restricted (My Little Pony, too).

Screen time behavior is the biggest challenge facing Soleil right now, so all in all, we have high quality problems. Soon she’ll start Montesori school, which has no tech, no phones lying around, etc, and that will help. Notice that we are sending her to private school.

It is my intent to make sure she has the opportunity to participate in the finest schools possible. If that means going to private shcool, then I will work to make it happen.

To be a part of Soleil’s growth, I make sacrifices, the same sacrifices that many parents choose; keeping that camera another year, buying a lesser version of a car, eating out less often, etc. Most importantly, I sacrifice my time. I stay up late and wake up early to work, so I can spend more time with her. I know spending time with Soleil on education dramatically improves her learning process, and increases her chances of a prosperous life.

Many families don’t have access to the education resources that I do, nor do they have the knowledge to learn with their children. Because of cost and the deterioration of the country’s educations system, I feel very strongly that NCFL’s work is necessary.

If you’d like to help me or the more than a dozen individuals fundraising during the #NCFLBigGive, here are two easy actions:

1) It may seem obvious, but if you can’t fundraise the best way to help us make our goal is to donate to my personal fundraiser on November 1 or before. Even $50 makes a big difference as we try to attain $25,000.

2) Participate in the #NCFLBigGive Thunderclap. Hundreds of people will blast out a timed Tweet on November 1 to launch the Big Give. Just sign up here and Thunderclap will take care of the rest.

How do you handle access to phones, TVs and other forms of screen-based media with your children?

P.S. Though NCFL is my client, fundraising is not part of my scope of work. I architected the big give, but also decided to fundraise because I believe in the cause.

A Better Social Web Exists

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A better social web exists. It exists within each of us.

Today, this social web isn’t popular, instead it has fascinating small pools and eddies of action and meaningful dialogue. But this can be The Social Web, a place better than a popularity driven attention sphere focused on the best looking unicorn (Bieber or Kardashian, take your pick).

Our virtual worlds can become a place of vigorous discourse. Rather than dismissing social media‘s incredibly empowering capability in the hands of the Fifth Estate, the better social web seeks to increase online literacy for Everyone using these tools. The Middle East is just an example of what driven people can do with intelligent networking tools. So much more can be accomplished if we apply ourselves.

Rather than arguing over ideas and dismissing what we don’t like as uncivil (and thus engage in civility debates), politeness and manners will take precedence. Discourse can include disagreement without discoloring it with a personal sense of “respectful” civility. Posturing and maintaining top rankings via attention metrics will mean less in the Real Social Web.

The Real Social Web is a meritocracy where great acts drive the ebb and flow of the tides. This social web of the future works for society instead of trying to fleece it. Accomplishing acts that matter will take precedence: Social change occurs, companies working hand in hand with nonprofits to achieve great acts, and companies serving their customers with better products in services, embracing them as part of an extended social enterprise.

Popcorn dreams? Maybe. But changemakers seize on ideas and make them happen. Dreams can be achieved.

What do we have to do to get there? We can’t turn a blind eye to it. As communicators we are as responsible for the current PR 2.0 driven popularity mess as Silicon Valley is. We have to look at ourselves, and see how we have created this and why? It is incumbent on us to mindfully evolve within to create this new social web of the future.

We must speak up, one by one. And we need to stop rewarding the old PR systems and the people who have lead us into the popularity trap. It’s time to start asking why these people are popular, and what they did “Before Social Media.” What qualifies them to lead the communications industry besides personal attention?

Together we can collectively build a better online community. This means educating ourselves and our customers on what real business outcomes are. It means focusing on the basics, instead of the hyperbole of the latest shiny object (Android Honeycomb app, anyone?). It means much stronger practices of metric based communications across the industry. Instead of focusing on the Klouts of the world we need to develop more myImpacts.

It means talking to our children and reinvesting our values back into great deeds and hard work instead of quick fixes and popularity. Digital literacy and understanding how information is served must become a critical function of our education system. Sustainable happiness will be the outcome as opposed to short term vicarious pleasure (yum, Pop Chips).

The Real Social Web of the future is a place where anyone can use these tools to achieve great things. Imagine writing literature of the digital future, making a child laugh, creating a virtual place where scientists from around the world work to conquer AIDs, building the best company in a sector, or achieving a more peaceful, democratic country.

Yeah, it’s a dream. But inside this heart a better social web exists. Some people live this dream already. It’s worth fighting for.